Families of three St. Petersburg girls who drowned in pond plan to sue Pinellas County Sheriff's Office

Their lawyers say the Sheriff's Office is responsible for their deaths in a stolen car.

Published March 31 2017
Updated April 1 2017

LARGO — One year after authorities said three teenage girls drove a stolen car into a cemetery pond and drowned, lawyers for their mothers announced that they still plan to sue the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

"We are going to fight, fight, fight," Kunde Mwamvita, the mother of Dominique Battle, said Friday, the one-year anniversary of her daughter's death. "Fight for justice, until justice is served."

The lawyers, Michele Whitfield and Aaron T. O'Neal, said the lawsuit will allege the Sheriff's Office is responsible for the wrongful deaths of the teens.

Dominique, 16, and Ashaunti Butler and Laniya Miller, both 15, died on March 31, 2016 when the gold Honda Accord they were driving plunged into a cemetery pond near Gandy Boulevard. The Sheriff's Office said they were fleeing deputies who had tried to pull them over.

READ: Three teenage girls dead after stolen car plunges into St. Petersburg pond

 

O'Neal and Whitfield on Friday released a copy of a notice of intent to sue dated that day, March 31. After receiving it, the sheriff will have six months to respond before a lawsuit can be officially filed.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said there are no grounds for a lawsuit.

"If they had any factual or legal basis for a claim against us," the sheriff said, "they wouldn't have waited a year to bring it."

The lawyers said deputies chased the girls down a narrow road into the cemetery, then watched in the dark as the car sank below the surface of the pond, clotted with weeds.

"They corralled them into a dead zone," said Whitfield, who said she is representing the families of Ashaunti and Laniya.

Deputies, however, said they did not pursue the stolen car after it drove off at high speeds. The Sheriff's Office prohibits deputies from chasing vehicles unless they believe it to be linked to a violent felony.

The girls' deaths drew national scrutiny as people questioned whether deputies could have jumped into the pond to save them. Three of the first responders said they took off their uniforms and tried to wade into the water but turned back when they hit heavy muck.

A Sheriff's Office helicopter overhead that night was not equipped with a video camera. Several cruisers responded, but some were not equipped with dashboard cameras. The recordings that do exist show at least one deputy in wet clothes but not anyone entering or exiting the pond.

Over the past year, the Tampa Bay Times has reviewed all of the camera footage and read hundreds of pages of police reports and could not determine if deputies actually entered the pond or whether the girls could have been saved. None of the dashboard videos showed a high-speed pursuit took place.

O'Neal, who is representing Mwamvita, said deputies "didn't do anything to save the girls."

"If this was three white girls, they would have went into that pond," he said.

The sheriff said deputies should not need video footage to back-up their account of what happened.

"I maintain that nobody within the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office did anything wrong," Gualtieri said.

After the girls' deaths, the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement rallied around the girls' mothers, particularly Mwamvita, formerly known as Yashica Clemmons. They organized many of her public appearances and were present at the news conference Friday outside the Pinellas County Justice Center.

Gualtieri said the effort is a publicity grab for the Uhurus' revolutionary platform.

"This is nothing but a bunch of self-serving rhetoric with a false narrative," he said. "They are grasping for straws for their own reason. And it's unfortunate that they use the anniversary of these three girls' deaths to promote their own anti-law enforcement interests."

The morning after the crash, the sheriff highlighted the three girls as an example of what he called a juvenile auto theft epidemic in Pinellas County that needed to be stopped. Between them, the girls had racked up seven grand theft auto arrests.

In the year since the girls died, teens continue to steal cars and drive recklessly across the region.

Mwamvita and Ciara Butler, mother of Ashaunti, remembered their daughters on Friday as free-spirited and happy, with full lives ahead of them. They clutched flowers, tears streaking their cheeks, on a narrow sidewalk filled with news cameras.

It has been a difficult year, Mwamvita said, without her daughter Dominique: "You shop for clothes for your other kids, but you can't buy anything for her."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

       
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