Monica Gadson is in shock. She never would have believed that her former employee, Shaquan Duley, could be capable of harming her children. "The only problem I had with her was her lateness," says Gadson, owner of the Happyland Day Care Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina. She was Duley's boss for two or three months last year under a Department of Social Services program and says that Duley was a good worker. Moreover, she says Duley seemed emotionally devoted to her children, one of whom was a DSS-funded student last year at Happyland. "As far as the children were concerned, anytime they were sick she was out with them. I am shocked. I had no idea this could have happened. She was a good mother."
"The opportunity presented itself, and she reacted ... I believe she just wanted to be free."
But this "good mother," a 29 year old with three kids from Orangeburg County, didn't want to take care of her children anymore. Or, at least, she didn't want to hear her mother berate her for doing a poor job of it. So Shaquan Duley did the unthinkable: She suffocated her two sons—Devean, 2, and Ja'van, 18 months old—before strapping them into their car seats and rolling the car into the meandering Edisto River.
Even more unthinkable: She wasn't the first South Carolinian mom to do so. It was 16 years ago that Susan Smith committed an eerily similar crime just two hours north of here, drowning her own two sons, who were nearly the same age as Duley's. Smith had originally claimed that her car was stolen with the kids in the back seat. The horrific case sparked a massive manhunt and ultimately landed a tearful Smith on the cover of Time magazine over the headline: How Could She Do It?
Now Duley, who confessed to her crime late Monday night, has shed some light on that question. Unemployed and financially strapped, she was living, along with her two sons and her 5-year-old daughter (who she spared) with her mother, says Orangeburg County Sheriff Larry Williams. Williams says Duley had an argument with her mother over the weekend about her care of the children and had checked into Orangeburg's Trumps Inn motel, where investigators believe she killed the children. What exactly that argument was about is unknown. What is known, however, is that Duley had been complaining for a long time about the way her own mother needled her for not adequately providing for her kids.
"She was a mother that was unemployed. she had no means of taking care of her children," Williams said in a news conference today. "The responsibility of being a mom was a bit much for her. She was living with her mother. I believe she was fed up with her mother telling her that she couldn't take care of the children, or she wasn't taking care of the children. She just wanted to be free."
According to Sheriff Williams, Duley drove around with the deceased children in the backseat until she found the rural Shillings Bridge Road boat landing where she either pushed or rolled the car into the river. Authorities first took Duley into custody for leaving the scene of an accident, but said they doubted her story because there was no evidence of an accident. There were no skid marks, her clothes were not wet, and she was calm, says Williams. "She didn't show any remorse."
It wasn't long before Duley confessed that she'd suffocated the children. "It was a very calm interview," says Williams of the interrogation. "She would break down to some degree, and then stiffen back up." Orangeburg County Coroner Samuetta Marshall said Tuesday that the cause of death was asphyxiation due to strangulation. Defensive bruises on the 2 year old indicate that he struggled, she added. The coroner's office is waiting for autopsy results to determine the exact time of death, but "death preceded entering the water," Marshall said. "It's tragic."
"I'm very shocked about it," says Willa Lou Duley, Shaquan's great-aunt by marriage, when reached at home by phone. "To me, she seemed to be a good mother."
Frankie Duley, Shaquan Duley's aunt by marriage, agrees. "That girl is a nice girl," she says. "She takes care of those kids."
As did Susan Smith—until she didn't want to anymore. Smith, of Union, South Carolina, also wanted to be free of her children, for reasons that became clear during her trial. She was only 23 when she rolled her car into John D. Long Lake with her two boys, Michael, 3, and Alexander, 14 months, strapped into their car seats inside. She went to the closest house and reported that she had been carjacked by an African-American man who had driven off with her children. Smith and her husband, David, pleaded on television for the return of their kids. State police combed the area for clues. The FBI got involved. Nine days after Susan Smith reported the "carjacking," investigators got her to reveal that her children were submerged in the lake, and police found the car and the bodies.
Smith was convicted in 1995 and is serving a life sentence at Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, South Carolina. She will be eligible for parole in 2024.
Lt. Kenneth Riddle, 55, of Union County, was a uniformed sheriff's deputy at the time. He remembers the moment he learned of the missing kids. "Back then I was a deputy on the road," he says. "We were all called out the night it happened. We continued to work on that until the kids were actually found—nine days. She didn't actually confess until we actually started to disprove her story. We couldn't find the car."
Except for the fact that the children were found in water, he sees little similarity between Smith's and Duley's cases. "Susan's kids were asleep in their car seats" when she rolled the car into the water, Riddle said. Duley had already killed hers. And unlike Duley, Smith was employed, Riddle said, and the trial revealed that she was cheating on her husband with a man whose family owned the company where she worked.
"The boyfriend that she was with at the time didn't want children. It all came out later that she had some problems in her past because of her stepfather molesting her. She was pointing toward that. That wasn't the real problem. She wanted to get rid of those kids so she could play on the boyfriend's sympathy."
Riddle added that he is a distant cousin of David Smith, Susan Smith's former husband and the father of Michael and Alexander. "He's remarried and living in Spartanburg," Riddle said. "He says he's forgiven her."
Duley's arraignment is scheduled for this afternoon. "Although I have sympathy for the mother, she is going to have to deal with the law," says Sheriff Williams. "I cringe for the children."
Harriet McLeod is a career journalist and freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C. She writes for Reuters, Charleston Magazine, MSNBC's TheGrio, and other media outlets.