A woman charged with manslaughter in a high-speed crash that killed two children had a crack pipe in her hand at the hospital and admitted to police that she had done drugs earlier that day, prosecutors said Wednesday.
The defendant, Sheila Bethea, told police she found the pipe in her hospital bed. It's possible she hid it in a body cavity, said Paul Browne, chief spokesman for the New York Police Department.
Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said she admitted she smoked crack cocaine around 2 a.m. Monday, did heroin around 9 a.m. and had one drink around noon that day. The accident occurred around 5 p.m.
The pipe found at the hospital had what appeared to be crack cocaine residue, and investigators were performing toxicology tests to determine whether Bethea had narcotics in her system. Her blood-alcohol content was 0.03 about an hour after the crash Monday evening, well below the legal limit of 0.08, authorities said.
Bethea pleaded not guilty Wednesday night to charges of manslaughter, second-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child. She is being held on $500,000 bail. A call to the attorney representing her at arraignment was not immediately returned.
If convicted, she faces up to 15 years in prison.
A family spokesman, the Rev. Owen E. Williams, said he was unaware of any substance-abuse problems with the Bethea family. He said Sheila Bethea wasn't a member of his congregation at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church, but that she came to some of the church's summer outings and was "very respectful and very reverent.''
"This is a terrible, terrible accident,'' he said.
Her mother, Genevieve, is a licensed foster care parent, and the five children involved in the crash were her foster children, Williams said. She has been a member of the church for years.
Sheila Bethea, 45, was speeding down a Queens street in a minivan, shuttling the children to a foster care center when she crossed a yellow line and slammed into another car, prosecutors said. The middle row of seats in the Mazda minivan was missing and the little children were not in car seats. Katherine Willis, 15, was sitting on the floor of the van and died at the scene. Melissa El-Mirra, 5, died at a hospital Tuesday.
Another 5-year-old, Tatiyana Bethea, legally adopted by Genevieve Bethea, was in a medically induced coma with a device placed in her skull to relieve cranial pressure.
Two other girls, 11-year-old Allyahh Garcia and 10-year-old Camera Sedonovich, were in stable condition. The children's nanny, Fatou Sonko, 43, was hospitalized with damage to her eye socket, a broken leg and a broken shoulder.
Prosecutors said Bethea lost control of the car because there was a small spare tire on the back wheel, and didn't realize 5-year-olds needed car seats.
The driver of the other car, Carl Williams, 63, was treated and released.
Williams said the family was grieving and would need time to mourn.
Katherine was the newest member of the Bethea family, and started coming to church about eight months ago, Williams said. "She had just joined the choir. She had a voice like an angel,'' he said.
Melissa had been in the family for nearly her entire life and was growing into a vivacious, energetic and vibrant girl, he said. In 2003, Bethea's license was suspended for driving while intoxicated because she refused to take a breathalyzer test.
The crash is the latest in a series of fatal New York City-area accidents involving vehicles packed with children.
Also Wednesday, a mother pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and other charges after she was accused of driving drunk with a station wagon full of children that crashed in Manhattan on the way to a sleepover. An 11-year-old died in the Oct. 11 accident and six other girls were injured.
In July, a driver was killed, along with four children and three men, when she drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway.