Zachary T. Sampson, Tamba Bay Times
One year after authorities said three teenage girls drove a stolen car into a cemetery pond and drowned, lawyers for their mothers announced that they still plan to sue the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
“We are going to fight, fight, fight,” Kunde Mwamvita, the mother of Dominique Battle, said Friday, the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death. “Fight for justice, until justice is served.”
The lawyers, Michele Whitfield and Aaron T. O’Neal, said the lawsuit will allege the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the wrongful deaths of the teens.
Dominique, 16, and Ashaunti Butler and Laniya Miller, both 15, died on March 31, 2016 when the gold Honda Accord they were driving plunged into a cemetery pond near Gandy Boulevard. The Sheriff’s Office said they were fleeing deputies who had tried to pull them over.
The lawyers said deputies chased the girls down a narrow road into the cemetery, then watched in the dark as the car sank below the surface of the pond, clotted with weeds.
“They corralled them into a dead zone,” said Whitfield, who said she is representing the families of Ashaunti and Laniya.
Deputies, however, said they did not pursue the stolen car after it drove off at high speeds. The Sheriff’s Office prohibits deputies from chasing vehicles unless they believe it to be linked to a violent felony.
The girls’ deaths drew national scrutiny as people questioned whether deputies could have jumped into the pond to save them. Three of the first responders said they took off their uniforms and tried to wade into the water but turned back when they hit heavy muck.
“If this was three white girls, they would have went into that pond,” he said.
The morning after the crash, the sheriff highlighted the three girls as an example of what he called a juvenile auto theft epidemic in Pinellas County that needed to be stopped. Between them, the girls had racked up seven grand theft auto arrests.
In the year since the girls died, teens continue to steal cars and drive recklessly across the region.