ATLANTA — For nine days, Susan Smith's story never changed: A gunman had taken her children.
There was no ransom demand and no suspects. The police didn't even have a crime scene to search--the gunman took it with him. Smith said he had driven off into the night in her car with the toddlers--Michael, 3, and Alexander, 14 months--crying in the back seat, leaving her screaming after them in the middle of the road.
Smith stuck by her story even when a nationwide search for the car turned up nothing but false leads. Her hometown of Union, S.C.--and much of the nation--stood by her, despite unconfirmed rumors that she had failed lie detector tests. Everyone was touched by the frightful poignancy of the two missing boys.
It was every parent's nightmare. On Thursday it became a nightmare of a different sort. Smith, 23, was arrested and charged with two counts of murder. The warrant showed she had confessed to killing her sons. The warrant also stated that the children died Oct. 25, the day Smith reported them abducted.
"The vehicle, a 1990 Mazda driven by Smith, was located late Thursday afternoon in Lake John D. Long near Union," Union County Sheriff Howard Wells said in a brief statement to an estimated 300 reporters and spectators crowded outside sheriff's headquarters. "Two bodies were found in the vehicle's back seat."
A startled gasp went up from the crowd when he said Smith had been arrested.
Identification of the bodies would have to await an autopsy. Smith is to be arraigned today. Wells said she was incarcerated in an undisclosed location. After he made his statement, the sheriff strode away from the microphones, refusing to answer questions.
He did not discuss a motive or say how authorities were led to the car. Hundreds of volunteers from the small town combed the area. Divers had searched the lake several times during the last few days, but the water was too murky to see the car. It was pulled out of the water Thursday night.
For nine days the tragedy--thanks to thorough coverage by television--had held much of the nation transfixed. Reports of possible sightings of the boys came from as far away as Seattle.
In Union County, yellow ribbons in support of the missing children could be found everywhere. Prayer vigils have been held and hundreds of volunteers have combed the area looking for the boys. A composite drawing of the phantom gunman was circulated.
Even as late as Thursday afternoon, shortly before unconfirmed reports were broadcast on a Spartanburg, S.C., television station that Smith had confessed, law enforcement officials still were following up every lead. Police searched a cemetery and a lake in Macon, Ga., after receiving reports of a sighting in the area.
Hours earlier, Smith had appeared on national television with her estranged husband to plead for her boys' return, proclaim her innocence and express hurt that anyone would suspect her of lying.
"It hurts to know that I would be accused or even thought that I would ever do anything to harm my children," Smith said on NBC's "Today" show while clasping the hand of David Smith, 24.
On Wednesday, police had searched Susan Smith's house. What evidence they found, if any, has not been disclosed.
The melodrama began on the night of Oct. 25, when Smith told authorities that a black man had jumped into her car at an intersection. Sticking a gun in her ribs, he ordered her to drive for several miles, then made her get out of the car near the entrance of John D. Long Lake, she said.
She begged him not to take the children, she said, but he wouldn't give her time to remove them from their safety seats. "I'll take care of them," she said he told her. She said she ran to a nearby house and asked the residents to call the police.
The unraveling of her story bears similarities to a 1989 case in Boston in which Charles Stuart, a white man, told police that a black man had shot his pregnant wife to death. The case inflamed racial tensions. Stuart later plunged to his death from a bridge as investigators zeroed in on him as the killer.
Some people in Union County had begun to speculate that the boys' kidnaping was a hoax, perhaps stemming from a dispute between Susan and David Smith over custody. The couple filed for divorce in September.
Police had said earlier this week that Mitch Sinclair, a friend Susan Smith had been going to visit on the night that the children disappeared, was not a suspect.
In a press conference earlier this week, the Smiths appeared together to plead for prayers and information that might lead to the recovery of the boys.
"Our lives have been torn apart by this tragic event," Susan Smith said. "I can't express how much they are wanted back home."
Alex and Michael's great-grandmother expressed shock at the day's events Thursday.
"I just couldn't imagine that Susan would do that. She always seemed to be such a devoted mother," Sara Singleton said in an interview with KNBC-TV from the Sylmar area of Los Angeles.
"Is there ever an explanation for murder?" Singleton asked. "Two little innocent children? There is no explanation for murder."