Families filing suit against sheriff for pursuit that led to teens drowning

- Lawyers for three teens who drowned in a pond after fleeing from police in March of 2016 plan to file a lawsuit against the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, claiming wrongful death and negligence.

"We demand justice," said Kunde Mwamvita, mother of Dominique Battle, one of the teens who died.

The parents of Battle, 16, Laniya Miller, 15, and Ashaunti Butler, 15, held a press conference outside the Pinellas County Courthouse Friday. They claim the deputies did not do enough to save the girls after the car went into a pond near the Royal Palm Cemetery.

While the sheriff has said the deputies were stopped by the pond's muck, the girl's lawyers say the car was only 15 feet from shore and floated for five minutes.

"In their fear, they held each other's hands so tightly, hours later when their bodies were recovered, they had to be pried apart," said attorney Aaron O'Neal.

Further, the lawyers insist the chase shouldn't have happened. They said the deputy tried to stop them without warning lights, and the lead deputy disobeyed an order from dispatchers to stop the pursuit.

O'Neal claims the girls took the car to get away from someone who hinted he was interested in sex. Lawyers also said the sheriff's office tried to sway public opinion by bringing up the girls' criminal history - which included stealing cars.

"It was a systematic campaign to say, 'Listen, their lives really didn't matter because they were doing this, or they were doing that,'" said attorney Michele Rayner-Whitfield.

To respond, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri held his own press conference. He called the deaths tragic, but said the claims are without merit.

"We did nothing wrong, and that's my position a year ago, it's my position today. I know, 100-percent, no one in the PSCO did anything improper," Gualtieri said. 

Gualtieri also questioned why the girls did not go home and call police if they were afraid of a sexual predator, and said they were sending messages to friends in an effort to brag about being chased by police. 

Up Next:

Up Next

  • Families filing suit against sheriff for pursuit that led to teens drowning
  • Withlacoochee expected to crest Wednesday
  • Neo-Nazi takes plea deal on explosives charges
  • Polk to use early release days as hurricane make-up days
  • Puerto Ricans on the mainland watch, wait after Maria devastates U.S. territory
  • Polk rejects plan to light road where teen was killed
  • After Dunedin school serves as shelter, 80 books missing from classroom
  • Time drags for those waiting for news from Puerto Rico
  • AMBER ALERT: 4 children missing from Manatee Co.
  • Wisconsin logger helps clear debris after Irma