A woman shot her two young children and then killed herself inside an SUV in a desolate and swampy industrial zone of New Orleans on Thursday, police said. And although officials haven't positively identified the bodies, they said the car matches that of a woman who had told her mother she was suicidal, had a gun and might harm her kids, ages 3 and 5.

That woman, Michelle McCullum, was struggling with marital problems and had been unable to advance her career, according to a neighbor. McCullum's family declined to talk to The Associated Press, asking for privacy.

Rick Mathieu, a 59-year-old man who lives next to McCullum's family on a quiet and charming street in Treme, an old African-American neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter, said the tragedy was a shock.

"She was very smart, very smart," he said. "But I didn't know she had the hard side."

He described McCullum as an A student who worked hard and "gave her shirt off her back to help others, that's how she was."

Sitting on the steps of his house near grieving family members, Mathieu described Caden, the 5-year-old boy, and Cylie, the 3-year-old girl, as fantastic children.

"They'd play right here, and I watched them to make sure nothing go down," he said. "I police this block."

He said Caden, who attended a private nursery school, was "a little genius" who "could sit there and hold a conversation with an adult, he was that smart."

"That little boy could dance. He was into sports, playing football, basketball. He'd say: 'Look at my muscle,'" Mathieu said.

Cylie, he said, "was just coming into her own."

Mathieu said McCullum had fallen on hard times after being laid off from a supervisory job at a NASA facility in eastern New Orleans about a year ago. He said her husband also worked at the NASA facility.

Shannon Ridinger, a NASA spokeswoman, declined to discuss the matter, citing respect for the family. She said neither McCullum nor her husband had been NASA employees but confirmed that the husband worked for a subcontractor.

Mathieu said that McCullum was trying to get into dental school and pursue a career as a dental hygienist, but that she'd had trouble due to "road blocks with grants."

To make a bit of money, she worked during the summers as a lifeguard at a neighborhood pool, he said.

Police said they began searching for the woman and her children after receiving a call about 12:30 a.m. Thursday from the woman's mother. The mother told police that her daughter was suicidal, had a gun and might harm her children.

Police said they tried to find her by tracking her cellphone but that the device was powered down, leaving them unable to locate her that way. An alert seeking the public's help finding the missing mother and children was issued shortly before their bodies were discovered.

McCullum's vehicle was discovered by David DeGruy, a diesel mechanic at Richard's Disposal Inc. He said he checked the SUV parked near the garbage company's work yards and office in eastern New Orleans after one of his drivers said someone was slumped behind the wheel. He immediately dialed 911.

"She was slumped over, leaning towards the passenger side. She had blood all over her head and shoulder," he said.

He said he did not see the children then. After police broke a window and then opened the doors, he said, he saw what appeared to be children's bodies on the floor in the back.

The SUV was parked near a junkyard in an area where mattresses have been dumped alongside the road and a junked boat is overgrown in weeds and bushes.

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Associated Press reporter Bill Fuller contributed to this report.