LARGO — Five teenage girls say they were walking home Tuesday afternoon after visiting a neighbor’s condo pool when deputies pulled up.
Four of the girls ended up in handcuffs.
Now they and their parents are complaining about how the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office escalated the situation.
Sheriff’s officials say the girls set off the confrontation by ignoring deputies’ commands to stop and answer questions, then physically resisted attempts to keep them from leaving. The girls say they were confused by the deputies’ actions and tried to get a parent involved, then panicked when they were forcefully detained.
Deputies arrested four of the girls — three Black girls and a Hispanic girl — and had one of them, a 14-year-old, involuntarily committed for a mental health evaluation under the Baker Act.
The girls posted videos of the end of the incident to Facebook. Lori Meketsy, 54, whose 16-year-old daughter says she was punched in the face by a deputy during her arrest, was shocked by the deputies’ actions.
“I don’t know what made this officer treat the girls like this, there was no need for that,” the mother said. “They were all panicking. You can see that in the video.
“If they would have taken a different approach, it probably would have went really well.”
All four girls face misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest without violence and two face felony charges of battery on a law enforcement officer.
Deputies were summoned to the area to investigate a report of trespassing at a condo pool and rocks being thrown — but later determined those crimes had not been committed.
“All of the females would have been allowed to leave the scene if the resisting/obstruction did not occur and after the deputies were able to determine there were no charges from the original complaint,” the Sheriff’s Office said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.
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The five girls — Vanna Allen, 16, Sharyah Felton, 15, sisters Jerai and Janasia Robinson, ages 16 and 14 and 15-year-old girl who did not wish to be identified — said they regularly visit the pool at Bella Vista Condominiums to swim with their friend, who lives in the gated community.
But when two older men began filming them in their swimsuits, they decided to leave.
“They said: We are videoing you because you don’t live here,” said Vanna. The men kept filming as the group exited the apartment complex.
The management of Bella Vista Condominiums declined to comment Friday, saying they had no information about the incident.
The complex at 10221 Sailwinds Blvd. S is about a 15-minute walk from their homes, the girls said.
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The Sheriff’s Office said the incident took place at about 6:45 p.m. and gave this account:
Deputy Genesis Yeargin arrived to investigate complaints of trespassing and rock-throwing. The girls matched the description given by the caller and he asked to speak with them.
Three stopped, but Jerai and Janasia continued to walk away, even after the deputy told them they could not leave.
“Two of the females stated they were juveniles and did not have to speak with law enforcement, referencing George Floyd and Black Lives Matter,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Jessica Mackesy. “They also advised their father instructed them to walk away from law enforcement.”
The deputy told the sisters a third time to stay. He said their father could come to their location while he continued his investigation, Mackesy said. More deputies arrived.
But the girls didn’t stop. Yeargin moved to arrest Jerai for resisting a law enforcement officer without violence, taking her to the ground, Mackesy said.
Sharyah grabbed Jerai’s arm while the deputy was handcuffing her, Mackesy said. Sharyah was also arrested.
Deputy Dan Abbott tried to detain Janasia, the spokeswoman said. When he tried to grab Janasia’s arm, “she immediately began punching and striking him several times,” Mackesy said. “Janasia was attempting to grab his gun belt and broke his key fob off his belt.”
The deputy put Janasia on the ground, but she was still trying to pull her arms away. Then Vanna pushed the deputy while trying to pull Janasia away, the spokeswoman said. The deputy pushed Vanna and told her to get back. Janasia and Vanna were both arrested.
The fifth girl was allowed to leave because she did not resist the deputies, Mackesy said, and they “determined there were no charges at the original dispatched location.”
All four girls were taken to the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center.
Once there, Janasia complained of a head injury and was taken to Morton Plant Mease Bardmoor hospital. On the way, a deputy invoked the Baker Act because she began yelling that she wanted the car to crash so it would kill her and the deputy, according to documents the family provided to the Times.
“None of the deputies in this incident have discipline (records) for any use of force incidents,” Mackesy said.
A complaint about the deputies was made to the Sheriff’s Office on Friday.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office does not issue body-worn cameras to its deputies. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has long opposed the devices. But sheriff’s vehicles do have dashboard-mounted cameras that captured the incident. The agency said those videos will be released when the investigation is finished.
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The girls say a series of misunderstandings escalated out of control before they had a chance to process what was happening.
From the start, they felt that Deputy Yeargin approached them aggressively.
“He comes out of the car so hostile,” Vanna said, “as if already looking for trouble.”
They say the deputy never explained why he was there and none of them touched or struck the deputies.
Jerai said she was FaceTiming with her father when the deputy arrived. The 16-year-old has a history of trauma, said her father Jerry Robinson, 39. She started to feel an anxiety attack coming on.
As she started to cry, her father told her to calm down and keep walking to create some distance from the deputy, both said. He was around the corner and would be there soon.
Jerai was afraid of the deputy and thought law enforcement officers could only speak to a parent, not a minor, which she tried to explain. From his phone, her father saw parts of the incident unfold on FaceTime.
“My oldest daughter was telling them: we don’t have to talk to you without my dad here, because we didn’t do anything wrong,” Robinson said. “That’s when the cops started getting really, really aggressive with them.”
The girls say they never heard the deputy tell them they were being detained or explain that their father could come to them.
They just remember their heads getting pressed into the grass as deputies tackled them and yanked their arms behind their backs. There was no warning, they said.
“I was so scared,” said Jerai, who suffers from asthma and seizures. “I thought police are here to serve and protect, but I personally feel like I got attacked.”
Sharyah began recording video with Jerai’s cell phone after she dropped it. The video starts with the two sisters in handcuffs.
Deputy Abbott can be seen kneeling on Janasia’s shoulders as he handcuffs her wrists and pushes Sharyah’s cell phone away as she records.
Someone yells: “She needs her inhaler!” and “She can’t breathe!”
Then Vanna is seen running after Janasia, waving her cell phone and yelling “look how he’s touching her!” as the deputy hustles Janasia into the back of a sheriff’s vehicle.
She yells that Deputy Abbott punched her in the face. She said she was trying to make sure her friend was safe and never touched the deputy.
“None of us hit them or put our hands on them,” Vanna said. “That’s why we are so confused — why did we get arrested?”
The video ends with Sharyah, who is filming, walking toward her friend who is in handcuffs.
Suddenly she yells: “Don’t touch me,” then, “Call my mom, call my mom!” as a deputy arrests her.
Sharyah said she tried to grab Jerai earlier in the incident to stop her from walking away but denied trying to pull her friend away from the deputy.
Janasia also denied the most serious allegations to emerge from the incident: That she repeatedly struck a deputy and tried to grab his gun belt.
“I never put my hands on that cop,” she said. “I’m 14 years old. I have never touched a gun in my life and I never would.
“Why would I put my hands on an officer’s gun, knowing what happened to George Floyd? He could have killed me for that.”
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Natasha Smith, 36, says she wasn’t called about her daughter Sharyah’s arrest until 9:30 p.m., almost three hours after the incident.
“I think I should have been notified,” Smith said. “Put them in the car and call their moms. The way they handled it was a little over the top for teenage girls.”
All four girls face misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest without violence. Both Janasia and Vanna face felony charges of battery on a law enforcement officer and are under home detention. Janasia was released Wednesday after a mental health evaluation determined she was not a threat to herself or others.
The girls have been following the Black Lives Matter protests, which continue six weeks after Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. They said Tuesday’s incident left them feeling unwelcome in their neighborhood and targets for law enforcement.
“If he would have just talked to us normally, like civilized people, not like we are animals,” Jerai said of the deputies. “I feel, personally, they were scared because of the color of my skin.”