Cops Face Blame After Teen Girls Die Trying To Steal Car

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When three teen girls died after stealing a car, law enforcement faced the blame for their deaths. As questions were raised with the release of the dashcam video, police were forced to respond to the alleged “false narrative” that began to circulate online. Was there a “rush to judgment?” You decide.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
After three teens drowned in a stolen car, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri quickly called out the “false narrative,” hoping to put an end to the “spin.” (Photo Credit: Screenshot)

When troubling events occur, people are often quick to form opinions. That seemed to be the case when three teenage girls, later identified as Laniya Miller, 15, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Dominique Battle, 16, died in a stolen vehicle while being followed by police. As dashcam video of the incident was released, the actions of the Pinellas Sheriff’s deputies involved came under scrutiny, but Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri quickly called out the “false narrative,” hoping to put an end to the “spin.”

According to reports, the troubling events of that fateful night began to unfold when Laniya Miller, Ashaunti Butler, and Dominique Battle asked a 36-year-old man for a ride to Childs Park—a neighborhood in St. Petersburg, Florida—on the night of March 30, 2016. When the man stopped at a Walmart in St. Petersburg, he left his Honda Accord running, and the teens drove off in the car. The car was then reported stolen, and police were on the lookout.

A sergeant with the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office eventually spotted the stolen Honda. (Photo Credit: Screenshot)

Hours later, at approximately 3:30 a.m. on March 31, a sergeant with the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office spotted the Honda with its headlights off as it headed east on Sunset Point Road in Clearwater, west of U.S. 19, Tampa Bay Times reported. The sergeant tried to stop the car, but it continued south. It was later spotted by another Pinellas sergeant, who determined it was the Honda that was stolen in St. Petersburg.

Under Sheriff’s Office policy, deputies could not pursue stolen cars, so the officers followed the car at a distance. Eventually, the car headed toward the Royal Palm North Cemetery off Gandy Boulevard, a dead end. At a sharp bend in the road, the car continued straight, causing it to careen into a pond at about 4 a.m. Within five minutes, the Honda with the three teen girls inside was submerged in about 15 feet of water.

The car, driven by the teens, careened into a marshy pond with the girls trapped inside. (Photo Credit: Screenshot)

Dashcam video of the incident was released and quickly began circulating on social media, where it drew scrutiny after a few deputies were heard talking about the submerged Honda Accord at the scene of the crash while they stood just feet from the marshy pond.

“It’s going all the way down. It’s almost fully submerged,” one deputy says. “I hear them yelling, I think!”

“They’re done. They’re done. They are sig 7, dude.”

“Sig 7” refers to signal 7, a radio code for “dead person.”

“Did you hear yelling? I thought I heard yelling as it was going down,” a deputy said.

The footage quickly prompted questions about whether the officers did enough to try to rescue the teens. The narrative of several online media sources alleged that the deputies did nothing to rescue the girls, but that seems to be where Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri drew the line as he not only defended his deputies but called out the girls’ criminal records.

“It’s a bunch of junk,” the sheriff said, maintaining that his deputies tried to get in the water but couldn’t due to the muddy conditions. “Those deputies went in that water and tried to save those girls at their own peril,” he explained. “I’m not going to stand by and let these people cast a false narrative, ” Gualtieri furthered, according to ABC. “They’re reaching, and they want to be spin masters,” he added.

“They’ve been arrested seven times in the last year on just auto theft charges,” Gualtieri said of the deceased. “These are not good kids. These are kids who are heavily engaged in criminal activity. I didn’t make it up. I didn’t make it up that at 4 o’clock in the morning they were driving a stolen car.”

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri
According to Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Laniya Miller, 15, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Dominique Battle, 16, had all been previously arrested. (Photo Credit: Pinellas Sheriff’s Office via Daily Mail)

The Sheriff’s investigative reports, including reports by deputies involved in the incident, indicated that deputies tried to reach the car. In addition, Sheriff Gualtieri remained adamant that deputies did everything by the book, but because the pond was “thick with sludge,” it was difficult for officers to get to the teenagers, ABC News reported. Reports after the vehicle’s recovery seemed to support the sheriff’s claims.

“Myself and other deputies began to enter the swampy water,” Deputy Jeff Clement wrote in his report. “[T]he fact that the vehicle was still moving, along with the unstable ground and excessive water vegetation, made a rescue too risky for those involved,” he added.

“As you walk up to the pond you can clearly see the path the vehicle took driving into the pond,” a police report from the sheriff’s office states. “There was a path of down tall grass and cattails leading into a heavily vegetative pond. The PCSO Dive team was able to locate the vehicle approximately 60 yards into the pond. Divers advised the pond was approximately 15 feet deep where the vehicle was resting facing east. They were able to secure a tow line but were unable to see anything due to poor visibility.”

Dashcam footage that was posted to Facebook by the Sheriff’s Office does show some deputies, without uniforms or belts on, heading to and from the water. However, that seemingly did little to quell the criticism. In fact, a year later, Sheriff Gualtieri was still answering questions as he adamantly defended the actions of his deputies and said his “deputies did everything they could do under the circumstances.”

This story is truly heartbreaking and sad on many levels. It’s devastating to me that three girls drowned. It’s also devastating that, had they made better choices and not decided to steal a vehicle, they’d likely still be alive. That’s not a “smear campaign,” as an attorney representing the family of two of the girls alleged.

They stole a car, they tried to avoid the police, and they died because of those choices. These are the facts. Even so, as a mother, my heart breaks for their family. However, I do not expect deputies to go on a futile rescue mission that would likely result in more deaths rather than a successful recovery. Sadly, some could not accept or comprehend this fact.

Although the girls’ mothers lodged a lawsuit, two of them seemed to eventually accept the fact that officers’ hands were tied, dropping out of the litigation they had launched against law enforcement, a follow-up report by Tampa Bay Times indicated. The remaining mother’s case was later dismissed after she failed to submit any documentation that she had been appointed the personal representative of her daughter’s estate, court records show.

While this case may be an older one, it reminds us that sometimes doing the “correct” thing doesn’t result in the perfect or desired outcome. In a perfect world, the girls would not have drowned. They would have been saved and there would have been no harm to the officers. No, actually, in a perfect world, three teen girls would not be out late at night asking for rides from adult men, stealing cars, and seemingly doing whatever they wish. They’d be home, where they belong, with adult supervision ensuring their safety. But that’s just my two cents.