EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. (AP) – By all accounts, Tiffany Hall and Jimella Tunstall were like sisters, survivors in this place defined by crime, poverty, crumbling buildings and potholed roads.

The two were quiet loners who gravitated toward each other at school. They both became teenage mothers. Years later with two children of her own, according to media reports, Hall baby-sat Tunstall’s three kids.

With numbing grief, both families are trying to fathom how things went so horrifically wrong.

Hall, 24, is jailed on $5 million bond, accused on Saturday of killing 23-year-old Tunstall and the fetus that authorities say was cut from her womb, perhaps with scissors.

Later Saturday, a furious two-day search for Tunstall’s missing children – ages 7, 2 and 1 – ended with another grisly discovery: Authorities found the children’s decomposing bodies stuffed in the washer and dryer at the apartment they shared with their mother.

“At least they’re at peace with their mom,” LaDonna Tunstall, the slain woman’s stepmother, told the Belleville News-Democrat.

As for Hall, she added, “God is going to have to deal with her.”

Hall hasn’t been charged in the children’s deaths, which preliminary autopsy findings Sunday suggested were caused by drowning, deputy St. Clair County coroner Ace Hart said. While in custody, Hart says, Hall told investigators she killed the children at another location, then hauled them home and hid them in the washer and dryer.

As authorities wait for toxicology tests that would show if the children were drugged or poisoned, investigators were tracing back over a 10-day stretch that appeared to get darker by the second.

Refusing to discuss a motive, prosecutors say Hall killed Tunstall, who was seven months pregnant, on or about Sept. 15.

Later that night, Hart says, Hall summoned authorities to the Frank Holten State Park where police found her with a dead baby she claims she delivered stillborn.

Hall and the baby were taken to a hospital, where she refused to let doctors examine her and gave conflicting accounts of why she went into labor, alternately saying she had consensual sex and was raped, Hart says.

The baby girl showed no signs of trauma and an autopsy the next day failed to pinpoint a cause of death.

“We didn’t even figure it was a homicide,” Hart said.

When the funeral for the baby, who was buried as Taylor Horn, took place six days later, the mortuary’s director found Hall acting strangely. Just minutes before the service, Levi King says, Hall called to ask if she could reschedule for a different day so more family could attend.

Hall turned up two hours late.

“That’s never happened before,” King says.

Then during the service, Police Chief James Mister says, the woman confided in her boyfriend – a sailor home on leave – that the child belonged to a pregnant woman she said she killed. The boyfriend told police, who arrested Hall hours later.

By that time, authorities already had found Tunstall’s body in a weedy lot just blocks from the sprawling state park where Hall had summoned police six days earlier. Near the body were scissors Hart suspects were used to carve out the woman’s fetus.

In his nearly quarter century in the coroner’s business, Hart says he’d seen it all around this city where violent crime typically dominates the headlines. But this carnage, he admits, “was very graphic and very brutal.”

It got worse.

By the next morning, investigators were imploring the media and public to help find Tunstall’s three children, who they said were last seen four days earlier with Hall.

Dozens of law enforcers and volunteers converged on the state park in a frantic search by horseback, foot, air and boat. Everything, including cadaver dogs, proved fruitless.

On Saturday, searchers rechecked the overgrown plot where Tunstall was found dead, thinking maybe they overlooked something. They scoured other sites around town, only to come away empty-handed.

All the while, neighbors said Sunday, there was little activity around Tunstall’s apartment, where Tasha McCray, a frequent visitor, says the woman seldom mingled and routinely sat outside on a red plastic crate to watch DeMond walk to his school bus stop.

By Saturday, investigators remained upbeat DeMond had many more school days ahead of him, along with his siblings. Illinois State Police Capt. Craig Koehler told reporters “we have no evidence that leads us to believe they’re dead.”

Little did investigators know they’d already brushed past the kids.

Hart says investigators on Friday had been inside Tunstall’s apartment 28J at the John DeShields public housing complex to get photographs of the missing children for media outlets to publicize during the search.

Authorities found nothing unusual and left, only to return on Saturday night when Hall “‘fessed up where the kids were,” Hart says. Inside the closed apartment, the pungent stench of death greeted them.

Police found 7-year-old DeMond Tunstall’s body – 4 feet tall, 55 pounds – in the dryer. The other two children – 2-year-old Ivan Tunstall-Collins and 1-year-old Jinela Tunstall – were lifeless in the washer. Two of the children were nude, the third wearing only underpants.

Hart can’t fault anyone for not finding the children during their previous visit.

“Who would be looking in the washer and dryer?” he says.

One by one, coroner Rick Stone declared each child dead a minute apart. Hart had the grim chore of pulling each from the appliance, softly laying them on the floor and zipping them into separate body bags.

The outcome rattled Koehler.

“Any time you have three deceased children, it’s a very emotional time,” the state police investigator said, his eyes misting. “All these investigators have worked tirelessly with one outcome in mind – to find these children alive.”

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