MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – Four young children were stabbed to death in a gated apartment complex in suburban Memphis on Friday, and the Shelby County Sheriff's Department has charged their mother, Shanynthia Gardner, with first degree murder as well as other charges.
Deputies were called to the complex in unincorporated Shelby County shortly before 1 p.m. Friday, said county Sheriff Bill Oldham.
"This is an egregious act of evil that has shocked us to our core," Oldham said. "I will never understand how anyone can do this."
The children who died in the incident ranged in age from six months to 4 years old. The four year old child was a boy and the other children were girls.
A fifth child, aged seven, ran from the house and alerted neighbors, according to authorities.
"What can you say?" said neighbor Sean Ahearn. "It's just a terrible, terrible thing."
Ahearn said he didn't know the family by name, but that he often saw the children playing in the front yard. They liked to pet his dog when he was taking it for a walk, he said.
"From what I saw, they were very open and friendly kids," he said. "You never imagine that this kind of thing could happen."
Beyond announcing the charges against Gardner Saturday, Oldham has offered no details of the crime citing the ongoing investigation which he said will likely include filing additional charges against Gardner.
As of Saturday, Gardner was charged with 12 counts of aggravated child abuse.
The investigation is in a very preliminary stage and investigators do not know if the mother had any mental health issues, Oldham said. He said authorities are working to notify the next of kin and won't release names before that.
"One of the most difficult questions in any investigation is always, 'Why did this happen?'" he said.
The apartment where the stabbing occurred is in a gated community with a golf course called The Greens at Irene. On Friday afternoon, deputies were standing at the gate house questioning motorists as they tried to drive into the neighborhood.
Resident Patricia Johnson spoke with reporters from her car as she drove out of the neighborhood Friday afternoon. She said she wasn't allowed to leave for two hours as deputies investigated the scene.
She has a child, and said she burst into tears when she heard about the killings.
"I can't fathom that," she said. "What would babies do to make you do that?"
Oldham said the district attorney general's special victims' unit has been called in and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has promised all resources necessary for the investigation.
County Commissioner Mark Billingsley said he was wondering if the woman had mental health issues.
He said the county would work to help the family of the children recover.
"It's just a very sad day," he said. "It's really beyond words, quite frankly."