Two days before police say 4-year-old Je’Hyrah Daniels’ mother dragged the screaming girl into the Hillsborough River and left her to die, child welfare investigators determined the girl was in “no impending danger.”
An investigation of allegations that the woman was not properly supervising the girl was closed, and Je’Hyrah was listed as “safe.” Also, the investigator described her mother, Shakayla Denson, as “a loving and involved parent,” according to the reports.
But a child safe while in the care of a loving mother is not what witnesses along the Hillsborough River on Thursday described for police.
They told officers Denson came out of the river and walked off chanting to herself, while Je’Hyrah flailed her arms in the air as her head came up before going under water.
Tampa police divers arrived and were in the water searching within 16 minutes. But it would prove too late.
When Je’Hyrah was pulled from the water, she was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital but was pronounced dead less than an hour after being left in the dark waters of the river.
Denson, 26, was charged with murder, aggravated child abuse and grand theft of a motor vehicle. She was booked into the Hillsborough County jail late Thursday and is being held without bond.
The chaos started at 3:09 p.m. Thursday when Denson stole a gray Nissan Altima from Jordan Auto Repair, 5604 N. 40th St, according to police.
“Things just unraveled from there,” Police Chief Brian Dugan said during a news conference Friday morning. “Witnesses say they observed her forcibly push a child into the backseat of the car. One witness attempted to intervene and was struck by the car as she fled the scene.”
Denson drove the stolen car to the river and parked on Rome Avenue just north of West Aileen Street, where witnesses watched as she forcibly took Je’Hyrah out of the car.
“She started dragging Je’Hyrah by the arm and heads toward the Hillsborough River,” Dugan said. “Witnesses report that the child was screaming and at one time, both the child and the mother were screaming.”
Denson grabbed the girl with both arms, pulled her close to her chest as she waded into the water, continuing until the water was near the top of her shoulders and then let Je’Hyrah go, witnesses said. She then turned around toward the river bank and walked south down Rome Avenue.
By about 4 p.m., Tampa police had received multiple calls reporting that a woman had thrown a child into the river just north of the Columbus Drive Bridge. Officers rushed to the scene and by 4:16 p.m. Tampa police divers had began searching for Je’Hyrah.
At about 4:30 p.m., a diver pulled the 4-year-old girl out of the river about 75 feet from the bank not far from where her mother tossed her in, police said.
Je’Hyrah was rushed to St. Joseph’s, but she was pronounced dead at 4:49 p.m.
Just after 5 p.m., police found Denson walking in the 2300 block of North Oregon Avenue — less than a mile from the scene — and she was taken into custody.
Dugan said that when he walked up to the diver who had pulled Je’Hyrah out of the river, he asked how old the officer thought she was.
“He looked at me and said, ‘She’s the same age as my child,’ ” Dugan said.
Je’Hyrah’s death will also be investigated by the Florida Department of Children and Families.
“I am horrified and disgusted that a mother would do this to an innocent child,” DCF Secretary Secretary Mike Carroll said in a statement issued to news outlets. “DCF will work closely with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s child protective investigative unit to hold Je’Hyrah’s mother fully accountable for her actions under the law.”
On Tuesday, DCF had closed its investigation of allegations that the 4-year-old girl was not being adequately supervised.
Like Manatee County and a handful of other counties in Florida, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office handles child welfare investigations for DCF. On Friday the sheriff’s office disclosed the investigation and said there had been no indications that Je’Hyrah was maltreated, abused or neglected.
“In light of this incident, we conducted an additional review of the case and concur with the original findings,” spokesman Danny Alvarez stated in a news release. “Our hearts hurt for the loss of Je’Hyrah Daniels. As an office made up of deputies and civilians who are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters before anything else, we send our deepest condolences for the tragic loss of this young child.”
On June 19, the DCF child abuse hotline received a report against Denson reporting concerns that she was unable to supervise her daughter. The caller said Je’Hyrah was with Denson while visiting her great-grandmother when the girl managed to walk out of the house and go to a park about a six-minute walk from the house.
Police were never called and Je’Hyrah’s grandmother and great-grandmother went to the park to find the girl, according to the intake report.
“The mother seems overwhelmed and tired with caring for Je’Hyrah,” the report stated.
Je’Hyrah had a disability and was nonverbal, according to the report, and the single mother seemed upset by it because she was not the child she dreamed of having. The situation appeared to be exacerbated by the fact Je’Hyrah was out of school for the summer, according to the report.
But after visiting her home and interviewing Denson, her family and neighbors, a child protective investigator had no concerns for Je’Hyrah’s well-being.
“Ms. Denson appears to function appropriately as an adult and is able to provide for the child,” an investigator wrote in the Family Functioning Assessment. “She does receive a lot of support from her family and has no history of acting violently or impulsively.”