EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — A mother who is under investigation for abandoning her two children in the Mojave Desert when her car ran out of gas has a history of psychiatric problems and has been accused many times of neglecting her children, authorities said Tuesday.
Jennifer Carpenter, 33, suffers from manic depression, for which she is required to take medication daily, said Sgt. Mike Lackey of the Kern County Sheriff's Department. If Carpenter is not properly medicated, Lackey said, she can become paranoid and delusional.
Sheriff's detectives investigating the incident in the desert seized Carpenter's medical records this month from the hospital at Edwards Air Force Base, where Carpenter lives with her husband, John, an Air Force staff sergeant.
The Carpenters are under investigation for child endangerment in connection with a Dec. 11 incident in which Jennifer Carpenter and the couple's two children ran out of gas in the high desert while looking for a difficult-to-find back entrance to the base.
Jennifer Carpenter allowed her daughter, Sarah, 13, to take off on her own in search of help. The girl walked for nearly 20 miles in subfreezing temperatures, through the night and into the next day, before she was discovered by a security guard near the NASA complex on the base. The next morning searchers found Jennifer Carpenter wandering about a mile from where she left her 22-month-old son, Eric, near the family car. Eric was suffering from hypothermia.
Both children were taken into custody by state Child Protective Services officials shortly after their desert ordeal ended on Dec. 13, Lackey said.
"They're both being taken care of while we sort things out," Lackey said. "We're in no rush."
Lackey said Jennifer Carpenter was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Antelope Valley Hospital for observation after the incident but has since been released.
"What we're trying to determine is her mental ability to understand right from wrong . . . and what is a dangerous situation from what is not," Lackey said.
Investigators also want to know why John Carpenter did not report his wife and children missing when they failed to return home as expected on the evening of Dec. 11.
Lackey said the past complaints of neglect involved allegations of unsanitary conditions at the home and failing to feed the children.
He said base social workers had intervened on several occasions and that military officials had issued an order instructing John Carpenter to make sure that his wife was not left alone with their children.
Lackey said the findings of the investigation, which could result in felony child endangerment charges against both parents, could be turned over to the district attorney's office as early as next week.
The Air Force is not conducting an investigation into the incident and Carpenter remains on active duty at the base, said Lt. Chris Hemrick, a base spokesman.