Video Shows Cops Watched Teens Drown; Sheriff Insists It Shows They’re Heroes
Apr. 26, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — During an April 22 press conference, a reporter asked Pinellas County, FL Sheriff Bob Gualtieri about his deputies’ role in the March 31 drowning deaths of three teenage girls who wrecked their car in a pond while being pursued by the police. Gualtieri, who took the opportunity to passionately defend his cops’ conduct and commend his own department for its sterling work, evaded a number of questions about whether the deputies lied about their deeds that night or falsified their reports.
According to Gualtieri’s first statement, made at a press conference the day the girls died, the teenagers – all students at St. Petersburg, FL high schools – stole a Honda Accord belonging to the friend of a friend from a Wal-Mart parking lot sometime before 8:30 p.m. March 30. Seven hours later, a Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office deputy spotted the car and attempted to pull the girls over for driving with the headlights off. They allegedly refused to stop, taking off instead; the deputy, citing the sheriff’s office’s recently-tightened pursuit policy, decided not to give chase.
The teenagers then happened across the path of another PCSO deputy, who ran the car’s plates and discovered it had been stolen. Rather than chase the car, the deputy elected to follow it while coordinating with his fellow officers to pen the girls in.
The cops ultimately trapped the girls in a cemetery abutting a pond on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. According to Gualtieri, the teenagers attempted to drive off the road and immediately crashed into the pond. The Accord drifted 20 yards into the center of the pond and submerged within about 5 minutes. Its doors and windows were all closed; the girls couldn’t escape.
At the March 31 press conference, Bob Gualtieri claimed that his cops – who, after all, were already on the scene – stripped off their gun belts and clothes and made a heroic effort to save the girls, wading deep into the mucky pond to try and reach the car. Unfortunately for the sheriff, dashcam video released April 19th appears to contradict his story. In it, the deputies can be seen standing around the pond, fully clothed, dry, and remarking to one another that the girls are “done” and that they can hear them screaming.
When pressed about the video during the April 22 press conference, Gualtieri denounced “media outlets” for spreading a “false narrative and a flat-out lie” (i.e. suggesting the possibility that he or his deputies were lying.) Gualtieri, who claimed the video was unrepresentative and taken out of context, said the sheriff’s office had provided local media with “packets” containing copies of his deputies’ reports as well as a more comprehensive selection of video showing the cops undressing and attempting to enter the pond.
The reporter asking the questions hadn’t received such a packet, so she couldn’t dispute Gualtieri’s claim. Bay News 9 in Tampa, however, has; they reported that none of the video, stored on nearly a dozen DVDs, shows the deputies unclothed or trying to get to the car. In fact, none of it allegedly even shows the moment of the crash or the car sinking. Michele Whitfield, the attorney for the families of the girls, has complained that the department has yet to release additional dashcam video, including that of the “primary officer” who initiated the pursuit.
Notably, Bob Gualtieri also insisted that regardless of video and what it might show, his cops had “done their job [sic]” and that the media ought to focus on the alleged crimes (and arrest records) of the dead teenagers. In lieu of responding to a question about verifying the truthfulness of the deputies’ reports, he instructed the media to, in effect, accept that they are true. He then launched into a discussion of an alleged epidemic of car theft in Pinellas County, all the while praising his office for stemming the tide.