Audio recordings reveal new details of pond crash that killed three teens

Natasha Winkler, second from left, Laniya Miller’s mother, speaks to the media Monday at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater. Joining her were attorney Will Anderson, left, Candica Thornton, Miller’s aunt, and attorney Michele Whitfield.
Natasha Winkler, second from left, Laniya Miller’s mother, speaks to the media Monday at the Pinellas County Justice Center in Clearwater. Joining her were attorney Will Anderson, left, Candica Thornton, Miller’s aunt, and attorney Michele Whitfield.
Published Apr. 12, 2016

Pinellas County sheriff's cruisers, police dogs and a helicopter converged on the pond as the Honda Accord slowly sank in the muddy depths.

The helicopter hovered high above the pond, pointing a spotlight into the dark muck.

"The car is bobbin' around. They're trying to crawl out," a deputy on the ground said. "Looks like someone at a window. I see a foot coming out."

Moments later, he radioed the pilot: "Can you see anyone swimming away? What do you see?"

"From up here," the pilot answered, "… I don't see anybody swimming away."

The Sheriff's Office released new details Monday of the grim March 31 morning when three teenage girls died in a stolen car that sank in a pond near Gandy Boulevard. Recordings of radio chatter reveal confusion as deputies realize the passengers, three teen girls, are trapped.

More than a week later, many of the critical moments leading to their deaths are still in dispute.

Michele Whitfield, a Clearwater attorney representing the family of one of the three girls, Laniya Miller, held a Monday afternoon news conference to raise questions about the way Pinellas sheriff's deputies handled the crash.

"We're seeking answers for Laniya's mother," Whitfield said. "She deserves answers. There are inconsistencies that need to be addressed, and we're asking for those answers to come."

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri defended his agency from criticism by Whitfield and another attorney, Will Anderson. He said the investigation report, which is still open pending toxicology results, has yet to be released.

"Just wait until they have all the facts," Gualtieri said. "It will speak for itself."

Hours after the fatal wreck, Gualtieri provided a time line of the moments before the crash. Whitfield said her firm is conducting its own investigation.

Gualtieri summarized what happened this way:

On March 30, Miller, 15, was with two other girls, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Dominique Battle, 16, all of St. Petersburg. A man was giving them a ride to Childs Park. When he stopped at a Walmart, the girls drove off in his Honda.

About 3:30 a.m., a sheriff's sergeant spotted the Honda with its headlights off as it headed east on Sunset Point Road in Clearwater, west of U.S. 19. The sergeant turned on his vehicle's emergency lights. The Honda then ran a red light.

Five miles later, another Pinellas sergeant ran the tag number and confirmed it was stolen out of St. Petersburg. He followed the car at a distance. Under Pinellas County Sheriff's Office 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.

Deputies called for stop sticks to be placed on the road leading to the cemetery.

At speeds between 30 and 35 mph, the Honda navigated the narrow roads of the cemetery. At a sharp bend in the road about 4 a.m., the car stayed on a straight course and then went into a pond.

Deputies waded in to save whoever was inside, Gualtieri said. But the mud was too thick.

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

On Monday, the Sheriff's Office released dash cam footage from one patrol car, but it was inconclusive.

Whitfield said she and Anderson visited the cemetery and saw that the details Gualtieri provided "did not match the scene." She wouldn't elaborate.

Whitfield and Anderson highlighted comments the sheriff made in the March 31 news conference, when Gualtieri said the girls were evading deputies. "You can't evade someone who's not chasing you," Anderson said. The sheriff maintains that his deputies never pursued the car.

The girls' families are also upset the Sheriff's Office disclosed their criminal records, which includes grand theft motor vehicle arrests, Whitfield said.

"What's been talked about is their mug shots. What's been talked about is their criminal history," Whitfield said. "And that's the legacy that has been portrayed of Laniya Miller and that is an incorrect legacy."

The mothers of Miller and Battle spoke briefly Monday about their daughters.

"All three of these girls were best friends. They all hung out together. They all took care of each other," said Yashica Clemmons, Battle's mother. "(I'm) going to get to the bottom of this."

But Gualtieri said his deputies have done nothing wrong.

"She was on a bad path, that child," Gualtieri said of Battle, who had the longest criminal history among the girls. "I'm sympathetic to the mother's situation and her devastation and I feel for her, but don't throw that back on us."

Miller's mother, Natasha Winkler, said her daughter wanted to become an attorney. Sometimes, she pretended to be hungry so that she could give food to her friends.

"My daughter was not perfect. What 15-year-old is?" she said. "She should not be remembered as a thief. That's not who she was.

"None of these kids deserved to die."

Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.