Friday, November 24, 2017
Public safety

Dash cam video of stolen car crash that killed three girls raises questions on social media regarding Pinellas Sheriff's Office actions (w/video)

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A portion of a dash cam video from the March 31 crash that killed three teenage girls who were in a stolen car as it sank into a pond circulated on social media Friday, prompting questions about whether Pinellas Sheriff's deputies did enough to rescue them.

Earlier this week, the Sheriff's Office released its investigation report and several dash cam videos from the crash.

One segment of the video showed a few deputies at the scene talking about the submerged Honda Accord as they stood a few feet from the pond.

"It's going all the way down. It's almost fully submerged," one deputy says. "I hear them yelling, I think!"

"They're done. They're done. They are sig 7, dude."

"Sig 7" refers to signal 7, a radio code for "dead person."

"Did you hear yelling? I thought I heard yelling as it was going down," a deputy said.

The video was under scrutiny Friday by several online media sources that say the deputies did nothing to rescue the girls. But Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has maintained that his deputies tried to get in the water, but couldn't due to the muddy conditions.

The dash cam footage does not show deputies conducting rescue attempts or capture any conversations about rescue efforts. It does show some deputies, without uniforms or belts on, heading to and from the water.

The Sheriff's Office posted that video clip to its Facebook page Friday.

"It's a bunch of junk," the sheriff said Friday of the allegations. "Those deputies went in that water and tried to save those girls at their own peril."

The Sheriff's investigative reports indicate that deputies tried to reach the car. Deputy Jeff Clement wrote in his report: "Myself and other deputies began to enter the swampy water... the fact that the vehicle was still moving, along with the unstable ground and excessive water vegetation, made a rescue too risky for those involved."

Michele Whitfield, an attorney representing the family of two of the girls, said the video shows "there's more questions that need to be answered."

"I just feel like at this point, the Sheriff is giving an appearance of transparency," she said. "There's still some documents that I am waiting for."

According to Gualtieri's statements and reports released earlier this week, the girls, Laniya Miller, 15, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Dominique Battle, 16, had asked a 36-year-old man for a ride to Childs Park on the night of March 30. When he stopped at a Walmart in St. Petersburg, leaving the Accord running, the teens drove off in the car, records show.

About 3:30 a.m. March 31, a sheriff's sergeant saw the Honda with its headlights off as it headed east on Sunset Point Road in Clearwater, west of U.S. 19. The sergeant tried to stop the car, but it continued south.

Another Pinellas sergeant spotted the car later and determined it was stolen in St. Petersburg. Deputies followed the car from a distance. Under Sheriff's Office policy, deputies cannot pursue stolen cars.

The Honda eventually headed toward the Royal Palm North Cemetery off Gandy Boulevard, a dead end. At a sharp bend in the road about 4 a.m., the car stayed on a straight course and went into a pond.

Within five minutes, the Honda submerged in about 15 feet of water.

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] Follow @lauracmorel.

 
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