EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – By all accounts, Tiffany Hall and Jimella Tunstall were like sisters, survivors in this place defined by crime, poverty, crumbling buildings and potholed roads.
The two were quiet loners who gravitated toward each other at school. They both became teenage mothers. Years later, with two children of her own, according to media reports, Hall baby-sat Tunstall’s three kids.
With numbing grief, both families are trying to fathom how things went so horrifically wrong.
Hall, 24, is jailed on $5 million bond, accused Saturday of killing 23-year-old Tunstall and the fetus that authorities say was cut from her womb, perhaps with scissors.
Later Saturday, a furious two-day search for Tunstall’s missing children – ages 7, 2 and 1 – ended with another grisly discovery: Authorities found the children’s decomposing bodies stuffed in the washer and dryer at the apartment they shared with their mother.
“At least they’re at peace with their mom,” LaDonna Tunstall, the slain woman’s stepmother, told the Belleville News-Democrat.
As for Hall, she added, “God is going to have to deal with her.”
Hall hasn’t been charged in the children’s deaths. But an official said Sunday that Hall told police she drowned the children and hid their bodies.
Preliminary autopsies on the dead children Sunday appear to show they were drowned, said Ace Hart, a deputy St. Clair County coroner. “They were not drowned there in the wash machine,” he said.
Refusing to discuss a motive, prosecutors say Hall killed Tunstall, who was seven months pregnant, on or about Sept. 15. Later that night, Hart said, Hall summoned authorities to Frank Holten State Park, where police found her with a dead baby she claims she delivered stillborn.
Hall and the baby were taken to a hospital, where she refused to let doctors examine her and gave conflicting accounts of why she went into labor, alternately saying she had consensual sex and was raped, Hart said.
The baby girl showed no signs of trauma and an autopsy the next day failed to pinpoint a cause of death.
“We didn’t even figure it was a homicide,” Hart said.
When the funeral for the baby, who was buried as Taylor Horn, took place six days later, the mortuary’s director found Hall acting strangely. Just minutes before the service, Levi King said, Hall called to ask if she could reschedule for a different day so more family could attend.
Hall turned up two hours late.
“That’s never happened before,” King said.
Then during the service, Police Chief James Mister said, the woman confided in her boyfriend – a sailor home on leave – that the child belonged to a pregnant woman she said she killed. The boyfriend told police, who arrested Hall hours later.
By that time, authorities already had found Tunstall’s body in a weedy lot just blocks from the sprawling state park where Hall had summoned police six days earlier. Near the body were scissors Hart suspects were used to carve out the woman’s fetus.
It got worse.
By the next morning, investigators were imploring the media and public to help find Tunstall’s three children, whom they said were last seen four days earlier with Hall.
Dozens of law enforcers and volunteers converged on the state park in a frantic search by horseback, on foot, by air and by boat. Everything, including cadaver dogs, proved fruitless.
Hart said investigators on Friday had been inside Tunstall’s apartment 28J at the John DeShields public housing complex to get photographs of the missing children for media outlets to publicize during the search.
Authorities found nothing unusual and left, only to return on Saturday night when Hall “‘fessed up where the kids were,” Hart said. Inside the closed apartment, the pungent stench of death greeted them.
Police found 7-year-old DeMond Tunstall’s body – 4 feet tall, 55 pounds – in the dryer. The other two children – 2-year-old Ivan Tunstall-Collins and 1-year-old Jinela Tunstall – were lifeless in the washer. Two of the children were nude, the third wearing only underpants.
Hart can’t fault anyone for not finding the children during their previous visit.
“Who would be looking in the washer and dryer?” he said.