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Pinellas Sheriff should step down, says black activist coalition

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Accusing Pinellas County deputies of “murdering” three teenage girls who drowned in a stolen car last month, a coalition of black activists have called for Sheriff Bob Gualtieri’s resignation and an investigation into the incident.

“They killed those girls. … They murdered them,” Omali Yeshitela told a roomful of reporters and community supporters. “Bob Gualtieri has to go. He has got to go.”

Yeshitela also called for criminal charges to be brought against the deputies who were involved.

He is the founder of the African Socialist International (ASI), African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) and leader of the Uhuru Movement. Yeshitela made his remarks during a Thursday morning news conference. Also present were the mother and aunt of Ashaunti N. Butler, 15, one of the girls who died.

Gualtieri called Yeshitela’s statements “nonsense.” Yeshitela and others are using “irresponsible rhetoric” in presenting a “false narrative” of the facts of the case.

“They’re really doing a disservice to the entire community,” Gualtieri said. “They’re using false information.”

The dispute stems from a March 31 incident. Deputies said the three girls were in a stolen car that had been spotted first in Clearwater and later around U.S. 19 and Ulmerton Road. A deputy confirmed the car had been stolen in St. Petersburg. Officials said the deputy, who was in an unmarked vehicle, “monitored the car from a distance.”

The car turned into the Royal Palm North Cemetery, 2600 Gandy Blvd., and drove into a pond on the property.

Gualtieri maintains his deputies tried to save the girls but were unable to reach the car because they sank in the mud and got tangled in the muck. The sheriff’s dive team was called and pulled the car from the pond. Inside were Ashaunti Butler, Dominique Battle, 16, and Laniya D. Miller, 15.

Gualtieri held a news conference later that morning, in which he outlined the girls’ criminal history.

On Thursday, he described the three girls as being “on the downhill side of where they should be. They were involved in a crime.

“They were running from the police. It’s sad.”

His deputies, Gualtieri said, acted appropriately.

However, Yeshitela, the girls’ parents, and others, say Gualtieri and the deputies are lying. They point to videos that appear to show deputies standing by the side of the pond making jokes or chatting casually while the girls screamed in terror. They’re also angry about Gualtieri’s highlighting the kids’ criminal histories and displaying mug shots instead of less inflammatory photos.

“They stood and watched them die,” Yeshitela said. Then, the sheriff was guilty of “slandering these girls once they were murdered. … Gualtieri should resign if only for promoting that.”

Yeshitela also demanded that an investigation be held into the girls’ deaths: “We will have our black peoples’ grand jury here. We will investigate. … We demand reparations for the family.”

Yeshitela said the community would hold a protest at 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Pinellas County Courthouse, 14250 49th St. N, Clearwater to demand justice.

Gualtieri said he had heard a protest is planned.

“As long as they stay in the free speech zone …. As long as they follow the law and the rules they can do whatever they want,” Gualtieri said. “It’s free speech but doesn’t make it correct or proper to spread these lies and to spread misinformation.”

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