NEWBURGH, N.Y. – Lashanda Armstrong faced mounting struggles long before she herded her four children into her car and barreled 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 – ages 11 months to 5 years – dead in their minivan in 8 feet of water and her oldest child, La’Shaun, 10, staggering from the river in search of help. 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 about 70 miles north of Manhattan.
“We’re talking about a tragedy in this city … probably second to none,” Newburgh Mayor Nicholas Valentine said.
It was 7:50 p.m. Tuesday when La’Shaun Armstrong arrived at a fire station up the hill from where his family had just drowned.
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 25 yards from shore, where investigators recovered it about an hour later. 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.
“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 7:45 p.m. 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 7:43 p.m. 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 neighbors 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.
Christine Santos, who said she knew the couple well, described Armstrong as overwhelmed by having to raise four children alone.
A supervisor at the day-care center where Armstrong’s children spent time had described her as under immense stress when she arrived to pick them up 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.”