TAMPA — Shantia Little said she saw the toddler only two hours before.
The girl was running around the Silver Oaks Apartments on 43rd Street on Thursday barefoot, Little said. That was 2 p.m.
At 4 p.m., witnesses saw Shakayla Denson, 26, wade into the Hillsborough River and toss her daughter into the water. Divers found 4-year-old Je’Hyrah Daniels about 30 minutes later. She was pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Denson was arrested Thursday and faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and grand theft auto, according to Tampa police. She made her first appearance in Hillsborough County Court on Friday and was denied bond.
Little, 29, who lives upstairs from Denson’s first-floor unit, had heard whispers of the incident in the complex’s parking lot. But she didn’t know the details until she spoke with a reporter Thursday night.
"I thought it was a lie," she said with tears rolling down her cheeks. She had to brace herself against a wall. "She did it? So her daughter’s gone?"
"Are you serious?" she repeated over and over.
Little recalled saving the toddler from injury a few months back. Je’Hyrah was walking barefoot on the sidewalk and almost stepped in glass.
On Thursday, Je’Hyrah was again wandering without shoes. Denson, Little said, was well dressed. The mother, Little said, "didn’t care" about her daughter.
Denson, who lives with her sister and young niece and nephew, according to Little, would frequently leave the children unattended. Strangers would come and go from Denson’s apartment, Little said. And Little once called the apartment’s management because Denson let her two dogs roam free, she said.
Nobody answered Denson’s door, which had a cross made of velcro stuck to it.
Thursday’s arrest was Denson’s third in Hillsborough County, according to jail records. She was arrested in 2016, accused of failing to appear in court on a petit theft charge. She was also arrested in 2017, records show, on charges that she skipped a court date after she was accused of driving without a license.
Little, a mother of three, said she couldn’t understand how a mother could hurt her child.
"That child is innocent," Little said. "That child," she paused, "she didn’t deserve that."
"She didn’t ask to be here."
Thursday’s developments come 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.