TAMPA — The girl couldn’t talk but, thrashing in her mother’s arms as they approached the river, she screamed.
Along the banks, passersby turned and stared, telling police later Thursday that they watched the woman drag her daughter from a car, across the pavement and grass, up to the edge — and then into — the Hillsborough River.
The woman held the 4-year-old to her chest, witnesses said, and began to scream, too.
She waded deeper. When the dark water reached her shoulders, the mother let go.
As the little girl floated away, witnesses said they saw her head and hands rise into view.
Then she disappeared.
• • •
Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan heard the call about 4 p.m. It didn’t sound right.
"I kept thinking, well maybe it’s a bag of garbage," Dugan said. "Maybe somebody didn’t see what they thought they saw."
But across decades of policing, he said, he’s learned that too often, the more horrifying a story sounds, the more likely it’s true.
Rescue divers went into the river at 4:16 p.m. Within minutes, they pulled out the 4-year-old, Je’Hyrah Daniels.
At 4:49 p.m., doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital pronounced her dead.
The doctors told police Je’Hyrah probably drowned, but no one will know for sure until the medical examiner completes an autopsy report.
Je’Hyrah was non-verbal and family called her autistic. Her mother, Shakayla Denson, 26, now stands accused in her killing.
She had raised the girl as a single parent on the other side of Tampa.
• • •
Two hours before Je’Hyrah died, a neighbor saw her playing outside her home in the Silver Oaks Apartments, barefoot on a sticky afternoon.
She was next spotted outside the Jordan Auto Repair shop on N 40th Street, a half mile from the home, her mother yanking her in between parked cars.
Lot owner Abdelrazzaq Abdelrazz saw Denson peering into windows. She shoved the girl into the back seat of a gray Nissan Altima, Abdelrazz said, and then hopped in, finding the keys inside.
Denson locked the doors.
"What are you doing, ma’am?" Abdelrazz recalled telling her. "Open the door!"
He tried to put himself in front of the bumper, he said, but she pulled the car away, rolling over his foot as she drove off.
• • •
Three stories above the Hillsborough River, Vicki Walker had just sat down with an afternoon snack on her porch when she saw something move.
Never in three years had she spotted a person swimming there. Besides, the woman was in street clothes, wading toward the west bank. Walker snapped a picture. It was about 3:30 p.m. She didn’t see a child.
Boats chugged through the quiet stretch of water, near the Columbus Drive Bridge north of downtown. Misty rain began to fall.
Walker watched as the woman sat in the grass, wailing. Then she said the woman got up, took her shirt off and walked away.
• • •
Ernest Carrera called 911 about 4 p.m. Two cleaning ladies had summoned him to his father’s house on Rome Avenue, saying they had seen something horrible.
Carrera, 50, walked around the road and saw no one. He waded into the river. Nothing.
The water was calm, no bubbles.
Soon, police officers darted along the riverbank. Helicopters made loops in the sky.
Investigators found Denson a half mile away on Oregon Avenue.
Witnesses nearby said they had seen her running around in just a bra and black pants, no shoes. They said she checked car door handles and washed her face, counting out loud in the back of a discount food store. Through the rain, it seemed like her legs were soaked and covered with grass or seaweed.
• • •
The gray Altima was parked close to the water, at the intersection of Rome Avenue and West Aileen Street. Police encircled it in yellow tape, a discarded pair of black-and-pink Nike sneakers on the ground underneath.
Dugan, the police chief, watched a diver pluck the girl’s body from the murky water and hand her to paramedics.
The chief asked the diver how old he thought she was.
The diver looked back and said, "About the same age as my child."
READ MORE:Girl dragged to death in river was non-verbal, ‘fixated on water,’ child welfare report saysNeighbor: Mother ‘didn’t care’ about daughter tossed into Hillsborough RiverHow the events unfolded in Je’Hyra Daniels’ deathGirl, 4, dies after mom tosses her into Hillsborough RiverChild welfare officials had investigated mother accused of leaving child to die in river
Times staff writers Anastasia Dawson, Josh Solomon and Tim Fanning and senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.