ST. PETERSBURG — Laniya Miller came here two years ago for a fresh start.
The teenager had been living with her father in Wisconsin, where she was born and raised. She was smart, able to handle honors classes, said her grandmother Kristine Hayes, but the girl wasn't listening to her dad and was playing hooky from school.
"I said give her to me," Hayes, 53, said. "I'll take her."
So Laniya came to live in St. Petersburg with her mother and Hayes. The girl was kind and sweet with a bright smile who dreamed of becoming an attorney, family said, but she was still making bad choices. She wasn't regularly attending Gibbs High School and was arrested on an auto theft charge last year.
The 15-year-old made one of her last decisions Wednesday night with two teenage friends, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Dominique Battle, 16, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. They stole a Honda Accord from a man who had given them a ride and, seven hours later, refused to stop for deputies when they were spotted Thursday in Clearwater.
With deputies following, the Honda plunged into a weed-choked pond on the grounds of a St. Petersburg cemetery around 4 a.m. Thursday. Deputies couldn't reach the car and it sank and filled with water. The girls drowned inside.
On Friday, Laniya's uncle Jeffrey Miller said the family grieved the loss of a life cut short. they were also angered by the release of the girls' mug shots and the reaction of online commentators.
"I'm not saying what she did was right (but) this portrayal isn't fair to her," Miller said. "She was a child. A lot of people loved her. A lot of people miss her. Like any child, she had her growing pains. All children rebel and make questionable decisions.
"Show me a child who's perfect and I'll show you a good actor."
Laniya had just that one 2015 arrest. Her companions had multiple arrests on burglary and grand theft motor vehicle charges. Dominique attended St. Petersburg High School, while Ashaunti went to Dixie Hollins High School. Their families declined to comment Friday.
Ashaunti was getting help from the nonprofit Eckerd Kids and had entered the foster care system on Wednesday. She was placed with her grandmother, said Eckerd Kids spokeswoman Terri Durdaller. But that same day, the teen ran away from her new home.
"Our agency was working diligently to locate the missing teen while she was on the run," Durdaller said in a statement. "We are saddened by the tragic fate of these young women."
Laniya, also known as 'Niya by her family, was away from home for three days but briefly returned Wednesday, Hayes said.
"I said, 'Why haven't you been here, why haven't you called?" the grandmother told her. " 'Niya, don't you know you can't be out here like this? You need to check in.'"
But then the girl was gone again.
Wednesday evening, deputies said the girls asked a stranger for a ride to Childs Park. The driver stopped around 8:30 p.m. at a Walmart at 22nd Street S. He left the girls in the Honda with the keys, deputies said. When he came out, the girls and his car were gone.
A sheriff's sergeant spotted the Honda driving without its headlights in Clearwater about 3:30 a.m. The driver didn't stop when the sergeant turned on his emergency lights, the Sheriff's Office said. When the Honda entered the Royal Palm North Cemetery on Gandy Boulevard near Interstate 275, deputies were following but without using their emergency lights.
When they reached a bend in the narrow cemetery road, the Honda accelerated straight into the pond. Deputies believe the driver was trying to reach the interstate, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, and didn't see the pond in the dark.
Deputies don't know which girl was driving when the car plunged into the water.
Hayes said she was confident it wasn't her granddaughter, Laniya.
"She said, 'Granny, I promise I ain't gonna drive,' " Hayes said. "I told her, don't mess up, you have days before you get your license. I'll teach you and we'll drive together all day."
Miller, the girl's uncle, asked why deputies didn't use their emergency lights in the cemetery.
"Had they turned on their emergency lights sooner and stopped this vehicle from going into the pond," Miller said, "these girls would still be alive."
Gualtieri called that "naive." He noted the driver had already refused to stop for a sheriff's cruiser using its emergency lights, ran two red lights and appeared to be trying to flee before plunging into the pond..
"I understand the pain and the agony that the families are going through and I empathize with their situation," Gualtieri said. "They're grasping at straws to try to reconcile this and figure this out, maybe even going through some self-reflection on what they could have done or should have done to keep their 15-year-old daughter from being out at 4 a.m. and stealing cars and engaging in crime.
"Lights or no lights," the sheriff said, "whoever was driving that car didn't want to stop."
Times staff writer Laura C. Morel and Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.