Three teenage girls died early Thursday when a stolen car they were in crashed into a pond at a cemetery in St. Petersburg.
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri identified the three teenagers who died as Ashaunti N. Butler and Laniya Miller, both 15, and Dominique M. Battle, 16.
Gualtieri said all three girls had criminal histories for grand theft auto. He said between the three of them, they had been arrested for grand theft auto seven times in the past year.
According to Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the girls stole the 1998 gold Honda Accord from a Walmart in the area of 18th Street and 18th Avenue S. A friend of the car's owner had been asked to give the girls a ride, but he made a quick stop at the Walmart to buy a TV and left the girls in the car with the engine running.
When the owner came out and saw his car was missing, he called police and reported it stolen.
Several hours later, a PCSO sergeant saw the car driving with no headlights on Sunset Point Road, just west of U.S. 19. The sergeant tried to stop as it turned south on U.S. 19, but the vehicle refused to stop and the sergeant was unable to get the car's tag.
A short while later, another sergeant in an unmarked cruiser saw the car traveling in the area of Ulmerton Road. The car was within the speed limit and appeared to be driving normally, Gualtieri said.
The sergeant got the car's tag number and discovered it had been reported stolen out of St. Petersburg, so the sergeant continued to follow as the car turned east on Gandy Boulevard.
A third deputy, this time in a marked cruiser, was in the area, and Gualtieri said he believes that's why the driver accelerated through the red light. The deputy saw the Accord stopped by the side of the road, then it drove onto the Frontage Road and into the cemetery.
Gualtieri said the driver barreled into the cemetery at between 30-35 mph, which he said was pretty fast considering that the cemetery has winding roads and no lighting. He also noted that the cemetery is a dead end.
The Accord continued around the road to an area where I-275 becomes visible, and Gualtieri said investigators believe the girls thought they could exit the cemetery that way.
At that point, Gualtieri said the Accord left the road and, without braking, drove straight into the pond in the southeast section of the cemetery.
The Accord's windows were up, and within five minutes, it was fully submerged, Gualtieri said.
The deputies went into the 15-foot-deep pond after the girls and tried to get them out, but because the pond was thick and muddy, they were unable to do so. The deputies sank in the muck at the bottom of the pond and could not get to the car.
"Once the car filled up with water, it went down pretty quickly," Gualtieri said. "There was nothing deputies could do. As thick as that muck is in the pond, it is almost like a carpet. The doors were closed, the windows were up and unfortunately it just became a death chamber. They drowned, they just couldn't get out."
When the car was later pulled from the pond, they found the three girls dead inside the car. Gualtieri said that because none of the girls were wearing seatbelts, their bodies were tossed around in the vehicle and so investigators do not know which of the girls was driving the car.
Gualtieri said they also don't know what the girls were doing in the several hours between stealing the car and the car winding up in the pond.
The sheriff said youngsters are stealing cars, mainly in St. Pete, and more needs to be done.
"This situation is very frustrating because three young lives have been needlessly lost," he said. "It’s also very frustrating because it was yet one more example of what’s really become an epidemic here in Pinellas County and specifically the city of St. Petersburg."
Reverend Kenny Irby has been tasked to try and help fix this now deadly problem.
"First, right now, we have to have the vigil and mourn these lives," said Irby, STPD Community Intervention Director. "And after the vigil then the viglilence continues to go on where we move aggressively in dealing with education and life skills and redirection."
Check back for more information on this developing story.