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Witnesses recount behavior of mom, denied bail after 4-year-old left to die in river

Shakayla Denson listens to a witness testimony during the pre-trial detention hearing at Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa on Wednesday. Denson is charged with first-degree murder after police say she left her 4-year-old daughter, Je'Hyrah Daniels, to drown in the Hillsborough River on Thursday. [BRONTE WITTPENN   |   Times]
Shakayla Denson listens to a witness testimony during the pre-trial detention hearing at Hillsborough County Courthouse in Tampa on Wednesday. Denson is charged with first-degree murder after police say she left her 4-year-old daughter, Je'Hyrah Daniels, to drown in the Hillsborough River on Thursday. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Aug. 9, 2018

TAMPA — As she cleaned the porch of a home near the Hillsborough River last week, Maira Artigas spotted something strange.

A woman was walking to the river's edge with a young child. When Artigas looked again, the woman was walking in the water, holding the girl close.

A moment later, the girl was drifting away from the woman.

"I only saw the little hands and the head and that was it," Artigas said in Spanish as she sat on the stand in the Hillsborough court room on Wednesday.

Sitting just steps away from Artigas, shackled and dressed in red jail scrubs, was the woman Artigas would later tell investigators she saw that day. As Artigas spoke, Shakayla Denson slumped in her chair, weeping frequently through the nearly 90-minute hearing.

In the end, prosecutors convinced Circuit Judge Wes Tibbals that there was enough evidence to deny bail for the 26-year-old Tampa woman accused of murdering her 4-year-old daughter, Je'Hyrah Daniels, by abandoning her to drown in the river's murky water.

Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Johnson argued that Denson poses a threat to the community and that no conditions placed on her would mitigate the danger if she were released on bail.

"She took her 4-year-old innocent and helpless autistic and non-verbal child into this body of water and let her drown and exited the water and left her there," Johnson said.

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

The judge heard first from Artigas, who said she heard a shout that day and turned toward the river to see a woman and a child walking that way. When Artigas looked again, the two were in the water.

Artigas called to her sister, who was inside the home cleaning.

"I said look what she's doing, she's going into the river with the baby," Artigas said in Spanish, which was translated by a court interpreter.

The woman came out of the river alone and threw herself on the grass. Artigas scanned the water but didn't see the child.

"That's what worried me the most — where the little girl was," Artigas said

The two women decided to call the son of the owner of the home they were cleaning to report what they saw. He called 911.

Police say Denson had stolen a car at 3:09 p.m. from an auto repair business on North 40th Street, running over the foot of an employee who tried to stop her. She then drove to a section of the Hillsborough River two blocks north of the Columbus Drive bridge, near North Rome Avenue and Aileen Street. There, police say, Denson dragged Je'Hyrah to the river, carried her into roughly shoulder-deep water and let her go. She was taken into custody not far from the scene.

The state's second witness, Tampa police Detective Matthew Kirkpatrick, testified that a diver found Je'Hyrah in about five feet of water, roughly 50 to 75 feet from where the mother and daughter entered. She was pronounced dead shortly after at St. Joseph's Hospital.

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At the time of the arrest, Kirkpatrick said, Denson was singing nursery rhymes.

That revelation added to mounting examples of Denson's bizarre behavior that day. While sitting in a police car, court documents say, Denson said that her daughter was now "pure" and with her grandmother.

Kirkpatrick interviewed Denson at Tampa police headquarters. He recalled that Denson said her family "was out to get her." She also suspected that a maintenance man had "put a spell on her apartment."

Kirkpatrick said he read Denson her Miranda rights and asked if she wanted someone there.

"She proceeded to say she had a lot of questions and needs to know what was going on," Kirkpatrick said.

He asked if that meant she wanted a lawyer, and Denson didn't answer that question, he said. He asked again if she wanted a lawyer and she didn't answer, saying again she wanted to know what was going on.

Kirkpatrick said he ended the interview at that point.

"I don't feel like she was in her right mind to make a statement at that time," he said.

She was charged later that day with first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and grand theft auto.

RELATED: Child protective investigation found no concerns about 4-year-old days before her death in Hillsborough River

Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Spradley argued the state hadn't provided enough evidence to show that Denson killed her daughter.

"There hasn't been any testimony about any type of intent or abuse in regards to the drowning in this case," Spradley said.

About a dozen members of Denson's family, including her mother and at least one sister, packed the small gallery of the courtroom. One woman let out a wail after the judge announced his ruling. Je'Hyrah's father, Jedaric Daniels, also attended.

Most family members declined to speak to reporters, but one of Denson's aunts, Veronica Denson Williams, said she believes her niece was under the influence of something that affected her judgment that day.

"I just feel really bad for her because I just know that she was not in her right mind," she said. "Kayla really, really loved her baby... Somebody gave her something and it rushed to her brain."

The fact that Denson will not be able to attend her daughter's funeral compounds the pain for her and her family, Williams said.

"I'm praying for her," she said. "We've just got to bury the baby now and be with Kayla 'til the end.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.