Were deputies heroes or bystanders as three teens drowned?
When three Florida teenagers drowned in a stolen car last month, deputies said they waded into the water to try and save them before they died.
But their families allege inconclusive camera footage is raising questions about the night the car sank in a Pinellas County swamp.
According to deputies, Dominique Battle, 16, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Laniya Miller, 15, stole a gold Honda Accord from a Pinellas County Walmart parking lot the night of March 30. Though the county sheriff’s rules forbid deputies from chasing stolen vehicles, some officers were trailing the car when the car plunged into a pond off a sharp turn in the road around 4 a.m. the next morning, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
After the crash, the sheriff’s office said deputies took off their equipment and tried to wade into the water to save the teens, before the darkness and thick swampy mud halted their path.
The three girls drowned in 15 feet of water before a wrecker eventually recovered the car two hours later.
After the sheriff’s office released several hours of dashboard footage to news outlets Monday, lawyers for the girls’ families raised questions about what happened, pointing to the presence of one deputy standing on the bank of the pond instead of wading into the water. The sheriff’s office released more footage on Facebook today to show other deputies took off some clothes and equipment to attempt a rescue.
In the just-released video, two deputies, one shirtless, walk past the hood of a car, “after they attempted to rescue the occupants of a stolen vehicle,” according to the video’s caption on YouTube. “Their rescue efforts were suspended due to the unsafe conditions.”
Before the sheriff’s office released more video online, a different one-and-a-half minute clip posted to YouTube Tuesday recorded a deputy saying he thinks he can hear yelling.
Another deputy responds in the clip, “They’re done. They’re done. They are 6-7, dude.”
“I thought I heard yelling,” the first says.
“As it was going down,” the other responds. “But now, they’re done. They’re done.”
St. Petersburg lawyer Will Anderson, who is representing the teens’ families along with attorney Michele Whitfield, told WFTS-TV that some of the footage suggested the sheriff’s original statements about the deputies’ actions were misleading.
He criticized the sheriff’s department for discussing the teens’ past records after their deaths, calling it “a smear campaign.” The group of teens had seven felony charges for auto theft the previous year.
Whitfield told the Tampa Bay Times that Miller’s mother “deserves answers.”
“There are inconsistencies that need to be addressed, and we're asking for those answers to come," she said.
Two of the girls’ mothers said Monday in a press conference that they would keep asking questions.
"All three of these girls were best friends. They all hung out together. They all took care of each other," said Battle's mother Yashica Clemmons, according to the Tampa Bay Times. "[I'm] going to get to the bottom of this."
But Sergeant Spencer Gross told McClatchy the full footage answers those questions, adding the earlier clip online does not include footage which shows some partially clothed officers after they tried to enter the pond and save the girls.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told McClatchy his department acted fully to save the teens, adding that the published video does not show the 15 deputies who eventually arrived on the scene.
Gualtieri said the families should stop promoting a “false narrative” about the sheriff’s office’s misconduct.
“I have sympathy for their families,” Gualtieri said. “They lost three young girls… But that doesn’t mean they or their lawyers have a right to disparage the deputies who were trying to rescue three kids.”