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Girl, 4, dies after mom tosses her into Hillsborough River

Shakayla Denson is in custody after she is accused of killing her four-year-old daughter. The girl was pronounced dead at St. Joe's Hospital. (Photo by Bronte Wittpenn, mugshot courtesy of Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office)
Published Aug. 3, 2018

TAMPA — A 4-year-old girl died Thursday after her mother threw her into the Hillsborough River, according to Tampa police.

Multiple witnesses reported seeing the incident near 4 p.m. on the west bank north of the Columbus Drive Bridge. Shakayla Denson, 26, waded about half way across the river and tossed her daughter, Je'Hyrah Daniels, 4, in the water, they told police. Then she turned around and walked back to the riverbank.

Rescue divers plunged in, looking for Je'Hyrah. About a half-hour later, rescuers could be heard over a police radio frequency en route to St. Joseph's Hospital with an unconscious child.

Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan said the girl — found about 75 feet offshore near W Aileen Street and Rome Avenue — did not survive. An autopsy will determine the cause of the child's death.

Denson now faces a charge of first-degree murder.

There are still more questions than answers, Dugan said at a news conference.

"We're still piecing the whole thing together now," he said.

Denson drove to the area in a gray Nissan Altima police said she stole from Jordan Auto Repair on N 40th Street, which is only about a half mile away from Denson's N 40th Street apartment. The car still had a price tag on it. Later Thursday, two small pink-and-black shoes lay tucked beneath the parked sedan.

The neighborhood is in the shadows of downtown Tampa, about a mile upstream, near a bend in the tea-colored river that veers toward West Tampa. It's an area frequented by rowing crews and sometimes manatees. To the south is a waterside restaurant and marina, Rick's on the River.

At the base of the Columbus Drive Bridge is Columbus Court Apartments. Some there said they saw the woman run from the Discount Food III convenience store a block away from the apartments, into the apartment complex.

Eddie Camacho, 48, owns Yenel Auto Painting next to the store.

He said he saw a woman run up Fremont Avenue wearing only a bra and black pants and no shoes. It was raining. From the window, he watched her run across the street and into the parking lot. She began checking the handles on the car doors parked outside.

He went out to ask what she was doing and then she ran into the store and into the back storage area.

Osama Jamil, 37, was busy helping customers at the counter, but he investigated.

"It was weird," Jamil said. "She was back there, washing her face. She was counting out loud, 19, 20, 21. I went back there to see if she was all right. She didn't look right."

"What happened, are you all right?" he recalled asking her. She stopped washing her face and then ran past him and then outside behind the building.

That's when Camacho saw her take off down St. Joseph Street toward the apartments.

About 5, 10 minutes later they heard sirens. Police cars, fire trucks and a police helicopter followed.

Meanwhile, at the Columbus Court Apartments, 23-year-old Shawanda Smith saw a skinny black woman with messy hair, wearing a bra and leggings, throw her stuff into the back of a stranger's Buick and lock herself in. The owner banged on the window until she ran away.

Some witnesses said she carried a Bible.

Her legs looked wet and covered in grass or seaweed, Smith said. The woman's belongings, left behind, were later photographed by a police forensics technician, who carried it away in a brown paper bag.

Romano Muniz, 31, lives on Rome Avenue. He has a 1-year-old at home and another on the way. He watched some of the rescue efforts and said he saw a "lifeless" body being pulled from the water.

He watched as the divers carried the girl to the river bank and passed her to the medics.

"It's disgusting," he said.

The Tampa incident comes as court proceedings in a similar tragedy ramp up across the bay. The trial of John Jonchuck Jr., accused of throwing his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe, off a bridge in St. Petersburg in 2015, is scheduled to begin Sept. 24.

Jonchuck, now 28, faces the death penalty. Police said he tossed his daughter 62 feet from the Dick Misener Bridge into Tampa Bay on a cold January night.

Police: Girl, 5, dead after father drops her from Sunshine Skyway approach

SPECIAL REPORT: The Long Fall of Phoebe Jonchuck

WITNESS: Officer recounts the last moments of Phoebe Jonchuck's life

Staff writer Zachary T. Sampson contributed to this report. Contact Tim Fanning at tfanning@tampabay.com. Follow at @TimothyJFanning.

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