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Overwhelmed and so alone: LaShanda’s lethal choice
April 14, 2011 – 4:20PM

LaShanda Armstrong deliberately drove a van carrying all four of her children into the Hudson River. Only one child survived.

LaShanda Armstrong faced mounting struggles long before she herded her four children into her car and barrelled through the streets of Newburgh into the fast-moving Hudson River.

She had her first child at 15. Three more followed, and by the age of 25, Armstrong found herself locked into life on a dodgy street in a dismal city, and in a troubled relationship.

On Tuesday night, Armstrong’s seemingly senseless drive left her and her three youngest children – aged 11 months to five years – dead in their minivan in less than three metres of water and her oldest child, La’Shaun, 10, staggering from the river in search of help.

The ramp Lashanda Armstrong drove her minivan off.

The ramp Lashanda Armstrong drove her minivan off. Photo: AP

Soaking, shivering and barely able to speak, he reached a nearby fire station and blurted out a story that has confounded Newburgh, a hardscrabble city of 28,000 a little over 100 kilometres north of Manhattan.

“We’re talking about a tragedy in this city … probably second to none,” Newburgh mayor Nicholas Valentine said.

It was 7.50pm on Tuesday when La’Shaun Armstrong arrived at a fire station up the hill from where his family had just drowned.
Christine Santos, a family friend of LaShanda Armstrong, takes a moment in front of the family’s home in Newburgh.

Christine Santos, a family friend of LaShanda Armstrong, takes a moment in front of the family’s home in Newburgh. Photo: AP

“He was obviously very shaken up, having a very difficult time trying to explain what happened,” Fire Chief Michael Vatter said.

“He was soaking wet … probably suffering a little hypothermia at that point.”

La’Shaun had apparently managed to lower the power window next to his mother and clamber over her and out of the vehicle before it sank into the frigid water and drifted some 20 metres from shore, where investigators recovered it about an hour later.
Christine Santos can’t believe what’s happened.

Christine Santos can’t believe what’s happened. Photo: AP

Everyone inside was dead, in a case that revived memories of Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who in 1994 strapped her two sons into her car and rolled it into a lake.

Last month, a one-year-old girl was killed in a fire that gutted the house across the narrow, cobblestoned street from Armstrong’s home.

Candles and stuffed animals left in front of that home were still visible on Wednesday even as a new shrine formed for the children and their mother.
Angela Gilliam (L), aunt of Lashanda Armstrong, holds a vigil.

Angela Gilliam (L), aunt of Lashanda Armstrong, holds a vigil. Photo: AP

“Strange things happen,” said Sam Simpson, a Newburgh native who spent the morning at the dockside watching a growing mound of stuffed animals, flowers and candles.

Residents lamented the circumstances that permitted a large vehicle to go unnoticed into the water at the relatively early hour of about 7.45pm.

A popular dockside bar and restaurant, Gully’s, was closed for renovations, leaving the area deserted.

“If that place were open, somebody would have dived right into the water,” Simpson said.

The first call to police came about 7.43pm from a relative who had been on the phone with Armstrong and reported hearing “tussling” in the background.

But the house, located just blocks from the police station, was empty when officers arrived.

In less than 10 minutes, Armstrong had put the children in the car and driven less than a mile down a hill, past a school and a graveyard, over railroad tracks and into the river.

In addition to Armstrong, the dead were Landen, 5; Lance, 2; and Lainaina, 11 months.

“You don’t know what was on that lady’s mind, what she went through,” said Andrea Burks, who lives up the street from Armstrong.

She and other neighbours said the slender and carefully coiffed Armstrong had moved to the area about a year ago to be with Jean Pierre, the father of the three youngest children.

But the relationship was difficult, they said, and Pierre did not live with Armstrong.

Police said they had questioned Pierre but gave no details about his whereabouts.

Neighbours said Armstrong took community college classes while holding down a job and caring for her family.

Christine Santos, who said she knew the couple well, described Armstrong as overwhelmed by having to raise four children alone, and fed up with her predicament.

“She was depressed,” Santos said angrily as locals gathered outside the two-storey building, on a block of small rowhouses, empty lots and churches.

The Associated Press reported that a supervisor at the day-care centre where Armstrong’s children spent time had described her as under immense stress when she arrived to pick them up on Tuesday.

“The only thing she’d say was that she was so alone,” Shaniesha Strange said.

“She’s a single parent. She takes great care of her kids, goes to school and works. She really needed a helping hand.”

At the Pathway to Salvation Mission of God church, Carmen Davila said La’Shaun and his five-year-old brother were regulars and that each morning, Armstrong would leave for work or school after dropping them off and usually not return until about 10 pm.

“Sometimes she’d be holding the baby on her hip, and one child in each hand and trying to walk with her groceries … and she’d drop the diapers or something on the ground,” Davila said.

“She couldn’t handle everything at once.”

Armstrong had moved from New Jersey to Newburgh, whose location in the bucolic Hudson River Valley belies its grim reputation.

Last year, hundreds of FBI agents swarmed Newburgh in raids aimed at quelling gang activity that has sent the crime rate soaring.

Two years ago, federal agents arrested four Newburgh men who were charged with plotting to blow up Jewish centres in New York City.

“The older you get, the worse it seems to get,” said Yvonne Smith, a Newburgh native who lives near the Armstrong home. “I feel sorry for Newburgh.”

Los Angeles Times

* Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline 131 114, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800

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