ST. PETERSBURG — Danielle Harkins told the kids they needed to rid their bodies of demons as the group gathered before dusk Saturday around a small fire near the St. Petersburg Pier. They should cut their skin to let the evil spirits out, police said she told the children. Then, they needed to burn the wounds to ensure that those spirits would not return.
Some kids got cut, police said. Some kids got burned. Harkins got arrested.
Harkins, 35, a literacy teacher at Lealman and Asian Neighborhood Family Center, was booked in jail Tuesday morning on child abuse charges in connection with the bizarre ritual. She was held in jail Tuesday night on $55,000 bail.
Police said the ritual was attended by seven teenagers, all of Asian ethnic background, whom Harkins had taught a few years ago in her job at the center. At least two were injured, police said.
"Obviously, it's very strange," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz. "The motivations for the ritual are very unknown to us."
None of the teens told their parents about the incident. Police investigated after one of the teens, a 16-year-old boy, sent a text message about the incident to a friend. The friend told the boy's parents, who notified police.
In interviews with detectives, the teens were reluctant to talk about the ritual beyond the basic facts of what happened. They did reveal a few things.
When Harkins held a lighter to one teen's hand, wind blew the flame out, police said. That prompted her to douse his hand in perfume before setting it on fire. The boy suffered second-degree burns, police said.
Another teen was cut on the neck with a broken bottle, police said. Harkins used a flame to heat a small key, which she then used to cauterize the wound.
Steven Chanthalima, 17, one of the teens who attended the gathering, declined Tuesday evening to discuss what happened.
"I'm okay," he said. "I'm fine. All I know is she's in custody."
Harkins was suspended without pay from her job at the family center, where she has worked for about 4½ years, said Carolyn Chance, the center's administrator.
"We had no suspicion of any of this," Chance said. "We do everything we can to know our employees."
None of the teens was currently taking part in any of the center's programs, Chance said. As a literacy specialist, Harkins taught reading and writing skills to the center's clients.
Though the motives behind the ritual remain unclear, court records and those who know Harkins offer a few clues.
Harkins recently divorced her husband, George. They had two children, a 4-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son.
Records show that Harkins was the defendant in a sexual violence injunction that was dismissed in January. In August, she filed a domestic violence injunction against her husband, which was also dismissed.
The divorce was finalized June 1. About a month before, Harkins began acting strangely.
Lisa Cope, Harkins' next-door neighbor for the past four years, said the last time she saw her, Harkins had taken an interest in extreme religious beliefs.
"She was my friend," Cope said. "She cried on my shoulder when she and her husband were getting a divorce."
Cope didn't know what to make of her neighbor's newfound religious interest.
"She told me I was okay," Cope said. "She said I didn't have any demons."
In the past few days, Harkins disappeared. Cope picked up her mail. She phoned George Harkins and learned that the couple's children were fine. On Tuesday, she saw the story on the news.
"I don't know where she got the whole demon idea," she said. "Who knows what makes people think those things?"
Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.