Jenea Payne parked her SUV and walked into a grocery store in western Mississippi over the weekend, leaving her three small children in the vehicle, police say.
By the time she walked back outside, the vehicle was gone — having rolled into a creek across the street.
What followed Saturday evening in the city of Leland was a furious rescue attempt, with the town’s fire chief and others jumping into the water and trying to break into the floating and sinking SUV.
Payne’s 2-year-old daughter was rescued, but her sons — Rasheed Johnson Jr., 1, and Steve Smith, 4 — drowned, Leland police said.
Payne, 25, was arrested and charged Monday with two counts of manslaughter and one count of child neglect, police said. She was released on her own recognizance after an initial court appearance in Washington County, police said.
She was charged “for leaving the children unattended in the vehicle,” Leland police Assistant Chief Marcus Davis told CNN affiliate WAPT in Jackson.
Police: Rescuers saved the girl but eventually had to swim to safety
Payne had left her children in a Nissan Pathfinder outside a Stop n Shop grocery store, police said. The store’s parking lot is across a street from Deer Creek.
For reasons that investigators aren’t sure why, the SUV rolled into the creek while Payne was inside the store, and police were called about the vehicle floating in the water at about 5:45 p.m., they said.
Davis, the assistant police chief, said one of the children may have done something to get the vehicle moving. Two of the children were in car seats, and one wasn’t, he told WAPT.
“Whatever the kids did, it ended up the vehicle being in the creek,” Davis told the TV station.
By the time police arrived, Leland Fire Chief Bobby Johnson and four other people already were there, police said.
“The fire chief and the others jumped into the creek and attempted to burst the windows out of the vehicle in order to get the kids out,” police said in a Facebook post. “As the vehicle floated down the creek, these individuals ended up only being able to rescue one of the three kids before having to swim to safety.
“The vehicle then drifted further down and into the creek.”
With the vehicle now submerged, rescue divers arrived and found the SUV at about 8 p.m. A tow truck pulled the vehicle out with the two boys still inside.
The county coroner pronounced the boys dead at the scene at 8:37 p.m., police said.
The rescued girl, Raelynn Johnson, was at home with her father on Monday, WAPT reported.