Three teenage girls are dead after they stole a car and drove it into a pond where they drown early in the morning March 31.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
The yellow indicator shows the location of the pond at Royal Palm Cemetery where three teens died inside a vehicle they took from a Walmart parking lot.
Screenshot by SUZETTE PORTER
This photo shows the stolen car after Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team pulled it from the pond at Royal Palm Cemetery. It is covered with the muck and vegetation that prevented deputies from reaching the car to try to save the three teens found dead inside.
ST. PETERSBURG – Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is frustrated. He says it is time to find a new solution to try to combat the problem of auto thefts by local youths.
“This is a systemic very complicated problem, but unless we do something differently, we will continue to see more lives lost,” he said at a press conference March 31. “Three dead teenagers is not acceptable.”
Gualtieri updated the media on a situation that started about 8:30 p.m. March 30 when three teenage girls stole a vehicle, then crashed it into a pond, and drowned about 4 a.m. March 31.
The girls, all from St. Petersburg, were identified as 16-year-old Dominique Battle, 15-year-old Ashaunti N. Butler, and 15-year-old Laniya D. Miller.
One thing that frustrates the sheriff is their previous arrest records. Between the three, they had been arrested seven times in the last year, just for grand theft auto alone, Gualtieri said.
“This situation is very frustrating because three young lives have been needlessly lost,” he said. “It is also very frustrating because it is yet one more example of what’s become an epidemic in Pinellas County, specifically in the city of St. Petersburg.”
What led up to the tragedy?
Gualtieri said it all started when a friend asked Damien L. Marriott, 36, of St. Petersburg to give the girls a ride to Child’s Park at 4301 13th Ave. S. in St. Petersburg. Marriott, who reportedly did not know the teens, stopped on the way at the Walmart on 18th Street and 18th Avenue South to buy a television. He left the girls in his 1990 Honda Accord with the motor running. He returned about 8:30 p.m., and the girls and the car were gone. He then reported the theft to St. Petersburg police.
The car was traveling eastbound with the headlights off when a PCSO sergeant spotted it about 3:30 a.m. March 31, on Sunset Points Road west of U.S. 19 in Clearwater. The sergeant, who was traveling westbound, turned around and attempted to stop the car as it turned south on U.S. 19. The vehicle refused to stop. The sergeant followed the sheriff’s office pursuit policy and did not pursue even though the driver ran the red light at Drew Street.
A short time later, another PCSO sergeant in an unmarked cruiser saw the car on U.S. 19 near Ulmerton Road. He observed that the vehicle was traveling within the speed limit and “normally driving,” Gualtieri said. Because it met the description of the car that fled previously, he got behind it and was able to get a license plate number. When he ran the tag, he found that it had been reported stolen.
The sergeant did not try to stop the car, but instead waited until other units could arrive to attempt the traffic stop. Gualtieri said the car continued southbound on U.S. 19, traveling within the speed limit and stopping at red lights. He said it is likely that the girls did not know they were being followed.
When the car stopped for the light at U.S. 19 and Gandy Boulevard, another PCSO cruiser was south of the intersection. The vehicle ran the red light and accelerated through the intersection, turning eastbound onto Gandy.
The sergeant and other units followed and observed the car stop on the side of the road at Gandy Boulevard and Frontage Road. Gualtieri said the car paused a few moments, and then went south and east heading toward Royal Palm Cemetery, 2600 Gandy Blvd.
The car turned onto the dead-end road into the cemetery. Gualtieri said the deputies that were following knew there was no way out. The car was traveling about 30-35 mph, which was “actually pretty fast,” Gualtieri said, considering that the area was very dark and the roads are windy.
He said when the car rounded a curve at the end of the cemetery, “all you could see at that point looking ahead would be I-275, the cemetery butts up to I-275.” The vehicle left the roadway without braking, still traveling an estimated 30-35 mph and entered a pond at the southeast section of the cemetery. It drifted out about 20-yards into the pond and within about 5 minutes, it completely submerged.
Gualtieri said the doors were closed and the windows were up, so there was no way out. Deputies who had been following shed their gun belts and other equipment and attempted to reach the occupants of the vehicle to try to rescue them. They were unable to reach the car, due to the thick muddy water and the grass growing on the surface of the pond.
“Deputies wading out into the water were just sinking (into the muck) and couldn’t get to the car,” the sheriff said.
When the car was pulled from the pond, deputies found three dead females. Battle was a student at St. Petersburg High School. Miller attended Gibbs High and Butler went to Dixie Hollins High.
Gualtieri said deputies were unable to tell who might have been driving. When the bodies were recovered, none was wearing a seatbelt and all had been “tossed around inside the car.” One teen was found in the front seat and the other two in the back.
Ongoing problem described as an epidemic
Gualtieri said local law enforcement had been battling a problem of “excess auto thefts” for more than a year. The majority of the thefts are committed by young primarily black people, who live in south St. Petersburg. They steal cars from locations throughout the county and Tampa.
When they steal vehicles, they often use them to commit other crimes, such as armed robbery and drug distribution. They then dump the vehicles, or run from police and abandon the cars, he said.
In 2015, PSCO, St. Petersburg police and Tampa police formed an Auto Theft Task Force. It “appeared successful,” so operations were temporarily halted and conducted only “intermittently,” Gualtieri said. The task force had been operational the three weeks prior to the March 31 incident.
Gualtieri said he was out with the task force Saturday night (March 26) when a car was stolen from the Post Card Inn in St. Pete Beach by four young black males, who then used the car to commit an armed robbery at a gas station at 34th Avenue South and Sixth Street in St. Pete. The task force located the vehicle near Gandy Boulevard and attempted to stop it. The driver fled and crashed the car.
Two 16-year-olds, one 17-year-old and one 18-year-old were arrested. Inside the car was a knife made up to look like a gun and the wallet belonging to the victim that was robbed earlier that night.
“I’m sad and frustrated to report that the recent task force efforts have been successful,” Gualtieri said. “And it is sad and frustrating because it means that all of our previous efforts solve nothing. They merely suppress the activity temporarily.”
The extent of the problem
The sheriff shared some statistics to show “what’s going on here in Pinellas County.”
In 2015, 2,779 vehicles were reported stolen. Of that number, 1,517, or 54 percent, were stolen in the city of St. Petersburg and 65 percent were recovered in Pinellas.
“Which means the kids that are stealing them are using them for joy riding, committing other crimes like Saturday night’s armed robbery – then they dump the cars,” Gualtieri said.
During 2015, PCSO averaged 57 cars a month that fled when deputies tried to stop them, he said. More than half of the cars that fled were in the St. Petersburg area and, most of the time, the occupants were young people operating stolen cars.
From July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, juveniles in the county were charged with 1,733 felonies and 817, or 47 percent, were arrested by St. Petersburg police. Of the 1,733, 1,146, or 46 percent, were black juveniles. Of the 817 arrested by St. Petersburg police, 88 percent were black juveniles. Of the 1,733 felonies, 339, or 20 percent, were grand theft auto and 87 percent were by black juveniles.
Since January 2015, PCSO alone has taken 125 reports of guns being stolen from vehicles and 98.5 percent were from unlocked vehicles.
“Remember this, and I will repeat it every chance I get from now to forever, the gun used to kill Tarpon Springs police officer Charlie Kondek in December 2014 was stolen from an unlocked car,” Gualtieri said. “People need to lock their cars or take their guns out of their cars.”
Gualtieri said what was happening in Pinellas County “has got to change.”
“We need to do things differently,” he said. “We’ve really not seen anything of this magnitude before.”
He said the statistics proved that law enforcement is doing its job.
“Law enforcement chasing these kids and arresting them is not solving a thing,” he said. “We have three teens, who between them had seven arrests in about a year for stealing cars and committing burglaries, and on the eighth time they die [that] tells us something other than what law enforcement is doing needs to be done.”
Gualtieri said the problem couldn’t be solved by law enforcement alone.
“We have and will deal with the consequences of the actions by these young people, but the solutions need to come from deep within the community,” he said. “We have to figure out how to keep more kids from engaging in these activities in the first place, and the kids need to know there are consequences for their actions. They have to know they can’t be arrested four or five times in a year for auto theft and get away with it.”
Teens arrest records
Dominique M. Battle, 16, had an active warrant for violation of probation – burglary at the time of her death. Other arrests include:
• Oct. 30, 2014, burglary to a dwelling • Nov. 10, 2014, burglary to a dwelling, resist officer without violence, trespassing • Jan. 16, 2015, vehicle theft, resist officer without violence • March 16, 2015, vehicle theft • July 7, 2015, burglary to a dwelling, provide false name to law enforcement • July 25, 2015, violation of probation • Nov. 22, 2015, vehicle theft, resist officer without violence • Dec. 15, 2015, possession of marijuana, burglary to a dwelling • Jan. 8, 2016, vehicle theft
Ashaunti N. Butler, 15, also had an active warrant for failure to appear, resisting officer without violence and two counts of petit theft, plus an active pickup order – runaway. Other arrests include:
• May 5, 2015, resist officer without violence, retail theft • Nov. 21, 2015, vehicle theft • Dec. 9, 2015, burglary to a dwelling, burglary to a conveyance • Jan. 18, 2016, vehicle theft, possession of marijuana, burglary, petit theft • March 29, 2016, violation of probation- trespassing
Laniya D. Miller, 15, had only one arrest on her record at the time of her death, a vehicle theft charge on March 16, 2015.