Saturday, February 17, 2018
Public safety

Woman arrested on child abuse charges after bizarre cutting and burning ritual

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 [email protected]

Comments

Pinellas Sheriff’s Office accuses 14-year-old of copycat Snapchat school threat

PINELLAS PARK — The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office late Saturday said detectives arrested a 14-year-old boy and accused him of posting a threat to a school on his Snapchat account.Edward Charles Osgood, who attends Lealman Innovation Academy, was a...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Man found dead in flaming mobile home

TAMPA — Firefighters found a man dead inside a burned-down mobile home Saturday.Tampa Fire Rescue got a call just after 4:30 p.m. that a single-wide mobile home at the 100 block of East Linebaugh Avenue was in flames.The man’s identity was not releas...
Updated: 7 hours ago
‘I’m going to watch you bleed’: Nikolas Cruz threatened ex’s new boyfriend, report says

‘I’m going to watch you bleed’: Nikolas Cruz threatened ex’s new boyfriend, report says

Warning: This story quotes graphic material.Before he killed 17 people at a South Florida high school, Nikolas Cruz repeatedly threatened an ex-classmate who had started dating his former girlfriend, according to a report in Buzzfeed News."I’m going ...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Police find dead man in Tampa apartment

TAMPA — Police found a dead man inside an apartment in the 5200 block of Sonora Court Friday after 3 p.m.Who the man is or how long he’s been dead is not yet clear, police said. The victim appears to have been killed in some sort of "homicidal violen...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Prosecutor: Death penalty was ‘designed’ for cases like Florida school shooting

Prosecutor: Death penalty was ‘designed’ for cases like Florida school shooting

The 17 counts of premeditated murder against Nikolas Cruz are the type of case "the death penalty was designed for," according to the Florida prosecutor in charge of trying the confessed school shooter.But Michael Satz, the longtime Broward state att...
Updated: 8 hours ago
Florida, angry and grieving, takes gun protest to streets

Florida, angry and grieving, takes gun protest to streets

PARKLAND, Fla. — Thousands of angry students, parents and residents demanded stricter gun control laws Saturday as new details were revealed about the suspect accused of shooting and killed 17 people in a Florida high school. The rally, held in downt...
Updated: 9 hours ago

Woman hit, killed Friday along Memorial Highway

TOWN ’N COUNTRY — A woman died after she was hit by a minivan along Memorial Highway on Friday night, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.The 53-year-old woman, whose identity was not released, was trying to cross Memorial Highway f...
Updated: 10 hours ago
White nationalist appears to disavow connection with shooter

White nationalist appears to disavow connection with shooter

PARKLAND, Fla. — A white nationalist appears to have lied to The Associated Press and other news organizations when he claimed that Florida school-shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz was a member of his obscure group.Law enforcement officials have said the...
Updated: 10 hours ago
How killer’s path through a school left 17 dead in six short minutes of terror

How killer’s path through a school left 17 dead in six short minutes of terror

It was Valentine’s Day across America.At an all-American high school in a green and placid Broward County suburb strung with waterways and golf-course communities, that innocent fact would take on dreadful significance well before the day was out.Bet...
Published: 02/17/18
Two students wounded by gunfire outside Tampa’s Middleton High campus

Two students wounded by gunfire outside Tampa’s Middleton High campus

TAMPA — With a nation in jitters over a South Florida school massacre, gunfire erupted a block from Tampa’s Middleton High School on Friday, prompting a reaction that had some students hiding behind locked doors.Two senior girls, ages 17 and 18, were...
Published: 02/16/18