MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The mother of four young children who were stabbed to death in a gated apartment complex in Tennessee is being held for questioning, but authorities have not charged her with a crime.
The deaths on Friday saddened and dismayed neighbors and county officials, as authorities tried to piece together what happened in the apartment located near a verdant golf course in a typically quiet neighborhood in suburban Memphis.
Deputies were called to the complex in unincorporated Shelby County shortly before 1 p.m. Friday. They took the mother into custody after finding the children’s bodies.
Officials have not released the ages of the children, but sheriff’s office spokesman Earle Farrell said deputies responding to the scene called them “babies.” Authorities were waiting to contact next of kin to release the names.
Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham did not specifically allege that the mother had stabbed the children. He said investigators did not know if she had mental health issues.
“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.”
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.
“One of the most difficult questions in any investigation is always, ‘Why did this happen?'” the sheriff said.
County Commissioner Mark Billingsley also 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.”
Neighbor Sean Ahearn said he didn’t know the family by name, but that he often saw the children, who all appeared to be under age 6, 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.”
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 drove into the neighborhood.
Resident Patricia Johnson spoke with reporters from her car. 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?”
Johnson said she would be praying for the family, including the mother.
“Something went wrong, drastically wrong,” Johnson said
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.
“We’ve done an exhaustive search and we are not aware of any contact with this family,” he said.
The news triggered painful memories for Johnson and others in Memphis: In 2008, a man’s bloody rampage in the city left six dead, including two children, ages 2 and 4.
Jessie Dotson was convicted of shooting his brother during an argument at a house on Lester Street, then attacking everyone else in the house with a gun, boards and knives in an attempt to eliminate witnesses.
Three other children were stabbed but survived, including a 2-month-old girl and 9-year-old boy, who was found in a bathtub with a 4 ½-inch knife blade embedded in his skull. The survivors are known as the “miracles of Lester Street.”
Dotson was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010.
Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig and Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.