The Medford mother accused of killing her twin 2-year-old girls Thursday has a history of mental illness, was acting irrationally in recent days, and was overwhelmed raising three children as a single parent, the woman's mother told police.
Tenia Campbell, 24, told her mother, Vanessa McQueen, 48, in a frantic call Thursday afternoon that she killed her daughters, Jasmine and Jaida, and planned to join the toddlers in heaven, according to court records.
Authorities, and McQueen's statement to police, painted a picture of a distraught mother spiraling out of control in the days and hours leading up to the tragic slayings — and a desperate Medford-to-Montauk search by police to find Campbell, Jasmine and Jaida in time.
“All Tenia would say was that it’s too late. I killed my babies and now I have to be with them,” said McQueen, of Mastic Beach, according to the court records. “At one point, she said she was going to find the ocean and walk into it and drown so she could be with her babies in heaven.”
During the conversation, Campbell told her mother she had killed the twins "with my bare hands," McQueen said in her statement.
Campbell was charged with two counts of second-degree murder. She pleaded not guilty Friday in East Hampton Town Justice Court and was ordered held without bail. She remains on 24-hour suicide watch with one-on-one supervision, officials said.
"It's a horrific tragedy," said Campbell's defense attorney, John Halverson of Patchogue. "Obviously we are looking into my client's mental state. The act, or alleged act, speaks for itself. A mother hurting her own children is unfathomable."
Photos on Campbell’s Facebook page show her daughters celebrating their first birthday in April 2018, dressed in matching pink and purple tutus and sucking on lollipops. They are surrounded by multicolored balloons.
In that post, Campbell writes that her children “have managed to stress me out to maximum capacity and still make me extremely happy. Such a blessing and a headache it is to have twins. I love you girls till the death of me.”
McQueen told police that her daughter, a home health care aide, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teen and had been battling depression her entire life, had been having a difficult week.
“She has been acting very irrationally and angry," McQueen told detectives. "I tried to convince her to take a break from the kids and let me have them so she could recharge herself but she always says she can handle it.”
On Thursday at about 2 p.m., a distressed and crying Campbell called her mother from her car.
“She kept saying she was sorry but she didn’t want to live anymore and that she was going to kill herself and her babies," McQueen told police.
McQueen said she called 911 from her home phone while trying to keep her daughter on the phone. At one point, McQueen told her daughter to stop the vehicle and let someone help her but she refused, records show.
A Suffolk 911 dispatcher received a call about 2:30 p.m. from McQueen and patched in Campbell. During the 12-minute conversation a "hysterical" Campbell told the dispatcher that the girls were already dead but she refused to provide details of her whereabouts, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said at a news conference Friday in Yaphank.
The search for the mother and her children ensued involving multiple police precincts, law enforcement agencies, aviation units, the Coast Guard and parks police, Hart said.
Law enforcement officials searched Campbell's Medford home, her mother's home in Mastic Beach, the children's day care in Brentwood, and previous employment locations in East Northport and Westhampton, Hart said.
Police later located Campbell's 4-year-old son, where he was found unharmed in the care of his father.
An Amber Alert was initiated and alerts were placed on Campbell's license plate through local police agencies, Hart said.
Law enforcement located Campbell shortly after 4 p.m. through a GPS search of her cellphone. East Hampton Town police found her at the entrance of the Montauk County Park Third House Nature Center.
Campbell parked her blue 2001 Chrysler Town and Country minivan at the entrance to the park, walked to Montauk Highway and "started screaming at officers to shoot her," Hart said. She was taken into custody and officers quickly tried to resuscitate her two girls, Hart said.
But the toddlers were in cardiac arrest in their car seats inside Campbell's vehicle and were pronounced dead at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, authorities said. Hart said it is not yet clear if the girls were dead by the time Campbell was on the phone with the 911 dispatcher.
Det. Lt. Kevin Beyrer, commanding officer of the Suffolk County Homicide Squad, said Campbell was hysterical at the time of her arrest.
The children, Hart said, had no outward sign of trauma and an autopsy would be performed to determine the cause of death.
"We worked together using all of our resources in hope of bringing a peaceful resolution to the Campbell family," Hart said. "Unfortunately, Jasmine and Jaida's lives were cut short in the most tragic way imaginable."
Suffolk police have not yet determined a motive, Hart said.
Police on Friday were doing door-to-door interviews with Campbell’s neighbors in Medford and were at the Mastic Beach house where McQueen lives.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said the deaths broke the hearts of Suffolk parents countywide.
"Yesterday was something you cannot be prepared for and a scene that you cannot imagine," Bellone said. "I think I speak on behalf of parents all across the county: What happened yesterday was incomprehensible to us. As the father of three young kids it's unimaginable and beyond tragic."
Law enforcement officials said Friday that there had been no reports of domestic violence or incidents of mental illness in the house. Suffolk social service agencies have not previously been called to the Campbell household, officials said.
The girls, Hart said, had not been in day care for the past few days. Campbell is estranged from the father of the twins, Hart said.
McQueen told police that she wanted desperately to save her daughter but that she was beyond help Thursday.
“I tried so hard to help my daughter Tenia," McQueen told detectives. "I love her so much but she has a mental disorder and there was just no talking to her today.”
With David Olson