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Mothers of two St. Petersburg girls who drowned in stolen car drop out of lawsuit

A lawsuit lodged against law enforcement by the mothers of three teenage girls, who drowned after the stolen car they were driving plunged into a cemetery pond, saw a major shake-up when two of the mothers backed out of the case.

Ciara Butler and Natasha Winkler dismissed their claims last month, according to court records. The remaining mother appears to be pressing forward without a lawyer, seeking damages for what the complaint says were discriminatory and negligent actions that led to the deaths of Dominique Battle, 16, and Ashaunti Butler and LaNiya Miller, both 15.

The flurry of court filings show a tense back-and-forth between the plaintiffs, who were represented by Clearwater civil rights attorney Michele Rayner, and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. An in-house lawyer representing the sheriff requested sanctions against Rayner and her clients, writing in a motion that the lawsuit was frivolous and flew in the face of legal procedure.

"I've said all along that, No. 1, it's a very unfortunate and tragic situation," the sheriff said this week, "but despite that, we didn't do anything wrong ... and it is now clear and established through their own acknowledgements that they didn't have a basis for their accusations."

Rayner declined to comment, saying it would be "wholly inappropriate" for her to talk to a reporter while the suit is ongoing. Butler and Winkler, the mothers of Ashaunti and LaNiya, could not be reached for comment.

Yashica Clemmons, the mother of Dominique, could not be reached for comment after repeated attempts and a visit to her home, nor could a lawyer who represented her in the aftermath of the March 2016 crash. The lawyer, Aaron O'Neal, worked with Clemmons, who later adopted the name Kunde Mwamvita, through the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. The community group rallied around the families after the crash and contend police killed the girls because they were black.

The crash became a contentious flash point in a long line of deadly Pinellas car thefts perpetuated by teenagers. The Tampa Bay Times published a series about the epidemic last year that showed teens steal cars in Pinellas more than anywhere in the state.

Just this week, 18-year-old Damari Milton lost control of a stolen Mazda Miata and hit a tree at 38th Avenue N and 49th Street. The car burst into flames, killing Milton and his 16-year-old passenger, Dequante Lightsey.

The lawsuit, filed in June in federal court, claims that deputies chased the three girls into the cemetery, then didn't try to help them as the stolen Honda Accord disappeared into the muck. It goes on to allege the Sheriff's Office has repeatedly engaged in unconstitutional behavior and discriminatory actions due to a lack of training and discipline.

"The wrongful deaths … were directly and proximately caused by the failures, negligence, and carelessness of" the county and the sheriff, the lawsuit says, "because it produced or contributed to deputies' devaluation of African-American life in Pinellas County."

It calls for a jury trial, monetary damages and a court order prohibiting what it calls the county's "utilization of patrol techniques that demeans, disregards, or underserves its African-American population."

Gualtieri has continually denied any allegations that he or his agency did anything wrong. And in one filing, an attorney representing Gualtieri and a Pinellas sergeant also named as a defendant, took issue with the mechanics of the lawsuit. She wrote the case is a wrongful death suit disguised as a civil rights complaint to get around the expired statute of limitations. Florida has a two-year statute of limitations for wrongful death claims.

"Plaintiffs' counsel's choice, to file a frivolous complaint without basis in law or fact ... should not be tolerated by this Honorable Court," the attorney, Nicole Durkin, wrote in the Oct. 12 filing.

Winkler and Butler dismissed their claims two weeks later.

This case is not the first time Rayner and Gualtier have sparred. Rayner is representing the parents of Markeis McGlockton, a 28-year-old black man who was shot and killed this summer in a convenience store parking lot. Gualtieri didn't arrest the shooter, Michael Drejka, saying his agency was precluded by Florida's stand your ground law.

Rayner criticized the sheriff's decision and pressed for Drejka to be arrested. Prosecutors eventually charged him with manslaughter.

Last year, Rayner released a dashboard camera video appearing to show deputies beating a black man during an arrest. Gualtieri suspended both deputies after an internal investigation.

Also targeted in the lawsuit were St. Petersburg and its police chief, and Pinellas Park and its police department and police chief. A judge gave Clemmons until Nov. 30 to make her next moves. Clemmons said in several filings this month that she was seeking an attorney.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or Follow @kathrynvarn.