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'She was not an evil person,' friend says of woman who left child to die in river

Published Aug. 5, 2018

TAMPA — The first thing Shakayla Denson's high school friend noticed was her hair: Fixed high on her head, disheveled. The woman in the jail mugshot was nearly unrecognizable.

"She would never walk around with her hair sticking up on her head or anything like that," said Eric Howard, 25. "She just looked distraught and lost."

Then there were the news reports, that Denson was seen in a neighborhood miles from home, wearing only a bra and pants. That wasn't the woman he knew, he thought.

And most of all, that she had left her 4-year-old daughter, Je'Hyrah Daniels, alone to die in the Hillsborough River.

"She loved that baby," Howard said.

In the days after police arrested Denson, 26, and charged her with murdering her daughter, friends have struggled to put together how the single mother could have done what police say she did.

Her immediate family members have said little publicly, turning away questions and cameras. They did so again Saturday.

A cousin at a memorial on Friday seemed to speak for many.

"Ask God, 'Can you please send me some answers?" Najee James told ABC-Channel 28.

Authorities haven't said what Denson's mental state was at the time Je'Hyrah died.

But some say that something must have gone awry, that Denson was definitely not herself.

Witnesses: Girl struggled, screamed as mother dragged her into Hillsborough River

•••

Few details have emerged about her life before Thursday afternoon, when police say she waded into the river and let her daughter sink.

Howard said he had last seen her a week or two before and she seemed happy, normal. But he did not know that Denson's parenting had recently been called into question.

More than a month earlier, on June 20, a child protective investigator from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office had contacted her about a report that she seemed "overwhelmed and tired with caring for Je'Hyrah."

"The mother is easily distracted and doesn't show much attention toward Je'Hyrah," a tipster said, according to the report. "She just lets her run around and do what she wants. She doesn't seem to have the maturity to address the special needs that Je'Hyrah has."

The girl previously had been diagnosed with autism.

Sheriff's investigation found no concerns about 4-year-old days before death

When an investigator contacted Denson, she said she was shocked by the caller's claim. She had alarms in her apartment, they wrote, to make sure Je'Hyrah did not get out. The home was in good shape, according to the report, and Je'Hyrah seemed well cared for.

The investigator learned that the mother had recently been working at McDonald's.

Denson reported that she was trying to get a job that would allow her to work from home, to spend more time with her daughter. She said she wanted to help get Je'Hyrah into a school for students with needs like her, to get her daughter more help.

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When the investigator was there, Je'Hyrah followed Denson all around the apartment.

On July 30, the investigator closed the case. By then, she wrote, Je'Hyrah had been accepted into a special school. She was set to start in August.

Denson's sister and two neighbors endorsed her parenting.

"Ms. Denson appears to be a loving and involved parent," the investigator wrote.

•••

Not everyone agreed, at least not all of the time.

Denson lived at Silver Oaks Apartments.

Upstairs was neighbor Shantia Little.

When Little heard about Je'Hyrah's death Thursday, she cried. She thought about the times she saw the girl wandering around without shoes, nearly cutting her feet on glass, and it upset her.

Little said that Denson "didn't care" about her daughter.

"That child is innocent," Little said. "That child, she didn't deserve that."

•••

Others saw a softer side of Denson's parenting.

Howard, her friend from high school, said the mother was determined to help her daughter succeed.

"She was happy," he said. "She would go home and have her baby everywhere she went."

His mother, Nicole Reed, said Denson kept the girl occupied.

"She always had an iPad for her, something to keep her in tune," said Reed, 47.

Denson attended the Bowers/Whitley Career Center in Tampa, Reed said.

She loved to dance and had a voice for singing. She sang at family funerals, a cousin said. Howard considered her to be spiritual. She wore a cross around her neck, and there was one on the door of her apartment.

She also enjoyed getting her hair and nails done.

After getting her diploma, Howard said, she bounced between jobs in customer service. She applied to Hillsborough Community College but did not attend, a spokesman there said. She worked as a contractor with WellCare for one week in 2015, according to a spokeswoman for the healthcare company.

Court records show a string of traffic tickets but little else. She had been arrested on charges of skipping court dates, once related to a petty theft case and once after being accused of driving without a license.

"I assure she wasn't a criminal," Howard said.

Reed said she had not seen Denson in a year or two. In younger years, Denson would stay over at Reed's house.

"She was at school every day. She was always a bright young lady," Reed said. "She was just a quiet beautiful little girl."

Both Reed and Howard said Denson might smoke some marijuana but was not a hard drug user. Her focus, they said, was often Je'Hyrah.

"She was trying to figure out how she can get the help that she needs to help her with her daughter," Reed said. "She was not an evil person."

•••

With Denson in jail, awaiting trial, others have stepped in to mourn her daughter.

They followed the mother's footprints to the river Friday. But they carried stuffed toys and balloons to add to a growing memorial, and they tried to keep Je'Hyrah alive.

Sarah Noonkester, 48, had carefully picked out a bear. She recalled how Je'Hyrah loved candy. She had seen the little girl with her mother just a week earlier at a nearby Dollar General.

Je'Hyrah was a joy, she said.

She put the bear on a growing pile, near the edge of the river.

There was a candle there. And a pink cross with a verse.

"A baby is a blessing, a gift from heaven above," it said, "a precious little angel to cherish and love."

Staff writers Bre Bradham, Josh Solomon and Langston Taylor, and senior news researcher Caryn Baird, contributed to this report.

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