The woman who crashed a van full of foster children into oncoming traffic in Queens on Monday confessed to police that she smoked crack cocaine around 1 or 2 a.m., did heroin around 9 a.m., and drank one alcoholic beverage around noon that same day. Sheila Bethea, 45, also admitted to speeding, and told police she did not know 5-year-olds needed to be in car seats. (None of her passengers were even wearing seat belts.) Perhaps even more devastating is the revelation that the children were supposed to taken to their foster care appointment in a cab.
The Rev. Owen E. Williams, a pastor at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Jamaica and a spokesman for the family, claims that Bethea had never been responsible for driving the children in the past. According to Williams, Bethea's mother Genevieve—in whose care the children were placed—had left $30 and the number of a cab company for the nanny to take the children to their appointment. Williams tells the Times, "That was the normal procedure. We're not sure who changed those instructions." The full-time nanny, Fatou Sonko, 42, was in the van and sustained severe head and eye injuries.
Bethea’s Mazda minivan crossed a double yellow line on a street in St. Albans and collided with an oncoming Toyota minivan just before 5 p.m. Monday. A witness believes she was driving at least 70 mph, and two of the children were seated on the floor because the middle row of seats had been removed. Catherine Willis, 15, and Melissa Elhmer-Mirra, 5, died in the crash.
Two other children have been released from the hospital, but there are conflicting reports about the condition of Bethea's own daughter, Tatiana Bethea, 6. According to the Daily News, she is in a medically induced coma with massive internal injuries, but the Times reports she was released yesterday. The driver of the other minivan is apparently in stable condition.
The horrific crash raises questions about the thoroughness of foster care background checks. Before a child is placed in a foster home, the prospective parent and all people living in the home are required to undergo background checks. But the agency, Little Flower Children and Family Services of New York, did not know Sheila Bethea lived with her mother, so they never discovered her lengthy criminal record: She has been arrested at least eight times on charges of drug possession, assault, robbery, and DWI.
At her arraignment yesterday, Bethea's lawyer said her client had AIDS, hepatitis and a mental condition that requires medication. She pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, assault and endangering the welfare of a child charges, and is being held on $500,000 bail. A judge instructed her to avoid all contact with the surviving children.
The biological mother of two of the surviving girls tells the Daily News that the Bethea family used the kids as "paychecks" and abused them. And the mother of the 5-year-old who died tells the Post, "In my opinion, my daughter was murdered and I want the people responsible to pay for it. This woman played God with her life."