10-24-2016  2:58 pm      •     
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Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies work the scene where four young children were fatally stabbed at the Greens of Irene apartment, Friday, July 1, 2016 in Memphis, Tenn. Four young children were stabbed to death in a gated apartment complex in suburban Memphis on Friday, and police took their mother into custody for questioning. (Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal via AP)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — A mother killed four of her children by cutting their throats and sheriff's deputies found a large butcher knife with what appeared to be blood on it in an apartment where the killings took place, according to court documents filed Saturday.

Shanynthia Gardner, 29, of Memphis, has been charged with four counts of first degree murder while committing aggravated child neglect in the deaths of her three daughters and one son — all under the age of 5.

Their bodies were found after deputies entered her apartment in a gated community in unincorporated Shelby County on Friday. Neighbors and friends of the family attended a vigil to honor the victims on Saturday.

Gardner also faces four counts of first degree murder while committing aggravated child abuse; four counts of aggravated child neglect or endangerment; and four counts of aggravated child abuse. She is being held without bond, with an arraignment scheduled Tuesday.

An affidavit filed in Shelby County court by a sheriff's detective identified the victims as 4-year-old Tallen Gardner; 3-year-old Sya Gardner; 2 year-old Sahvi Gardner; and 6-month old Yahzi Gardner. A fifth child, 7-year-old Dallen Clayton, fled the apartment and escaped the attack, the affidavit said. Dallen Clayton is Gardner's son from a previous marriage.

Gardner spoke by phone with her current husband, Martin Gardner, and acknowledged that she killed her children, the affidavit said. Attempts to reach him or relatives of the Gardners have been unsuccessful.

"This is a terrible act, an egregious act that has shocked, I believe, the community, and has shocked our staff to the core," Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham said Saturday.

Deputies were called to an apartment complex in unincorporated Shelby County on Friday afternoon. When they arrived at Shanynthia Gardner's apartment, they found her with superficial cuts to her neck and wrists, the affidavit said. Deputies also found four children with "severe lacerations to the throat," the document said.

Two children were found in the living room — Yahzi was in her baby carrier and Sya was lying next to the carrier. The other two victims were in a bedroom.

The affidavit said Dallen was able to escape the apartment and run up to a man, yelling that his mother had stabbed his sister.

The man told officers that he saw Shanynthia Gardner come outside with a large knife in her hand, then re-enter the residence.

Deputies found the knife in the apartment, the affidavit said.

Authorities have not divulged what circumstances they believe led to the killings. Oldham said investigators were trying to determine if Gardner has mental health problems.

About 30 people attended an outdoor candlelight vigil at the apartment complex on Saturday evening. They prayed for the four children, the surviving boy, and Shanynthia Gardner. A pastor poured water from a decanter onto the ground, in remembrance of the victims.

Sonya Clayton, Dallen Clayton's grandmother, said she had not seen the boy's mother for a few years. She said she was shocked by the attack.

"She was a sweet young lady," Clayton said of Shanynthia Gardner. "What happened, I don't understand."

Later, Sonya Clayton said she forgives her former daughter-in-law.

"I know this is the work of the devil," Sonya Clayton said. "I know this is not Shanynthia. And I pray and I love Shanynthia."

Sonya Clayton said her son, Detrail Clayton, has not seen Dallen since the stabbings. She said her son is not doing well, and he wants to see Dallen soon. Sheriff's officials say the boy has been under protective supervision.

Neighbor Sean Ahearn said he didn't know the family by name, but that he often saw the children playing in the front yard. They liked to pet his dog when he was taking it for a walk, he said.

"From what I saw, they were very open and friendly kids," he said. "You never imagine that this kind of thing could happen."

The state Department of Children's Service has offered its assistance to local law enforcement, but has no record of interaction with the slain children, said spokesman Rob Johnson.

"We've done an exhaustive search and we are not aware of any contact with this family," he said.

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