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Activists call for independent investigation of Pinellas deputies after three teens die in pond crash

ST. PETERSBURG — A coalition of activists called Thursday for an outside investigation of the events leading up to the deaths last month of three teenage girls who drowned while fleeing from Pinellas sheriff's deputies.

The Bay Area Dream Defenders believe the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office was negligent in its actions and "misreported" how Dominique Battle, 16, and 15-year-olds Ashaunti Butler and LaNiya Miller died March 31, when the stolen car they were riding in plunged into a pond.

"We're a community right now that is struggling," said Defenders president Ashley Greene. "We're a community right now that is constantly seeing our young people taken away from us far too soon."

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has said his deputies tried to pull the girls over but were not pursuing them when their car hit the water in the pre-dawn darkness. The sheriff also has defended his deputies from criticism that they didn't do enough to rescue the trapped girls from the sinking car.

Activists want the girls' deaths to spark a broader conversation about the role of the community — teachers, judges and law enforcement — in helping steer young people onto the right path. They're calling for a "community crisis and trauma resolution center" to help with that effort.

The call for an independent investigation was joined by a longtime and often inflammatory critic of law enforcement: the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement.

In a news conference Thursday that included the Nation of Islam, Uhuru chairman Omali Yeshitela called for criminal charges against the deputies on the scene, "reparations" for the girls' families and the resignation of the sheriff.

"We are convinced that the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department killed those children," he said. "They killed them. They murdered them."

An Uhurus' press release said Black Lives Matter also was a part of Thursday's event. However, BLM later contacted the Tampa Bay Times to say it did not take part. The local NAACP, also mentioned in the press release, did not attend either and is not associated with the Uhurus. The group said it will release a statement expressing its views on the girls' deaths in the next few days.

Standing next to a large photo of the Honda Accord the girls died in, Yeshitela pointed to damage on the rear bumper. He said it is evidence that a deputy used his car to strike the back of the Honda with his patrol cruiser, causing the Honda to veer into the pond.

"(Cops) kill the children and they're the heroes and the people who are dead, they're the villains. That's what Gualtieri told the world," Yeshitela said. "We don't buy that."

Gualtieri, who has repeatedly defended his agency's handling of the incident, called the Uhuru claims "fantasy."

"My overall reaction is sadness that we've come to this, that they have to flat-out lie and cast this situation as something it's not," he said. "They're being irresponsible and harming the community by spreading this nonsense."

As for the idea of an independent investigation, the sheriff said: "We didn't do anything wrong, and there's nothing to investigate."

Gualtieri has summarized the timeline of the incident this way:

The girls got a ride from a man to Childs Park in St. Petersburg on March 30. He stopped at a Walmart on the way and the girls drove off.

About 3:30 a.m. the next morning, a sheriff's sergeant spotted the Honda with its headlights off in Clearwater. The sergeant turned on his emergency lights. The Honda then ran a red light.

Five miles away, another sergeant spotted the car, looked up the tag number and confirmed the car was stolen. He followed at a distance. Under the sheriff's policy, deputies cannot pursue stolen cars. The Honda ran another red light and headed toward Royal Palm North Cemetery off Gandy Boulevard, a dead end. It navigated the narrow roads of the cemetery. At a sharp bend in the road, the car stayed on a straight course and drove into a pond.

Deputies waded in to save whoever was inside, Gualtieri said, but the mud was too thick. Within five minutes, the Honda was submerged in about 15 feet of water.

The Sheriff's Office has released reports and video from dashboard cameras. Critics have focused on a segment of footage that includes audio of deputies talking about the submerged car as they stood a few feet from the pond.

"They're done. They're done," one deputy said. "They are Sig 7, dude."

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

That footage does not show rescue attempts or capture any conversations about rescue efforts. But it does show some deputies, without uniforms or belts on, heading to and from the water.

"(Activists) are alluding that this is a race issue," Gualtieri said Thursday. "But nobody knew until that car was pulled from the bottom of that pond who was in that car."

He insisted his deputies never pursued the car.

Yeshitela said the dangling bumper of the Honda is consistent with damage inflicted by a law enforcement driving technique called the precision immobilization technique — or "PIT" maneuver — which can be used to knock a fleeing vehicle off the road.

The sheriff called that theory "ridiculous."

"It didn't happen," he said.

What was caught on video: The Honda didn't stop when the sergeant activated his lights.

When asked by a Times reporter about the driver failing to stop, Yeshitela compared the girls to "slaves running from slavemasters."

He said his group will file records requests with the Sheriff's Office to conduct "a black people's grand jury." Butler's mother and aunt attended the news conference but did not speak because of possible litigation against the Sheriff's Office, Uhuru leaders said.

Michele Whitfield, a Clearwater lawyer representing Miller's family, also has filed records requests and is conducting her own inquiry. Whitfield said Thursday she is not affiliated with the Uhuru movement and its claims.

The girls' families also are upset that, after their deaths, the Sheriff's Office disclosed their criminal records, which include arrests for stealing cars.

Yeshitela called that "slander."

Gualtieri countered that the criminal records raise questions about the guardians now leveling accusations against his agency.

"The police aren't responsible for raising their kids," he said. "Law enforcement is unfortunately tasked with dealing with the consequences of their incompetent, ineffective parenting. Where are the families? Where are the parents? Why did these kids, collectively among them within the last year, have seven auto theft arrests?"

During the news conference, the room erupted with anger when a Times reporter asked if the teens' guardians bear any responsibility for their deaths.

"We hold (Gualtieri's) momma responsible," Yeshitela said, "and we hold the parents of the (deputies) who were responsible for these deaths responsible."

Times staff writer Claire McNeill contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Editor's note

This story has been updated to reflect the following correction:

The local chapter of the NAACP did not participate in Thursday's news conference and is not associated with the group that hosted the event.

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