EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (AP) — Officers responding to gunfire at an Illinois apartment complex walked into what a police chief described Friday as one of the "most horrific scenes" he'd ever witnessed: A 4-year-old girl and her 5-year-old brother dead in a bedroom, killed by close-range shotgun blasts to the head.
Across the Mississippi River, their mother was arrested as she sat with a shotgun on a bench outside a St. Louis television station, having wrecked her car near the city's Gateway Arch after driving into two pedestrians. The slain children's 8-year-old brother had escaped the apartment unharmed.
Yokeia Smith, 25, was charged Friday with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of daughter Yokela Smith and son Levada Brown, whose father is in federal prison in Wisconsin for a 2006 bank robbery he says he carried out to help support the boy as a newborn.
"We don't know why this happened. We have no clue," Yokeia Smith's aunt, Martenia Jones, said Friday. "But some things happen that the human mind can't understand."
St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly declined to discuss where Smith had gotten the shotgun seized during her arrest or confirm it was the one used to kill the children Wednesday. He also would not discuss a motive for the "brutal and frightening deaths."
"I don't know what to say in the face of such evil," Kelly said.
Relatives have said Smith was bipolar and had perhaps been prescribed medication for depression or another mental illness. Kelly would not discuss Smith's mental wherewithal Friday, saying only that "she's aware of where she is and what happened."
"There's no indication she didn't understand the consequences of her actions," he said.
Family members had previously worked to ensure the well-being of Smith's children, after two Illinois Department of Children and Family Services investigations between December 2007 and March of this year, according to the agency.
The investigations were prompted by allegations of child neglect, but there never had been reports involving physical abuse, spokesman Kendall Marlowe said.
Smith also never lost custody of her children, although police once briefly took them into protective custody, Marlowe said. The agency did not take the matter to court because some of Smith's relatives took steps to help care for the children, Marlowe said.
Smith's 8-year-old son was in protective custody Friday, authorities said.
Smith remained jailed in St. Louis. Prosecutors there charged her with armed criminal action and first-degree assault in connection with her run-in with the two pedestrians, who were taken to hospitals with injuries not considered life-threatening. Kelly said it was unclear how soon she might be returned to Illinois.
The prosecutor said Smith had a "lengthy number of charges" on her criminal ledger, including two years spent on probation after pleading guilty in January 2007 to battering a pregnant woman. Other charges Smith faced over time often involved "he said, she said types of spats with neighbors," and in many cases those charges were dismissed, Kelly said.
Neighbors who gathered outside the family's apartment building after officers found the children's bodies Wednesday night had cheered when told of Smith's arrest in St. Louis. Those approached Friday said they knew little about the woman, noting she only moved to the small two-story brick building in recent months.
"She just seemed like a normal person," said Clinton Bownes, a 30-year neighborhood resident who said he never saw Smith be aggressive or violent with her children. He said they appeared to respect her and honor her directives not to stray when they played outside.
Court records show the father of Smith's 5-year-old son had legal missteps dating to at least 2001. The elder Levada Brown served probation on drug charges before serving short jail stints for domestic battery and unlawful display of a license plate, court records show.
In 2007, Brown pleaded guilty to robbery and using a firearm during a violent crime, admitting in federal court that he was one of four men involved in a 2006 holdup that netted nearly $36,000 from an Alton credit union. Court records show he admitted he "was interested in the idea (of the robbery) because he needed money for his newborn baby, so he agreed to participate.
"He really was an unusually good fellow," his attorney in that case, Charles Stegmeyer, told The Associated Press on Friday, remembering Brown as well-spoken and cooperative with prosecutors while having "a certain charisma about him."
"Everyone — the government, myself — felt that just by chance he got involved in this situation," Stegmeyer said. "He was not the type of fellow who had a long history of problems."
East St. Louis' grappling with crime — most notably gun violence — has been well-documented for years and last month drew a visit by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a native of the city, for a meeting with local leaders to discuss how to blunt the problem in one of the nation's poorest cities.
Police Chief Ranadore Foggs said the struggling city of 30,000 is too often confronted with tragedy.
"I can only tell you the loss of life of these dear beautiful people hits us in the heart," Foggs added. "We as a community hurt."
Associated Press reporters Jim Salter in St. Louis and Carrie Antlfinger in Milwaukee contributed to this report.