Bloody knife found in home where four children killed

Shelby County Sheriff's deputies work the scene where four young children were killed in Tennessee.

Shelby County Sheriff's deputies work the scene where four young children were killed in Tennessee.  (AP)

A large, bloody butcher knife was found by sheriff's deputies inside an apartment where a Tennessee mom slit the throats and wrists of her four young children on Friday, court documents said.

Shanynthia Gardner, 29, is charged with four counts of first degree murder while committing aggravated child neglect in the deaths of her three daughters and one son — all under the age of 5. Their bodies were found after deputies entered her apartment in a gated community in unincorporated Shelby County on Friday. Neighbors and friends of the family attended a vigil to honor the victims Saturday.

Gardner's oldest child, seven-year-old Dallen Clayton, was able to escape the horror. Dallen is Gardner's son from a previous marriage.

“I know Shanynthia – this is the work of the devil,” said Sonya Clayton, the grandmother of the lone survivor of the massacre.

Clayton told FOX13 that Gardner was "a beautiful sweet young lady" and she doesn't understand what may have changed.

"I'm still shocked, in disbelief," Clayton said.

Sonya Clayton said she's praying for Gardner, but her priority right now is seeing Dallen, who she hasn't spoken to since the slaughter occurred.

"I want Dallen, I need Dallen,” Clayton said. “I need to know what's going on with Dallen. [Authorities] are giving us the run around – I don't understand."

Court documents said after Dallen escaped the apartment, he was able to run up to a man, yelling that his mother had stabbed his sister.

Aside from the murder charges, Gardner also faces four counts of first degree murder while committing aggravated child abuse; four counts of aggravated child neglect or endangerment; and four counts of aggravated child abuse. She is being held without bond, with an arraignment scheduled Tuesday.

An affidavit filed in Shelby County court by a sheriff's detective identified the victims as 4-year-old Tallen Gardner; 3-year-old Sya Gardner; 2 year-old Sahvi Gardner; and 6-month old Yahzi Gardner.

Gardner spoke by phone with her current husband, Martin Gardner, and acknowledged that she killed her children, the affidavit said. 

"This is a terrible act, an egregious act that has shocked, I believe, the community, and has shocked our staff to the core," Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham said Saturday.

Deputies were called to an apartment complex in unincorporated Shelby County on Friday afternoon. When they arrived at Shanynthia Gardner's apartment, they found her with superficial cuts to her neck and wrists, the affidavit said. Deputies also found four children with "severe lacerations to the throat," the document said.

Two children were found in the living room — Yahzi was in her baby carrier and Sya was lying next to the carrier. The other two victims were in a bedroom.

Authorities have not divulged what circumstances they believe led to the killings. Oldham said investigators were trying to determine if Gardner has mental health problems.

The state Department of Children's Service has offered its assistance to local law enforcement, but has no record of interaction with the slain children, said spokesman Rob Johnson.

About 30 people attended an outdoor candlelight vigil at the apartment complex on Saturday evening. They prayed for the four children, the surviving boy, and Shanynthia Gardner. A pastor poured water from a decanter onto the ground, in remembrance of the victims.

Neighbor Mona Hansen, who attended the vigil, became emotional when talking about how her own daughter adopted three girls after their brother was killed by a parent. Hansen called the killings of the four children in the apartment complex where she lives "heart-wrenching."

"Like the minister said, you don't know what they could have been in life," Hansen said of the Gardner children. "Their lives didn't even get started yet, before they were taken."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.