MORRILTON, Ark. – The mother of three young children who drowned after she drove into a central Arkansas lake had been drinking before the crash, authorities said Friday, the second recent case in which a mom is accused of consuming alcohol before getting behind the wheel with her kids.
Amber Turley, 26, was driving during a storm in early morning darkness on April 19 when she took a wrong turn onto a road that led straight into Brewer Lake, about 45 miles from Little Rock. She swam to shore but told investigators she was unable to rescue her boys — Aaron, 8, Alex, 7, and 2-year-old Anthony.
She was arrested Friday and is charged with three counts of felony endangerment of a child. Her attorney, Dale Lipsmeyer, didn't return a call for comment. Turley told Conway County Sheriff Mike Smith after the crash that it was simply a terrible accident. Her father, Larry Hopkins, told reporters Friday his daughter was not drunk when the car plunged into the artificial lake.
"She had a drink earlier that night, but the crash was way, way later," Hopkins said. He declined to give more details, saying his attorney told him not to speak to the media.
Prosecutor Tom Tatum said the alcohol was among several factors that resulted in the endangerment allegations, but he would not disclose results of toxicology tests, say specifically where she was drinking or describe other elements that led to the charges. He said he considered several different charges, but felt the most comfortable bringing the endangerment ones before a jury.
But authorities said they didn't think Turley meant to drown her children.
"If I thought it (the crash) was intentional, there would be different charges," said Smith, who was among rescuers trying to save the boys the night of the accident.
Turley was booked into jail Friday morning and was released on $5,000 bond. An arraignment is set for Sept. 8.
After the accident, Smith said Turley told him she had visited a friend in Conway, then stopped several miles north of that city in Mallet Town, where she dropped off her boyfriend. About another dozen miles away was Turley's home near Plummerville. Driving at 3 a.m. in a thunderstorm, she missed her turn and instead turned on Johnny Walker Road, which led straight into the lake.
Hopkins has said his daughter was occupied with her children when the car hit the water.
"The little fellows were fussing with one another and she was trying to get them pacified," Hopkins said shortly after the crash.
Smith said Turley said that her older boy, Aaron, told her he could swim, and that she had Alex hold onto her belt while she gathered Anthony in her arms as they exited through the driver's window of the sedan. She told investigators that Aaron didn't make it to the shore and that Alex lost his grip. As she grasped for Alex, Turley told investigators, she lost hold of the toddler. She said she was able to make it to the shore herself and run a half mile to the nearest home to call 911.
The boys were pronounced dead at a hospital.
Experts say women in the U.S. are drinking more and drunken-driving arrests among women are rapidly rising. In New York last month, authorities said Diane Schuler, of West Babylon on Long Island, was drunk and stoned in Westchester County when she crashed while going the wrong-way on a highway with a vanload of small children, killing her and seven others. Her husband has said his wife wasn't an alcoholic and blamed the accident on "something medical."
Nationwide, the number of women arrested for driving under the influence or alcohol or drugs was 28.8 percent higher in 2007 than it was in 1998, while the number of men arrested was 7.5 percent lower, according to FBI figures that cover about 56 percent of the country. Still yet, arrests of drunken mothers with children in the car remain rare.
Smith, the county sheriff, said it took months to put together the information he needed to provide to prosecutors. Smith and Tatum said other details, such as results of Turley's toxicology tests, would come out at the trial.
"This is for the children's sake," Smith said Friday. "Certainly, they're not here to speak for themselves."
Conway Corp., the utility company manages Lake Brewer, has since put up barriers on the road Turley was on that led into the lake. The boys were buried in a single casket at a cemetery not far from their home.
Hopkins said the deaths have devastated the family and called the charges against Turley "outrageous." The boys' father has not commented since their deaths in April.
"They're saying that my daughter basically killed her kids," Hopkins said. If convicted, Turley, who was not married at the time of the drowning, faces up to six years in prison on each count.
"She's tore up like, you know, who wouldn't?" Hopkins said. "She's done lost everything anyway."