A 22-month-old boy drowned and his 3-year-old brother was near death Tuesday after they were dropped 50 feet from a Long Beach bridge into the Los Angeles River by their mother, who jumped into the water but was unharmed, police said.
Two Long Beach police officers tried to reach the three by taking off their uniform jackets and swimming from opposite sides of the river, but a Long Beach Marine Safety Department rescue boat arrived first.
The mother, Donna Fleming, 24, of San Pedro, was being held without bail on suspicion of murder and attempted murder. Police would not say if they had uncovered a motive.
A few hours after the incident, the downcast Fleming, a portly woman wearing a hospital gown, was led in handcuffs from St. Mary’s Medical Center in Long Beach to a police car to be taken to Long Beach police headquarters.
According to police, Fleming pushed a stroller with her sons Craig Alan, 22 months, and Michael Robert Jr., 3, to the middle of the bridge shortly after 9:30 a.m. Then, as a horrified passing motorist watched, she dropped the boys over a railing, police said.
The witness, who was not identified by police, flagged down Long Beach Police Motorcycle Officer Ken Roberts, who radioed for help, police said.
Other witnesses, standing on the bridge, said they saw the children face-down in the cold water and Fleming treading water and crying for help. “I started yelling, ‘Pick ‘em up! Get their heads up!’ ” said Francine McCroskey of Lomita, who was crossing the bridge on an errand.
Ray Lyman, who works for Catalina Cruises, pulled his van over and dropped a surfboard into the water as a flotation device, perhaps saving the mother.
Long Beach Officer Robert Gonzales, who along with Officer Michael Erdejli jumped into the water in an effort to rescue the three, said that Fleming was next to the surfboard when the boat arrived. “She was hysterical,” he said. “She kept saying, ‘My kid, my kids!’ ”
The two victims and their mother were hauled into the boat by Marine Safety officers and, with Gonzales assisting in administering CPR to the youngest boy, taken to Catalina Landing a short distance away. Three ambulances took them to St. Mary’s.
Police said Fleming and her two sons were in the water about 10 minutes. “When they picked up the babies, they were so blue,” McCroskey said.
For some, the toddler’s death was reminiscent of last year’s murders in South Carolina of two children, allegedly by their mother, a 23-year-old secretary. Susan V. Smith was charged with murdering her sons, 3 and 14 months, by running her car into a lake with her children in the back seat. If convicted, she could receive the death penalty.
The tragedy also calls to mind the January, 1985, infanticide and attempted suicide by Fumiko Kimura, who walked into the ocean from a Santa Monica beach with her infant daughter and her 4-year-old son in her arms. Onlookers pulled them from the water, but only Kimura, 32, survived. She pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to probation. She later told a probation officer that she felt inadequate as a wife and mother after discovering that her husband had a mistress.
As Fleming was led out of the hospital Tuesday, a woman screamed at her, “How could you kill your babies? How could you kill sweet babies?” The woman, who identified herself as Kim Burnett, said her own 2-year-old son had been killed recently when he was hit by a car.
Fleming was taken to County-USC Medical Center for psychological observation, police said. She will be arraigned Thursday in Long Beach Municipal Court.
Dr. Miles Shaw at St. Mary’s said that when the older child was brought into the emergency room he had fluid in his lungs and his temperature had dropped to 16 degrees below normal. The boy, who had not regained consciousness by late Tuesday night, was placed on a ventilator to help him breathe, Shaw said.
Shaw said he had also examined the mother, who was uninjured. Fleming admitted throwing her sons into the water, Shaw said.
“She was very tearful, and she said slowly that she had pushed the children off and then jumped herself,” Shaw said.
The bridge is a concrete span, about half a mile north of the mouth of the Los Angeles River. Fleming had apparently walked from Ocean Boulevard in Long Beach along a sidewalk to the middle of the bridge.
McCroskey said she had first seen Fleming and the children on her way into Long Beach from Lomita, from the west.
“She was just standing there with the babies,” McCroskey said. “I was thinking, ‘Get them off of there. They could fall.’ They were just too close to the edge.”
She said she dropped off a friend at Long Beach Municipal Court on Ocean Boulevard, then returned to the bridge, traveling west. Seeing people looking over the edge, McCroskey pulled her car over.
By then, McCroskey said, Fleming was calling for help. “She was screaming, ‘Help me! Help me!’ ” McCroskey said. “My instinct was to jump in, but I had my kids in the car.”
A patient in the St. Mary’s emergency room who was present when Fleming was brought in said she appeared “dazed and out of it.”
David Pena, a carpenter from Lakewood who was being examined for chest pains, said the mother had shown little emotion when informed that one of her sons had died. “She let out one small cry, but it sounded like she had no remorse,” Pena said.
Police would reveal little about Fleming, or her husband, Michael Robert Fleming Sr.
The husband came to the hospital but would not talk to reporters.
Six times in the last 13 months, Los Angeles police were called to the Flemings’ two-story apartment in San Pedro to investigate allegations of either battery or spousal abuse by Michael Fleming against his wife, according to a police official.
Fleming, who turned 37 Tuesday, was twice convicted of crimes related to the incidents, police said. The first conviction followed a March, 1994, arrest, although the penalty Fleming received is unclear, said Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Dick Simmons. The second conviction stemmed from a June, 1994, arrest in which the husband pleaded guilty to one of two counts of battery and was sentenced to 10 days in jail. He was also placed on three years probation.
Police were again called to the home Jan. 12, although that case has not yet been resolved, Simmons said. Donna Fleming was not seriously injured in any of the incidents, Simmons said.
Neighbors in the Flemings’ working-class neighborhood said the couple argued loudly and frequently behind the closed door of their apartment. “When it got really bad one of us (neighbors) would call the cops,” said Charla Fales, a next-door neighbor.
Times staff writers Eric Slater, Frank Williams and Duke Helfand contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
1) A woman, standing on the north side of the Ocean Boulevard overcrossing, throws her two sons into the Los Angeles River, then jumps in herself, police say.
2) An unidentified motorist summons police officers, who swim to the victims. They are fished out by a Safety Department patrol boat.
3) The boat drops the injured off at the Catalina landing, where they are picked up in ambulances.
* It is about 50 feet above the water.
* There is a sidewalk on the span, and pedestrian railings are three feet high.