SHELBY COUNTY, TENNESSEE – Shelby County Sheriff’s Office said the children, all under age 6, were pronounced dead at the Greens at Irene Apartments near Hacks Cross Road. The suspect’s and victims’ names were not released.
Shanynthia Gardner was charged with multiple offenses overnight in connection with the stabbing deaths of her four children in southeast Shelby County, Tennessee.
The youngest victim was a 6-month-old girl, Sheriff Bill Oldham said in a press conference Saturday morning. Also among the victims were a 4-year-old boy and girls ages 3 and 2.
Gardner, 29, faces four counts of first degree murder associated with aggravated child abuse, four counts of first degree murder in association with aggravated child neglect, plus four more counts each of aggravated child abuse and aggravated child neglect or endangerment.
Deputies were called to an apartment on Friday, according to charging documents. The nature was “a wounding call where four juveniles were found deceased upon Deputies’ arrival.”
Deputies located Shanynthia Gardner on the scene and developed her as a suspect.
No other details were immediately provided, nor an explanation on the breakdown of the charges.
The document shows Gardner as 5-foot-6, 145 pounds with black hair and brown eyes. She uses the nickname “Yari.”
The charges capped a day that started after a 911 call led deputies to an apartment on Southern Hill in the Greens of Irene complex, and the discovery of the four children in the unit.
It was one of the worst acts of violence in what’s already been a bloody year in the Memphis area.
“I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff in 33 years, but this is the worst,” said Mark Dunbar, Shelby County assistant chief deputy.
Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham somberly addressed reporters Friday afternoon, saying, “This is an egregious act of evil that has shocked us to our core.”
The sheriff’s office said all the children were under 6 years old. Oldham said it wasn’t clear if anyone else had been present at the time of the killings.
Sheriff’s deputies Friday had blocked off one section of the sprawling, well-maintained complex of neat brick buildings, and a reporter saw a boy behind police tape before security guards began clearing journalists out of the area, which is private property.
“I could never imagine this, not in this neighborhood. It’s really quiet. We’ve never had a problem,” said Barbara Hilliard, a resident of the community for seven years.
A church vigil for the victims took place Friday night.
This is among the area’s worst multiple homicides since the Lester Street killings in 2008, which was one of the bloodiest mass killings in Memphis history. Jessie Dotson was convicted of six counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of four adults and two children in Binghamton.
As of Friday evening, a total of 115 homicides had been recorded within the Memphis city limits, including several children and teenagers. This year’s homicide count is on track to exceed the 2015 total of 161.
But the stabbing deaths of the children took place Friday in an unincorporated area outside the city limits that’s patrolled by the sheriff’s office. Including the four children, the sheriff’s office has dealt with three cases covering seven homicides in less than four weeks.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services had no history of violence involving the woman and victims, officials said.
“We have been contacted by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department and of course we are standing by to see if we can be any help,” said Rob Johnson, DCS communications director. “At this time we’ve done an exhaustive search and we are not aware of any contact with this family.”
The killings left many people wondering why someone would hurt children. One person who’s studied this question is Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who for decades has studied similar cases. He assisted the legal defense of Andrea Yates and Susan Smith, mothers accused of killing their offspring.
He emphasized he had no knowledge about Friday’s case and wasn’t commenting on it. But he answered the general question of why mothers might kill children and said his research has determined five principal reasons.
The first is a warped form of altruistic love: the mother is suicidal and believes the children would be better off joining her in heaven than living without their mother on this earth, he said. The second is child battery that leads to a death.
The third is killing of unwanted infants — for instance, the baby might stand in the way of a marriage.
“The most dangerous day of your life is the day you were born,” he said.
The fourth common reason for killing a child is revenge against a spouse.
And the fifth reason is psychotic behavior for which there’s no rational explanation at all, he said.
Each year, about 500 children are killed by their parents in the U.S., he said. About equal numbers are killed by mothers and by fathers. Teenagers are more likely to be killed by fathers, infants are more likely to be killed by mothers.
County Commissioner Mark Billingsley spoke with reporters at the scene. He said he didn’t know what led to the killings, but said the government should invest in mental health treatment.
“A gigantic percentage of people who are incarcerated today have mental health issues.”
He also said the sheriff has reached out to the child advocacy center and said that, in general, people should look out for neighbors in crisis. “It takes all of us paying attention to our neighbors.”
Frederick Smith, 47, pastor of nearby New Life Church of God in Christ, came to the area, saying his wife had sent him to help, saying, “You’ve got to see what we can do.” He said the church would offer child care Monday through Friday to any parent who’s suffering from mental illness or who needs support. “We’ll take them for free.”