Three teenage girls dead after stolen car plunges into St. Petersburg pond

Three people died early Thursday while fleeing from authorities when this stolen Honda Accord plunged into a pond at a cemetery near Gandy Boulevard, deputies said. [TONY MARRERO   |   Times]
Three people died early Thursday while fleeing from authorities when this stolen Honda Accord plunged into a pond at a cemetery near Gandy Boulevard, deputies said. [TONY MARRERO | Times]
Published April 1, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Three teenage girls asked a stranger for a ride to Childs Park.

But before they were dropped off, the driver stopped at a Walmart at 22nd Street S. He stepped out, leaving the gold Honda Accord running.

Moments later, the girls and the car were gone.

"Who tryna get seen & wheels?" posted Dominique Battle, 16, on Facebook at 8:48 p.m. Wednesday.

Seven hours later, the Honda rolled into a pond inside a cemetery off Gandy Boulevard. The car sank within five minutes.

No one got out.

"Three young lives have been needlessly lost," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday.

• • •

Pinellas deputies don't know where Laniya D. Miller, 15, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Dominique Battle, 16, went after they left the Walmart about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. Nor do they know which girl drove the car out of the parking lot.

A sheriff's sergeant first spotted the Honda with the dark tinted windows about 3:30 a.m. Thursday as it headed east on Sunset Point Road west of U.S. 19. Its headlights were off.

The sergeant turned on his vehicle's emergency lights, but the Honda continued east on Sunset Point Road and then turned south onto U.S 19. It ran a red light.

The Honda, driving at the legal speed limit, continued five more miles to Ulmerton Road. There, another Pinellas sergeant ran the tag number and confirmed it was stolen out of St. Petersburg, Gualtieri said at a news conference Thursday where he described the chain of events.

The deputy followed the car from a distance. Under Pinellas County Sheriff's Office policy, deputies cannot pursue stolen cars.

At U.S. 19 and Gandy Boulevard, the Honda stopped again. But when the driver saw another sheriff's cruiser at the same intersection, the Honda ran a red light and headed toward Royal Palm North Cemetery at 2600 Gandy Blvd.

At speeds between 30 to 35 mph, the Honda navigated the narrow roads of the cemetery. It was dark, with the glowing lights of Interstate 275 in the distance. Deputies, with their emergency lights off, slowly followed behind.

At a sharp bend in the road about 4 a.m., the car stayed on a straight course, then slipped into a pond.

It drifted about 20 yards into the muddy waters. Deputies shed their gun belts and equipment and waded in to save whoever was inside. But the mud was so thick, Gualtieri said, it stopped them from venturing farther into the pond.

Within five minutes, the Honda submerged in about 15 feet of water.

"That car became a death chamber," the sheriff said. "That was a very horrific event for those girls sitting in that car."

• • •

About 6 a.m. Thursday, a wrecker pulled the car out. It was covered in underwater weeds. The doors were closed and the windows were shut.

Inside, deputies found Battle in the front seat. Miller and Butler were in the back. Because the windows were tinted and the girls may have moved inside as they tried to break free, deputies don't know for sure who was driving when the car entered the pond.

Investigators believe the girls may have thought they could get to I-275 through the cemetery.

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Damien Marriott, 36, the owner of the Honda, declined to comment. He told deputies he didn't know the girls. A friend of his had asked him to give them a ride to Childs Park. He said he stopped at the Walmart Neighborhood Market at 1794 22nd St. S to buy a TV when the teens, who stayed behind, stole his car.

As news of the deaths unfolded, friends of the girls mourned them on social media.

"Wish you would of slowed down when the judge told you to," read one post about Butler.

"Y'all Too Young To Leave," read another.

Police records paint a troubling picture of all three girls.

Dominique Battle, a St. Petersburg High School student, had multiple arrests for burglary and grand theft motor vehicle.

Ashaunti Butler, who went to Dixie Hollins High School, was wanted on an arrest warrant and was also the subject of a pick-up order for being a runaway.

Laniya Miller attended Gibbs High School. She was arrested for grand theft motor vehicle last March. It was her only arrest. The dispositions of the girls' arrests were not available Thursday.

Battle's father, Allen Battle, is serving a 30-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.

Butler had just entered the foster care system Wednesday, the sheriff said.

The girls' families could not be reached for comment Thursday.

• • •

Gualtieri stood before the TV cameras on Thursday afternoon with photos of the girls on one side of him and photos of the wrecked Honda on the other.

For the past year, he said, authorities have been grappling with an "epidemic" of juveniles stealing cars and joyriding across Tampa Bay. In Pinellas County alone last year, 2,779 cars were stolen.

"Solutions need to come deep from within the community," the sheriff said. "Kids need to know there are consequences. This is a systematic and complex problem.

"Three dead teenagers is unacceptable."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at Follow @lauracmorel.