By TAMARA LUSH
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — When three Florida teenagers stole a car, crashed it into a cemetery pond and then drowned, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri talked about his frustration, about lives "needlessly lost," and how the vehicle became a death chamber for the three girls.
Now, nearly a month after the tragedy, Gualtieri is angrily defending his agency against accusations that his officers didn’t do enough to rescue the girls as the car sank in 15 feet of water. Bloggers, some TV stations and comedian D.L. Hughley have posted about the March 30 incident that claimed the lives of two 15-year-olds and a 16-year-old from St. Petersburg.
"Police caught on tape watching girls die. They didn’t even try to help. Just watched. Sickening," Hughley wrote Friday morning on Facebook. His post had more than 5,000 reactions and 7,000 shares.
The posted dashcam video, which Gualtieri said was a "misleadingly" edited version of the original, shows the scene and includes audio of some of the officers. One deputy comments that he thinks he hears screams coming from the car and another says, "They are done. They are sig-7 dude." Signal 7 is law enforcement code to indicate a fatality. Commenters on Facebook widely criticized the deputies for not going into the water and trying to save the people inside the sinking car.
Later Friday, Gualtieri posted a different dashcam video from a second cruiser on the department’s Facebook page showing two officers walking by with clothes in hand. Gualtieri said that deputies waded into the water and tried to save the girls — and that the video proves it.
"Unfortunately, there’s a false narrative that’s being spread by people on social media," he said. "We’re unfortunately in a society today that if it’s not on video, then it didn’t happen."
On one of many videos reviewed by The Associated Press on Friday, a camera captures a police cruiser driving to the pond, behind several other police cars. It parks, and then eight minutes later, a deputy in a black shirt walks in front of the camera, holding clothing in his hand. Seconds later, another deputy, in a tank top and holding a uniform, walks in front of the cruiser.
Officials say those two deputies attempted to enter the water but retreated due to safety concerns.
"The vehicle began listing forward, at which point, I took off my duty belt and attempted to swim out to the vehicle," wrote Deputy Logan Tromer, who is also on the Sheriff’s Office dive team but who happened to be working the night shift. "I made it approximately 10-15 yards out; however, at this point the vehicle was facing front bumper down and was completely submerged within seconds. Due to the unknown depth, thick vegetation and officer safety concerns, I had no choice but to exit the water and suspend my rescue efforts."
According to deputies, Dominique Battle, 16, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Laniya Miller, 15, drowned after they stole a gold Honda Accord from a Pinellas County Walmart parking lot. Though the county sheriff’s rules forbid deputies from chasing stolen vehicles, some officers were trailing the car when the car plunged into a pond off a sharp turn in the road around 4 a.m. the next morning.
The Sheriff’s Office does not have a policy about officers rescuing people in the water; a spokesman said it’s up to the individual deputy at the time of the call.
Gualtieri told The Associated Press that the girls had seven arrests between them in the past year for auto theft, and that he’s upset by not only the girls’ deaths but an auto theft "epidemic" in the county.
"Don’t put it on us. We didn’t do anything wrong," he added.
A lawyer for the girls’ family did not return a call for comment. Earlier, she told local news media that some of the officials’ original statements about the deputies’ actions were misleading.
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