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Mother accused of drowning children may be mentally ill, police say

February 15, 2012 |  4:44 pm

Photo: Neighbor Dina Ceballos recounts the scene. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

Dina Ceballos was on her way to move her car Wednesday morning when she heard the screaming.

It was the shouts of a horrified father who found his wife trying to drown their two little girls in a baby bathtub. The mother shoved the older daughter’s face into a small tub, Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Pat Gannon told The Times.

The couple’s 1-year-old daughter died Wednesday morning, and their 4-year-old daughter was clinging to life at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Initial reports mistakenly said she was 5 years old.

Police said the mother, who may have a history of mental illness, was taken into custody. She has not been booked on suspicion of a crime.

"I don't know what made her snap," Gannon said. The mother has been taken to a hospital for evaluation. Police Cmdr. Andy Smith said she could be booked on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon or murder.

Firefighters arrived at the home in the 900 block of West 50th Street about 7:30 a.m. and tried to resuscitate the girls, who were unconscious and unresponsive.

Ceballos, 46, said she saw the two little girls being carried out by rescuers. Both were limp and colorless.

"It broke my heart to see those girls," she said. Hours later, shaken and feeling ill, she said the image is ingrained in her memory.

The father had gone to the market to buy juice and milk for the girls. A neighbor told KTLA-TV Channel 5 that when the father returned, she heard shouts of “My babies! My babies!”

"If I didn't get out, my girls would still be alive," Ceballos said she heard him say.

Moments after the father came home and intervened, he confronted his wife.

"He was screaming and saying, 'Why didn't she kill herself instead of trying to kill my girls?' " Ceballos said.

She said he had to be restrained from hurting the mother.

Neighbors described the family as one that kept to themselves but said they seemed like good people. They greeted their Latino neighbors in Spanish, but said little else.

The family appeared to be healthy and hard-working. Ceballos heard from other relatives in the house that the woman showed signs of the depression and even asked one relative to take care of her daughters if anything happened to her.

"You see healthy people," she said, "but you don't know their mind."

The mother seemed troubled, "like she was disturbed," said neighbor Jennifer Houston, 37.

"She stays in the house," said Judy McCann, who has lived on the street for about 30 years. "She never comes out."

The father also kept to himself but seemed friendlier. "He's quiet. He's the one who seems more adept," McCann said.

"She wanted to come out and play, but her mother wouldn't let her," Houston said of the 4-year-old. "She didn't want her kids to talk to my kids."

Houston has four children, including two daughters almost the same age as the girls. "That hurts me," she said. "I got to tell my baby. She's going to want to know what happened. I'll tell her, 'Your little friend is in the hospital, she had an accident.' I can't just come out and tell her. I can't traumatize my baby."

Joyce Williams, an elder at a local church who ministers to neighbors, led them in a prayer for the family. "Let them know there is help in the midst of their storm," she prayed. "Touch that father right now, God! Touch that mother right now, God! God, touch that family now!"

The scene -- which included the distraught father -- was so traumatic that first responders from the Police and Fire Departments are being offered counseling, Gannon said.

"This is a tragic and horrific incident," Gannon said, “something no one likes to see."


Mother suspected of trying to drown two daughters
1-year-old girl dies after assault by mother,  police say
Scene of attempted drowning described as traumatizing
Father found mother trying to drown two young daughters, police say

-- Rick Rojas in South Los Angeles and Richard Winton

Photo: Neighbor Dina Ceballos describes the attempted drowning. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times