Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Public safety

Pepin Academy student slid to his death, surveillance footage shows

TEMPLE TERRACE — The rain stopped about 8:30 p.m. Friday, so lifeguards reopened the city pool for the private party held by Pepin Academy, a charter school for children with learning-related disabilities.

A DJ played music. Nearly 150 people either splashed in the pool or relaxed beside it. And 15-year-old Jessie Shillingford, a sophomore with a mild case of autism who played the xylophone and danced in church aisles, climbed a slide and careened into the deep end.

He struggled after he hit the water, as he tried to paddle toward the wall. Two minutes later, a surveillance camera later showed, he sank.

Nobody realized Jessie was underwater until five minutes later, when another child saw his body on the pool bottom, 12 feet below, according to Temple Terrace police and the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office.

Jessie remained on life support at Florida Hospital until Tuesday morning. In its initial findings, the Medical Examiner's Office ruled the drowning death an accident. Police say they found no evidence of a crime — no foul play or criminal negligence — and closed their case.

"He looks like he's just playing in the pool, like everybody else," said Michael Dunn, spokesman for the police, which reviewed the surveillance footage.

Jessie's parents, Lucille and Skelford Shillingford, said Wednesday that Jessie did not know how to swim. They were not at the pool party but said they felt comfortable because they say the school also knew he couldn't swim. They said he'd been at pools before and had always stayed in the shallow end.

The Shillingfords — he's a school custodian and she's an office worker — declined to speak in detail about their son's death, saying they were seeking legal advice. In addition to autism, he'd been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to the medical examiner's report.

Pepin Academy's public relations director, Crisha Scolaro, declined to comment on the incident.

Three lifeguards were on duty Friday and tried to revive Jessie after recovering his body, said Dunn.

Jessie's family describes him as a teenager who was bored by nothing — not his algebra class, not church, not even his morning routine catching the bus to Pepin. He had completed a training program on using Hills­borough Transit Authority's bus system. His framed certificate hangs on the wall of his family's home.

He rose before 5 o'clock on weekdays. He toasted a Pop-Tart, traipsed around the house, then walked to a bus stop on 78th Street. He sat in his seat, hands and thoughts to himself. He got off at a downtown stop and waited for his transfer. If it hadn't arrived, he'd pull out his cellphone.

"He'd say, 'Mom, this is Jessie,' " Lucille Shillingford recalled Wednesday. " 'The bus is not here. It's not here. Wait, it's here.' "

He was making A's at Pepin, which he had attended for two years, and his family said he wanted to be a doctor. On school days, Jessie came home from school, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and tackled his homework, his family said. He kneeled by his bed and used the mattress as his desk.

Over at New Testament Worship Center, a nondenominational church in East Tampa, Jessie insisted on sitting in the second or third row every Sunday, next to his parents and his 17-year-old sister, Amy, said Pastor Deborah Comellas. He jumped and clapped and danced when the church band played.

Comellas said that she could tell Jessie had some level of disability but that she never knew he was autistic until after his death.

"That young man, he lit up the room," Comellas said. "He was just so conscious of the presence of the Lord, and unconscious of the people around him."

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