ST. PETERSBURG (FOX 13) - The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is once again defending its deputies' actions after three teenage girls died in a stolen car now that video circulating on social media is suggesting that deputies stood by while the girls drowned.
It was during the early morning hours of March 31 when deputies spotted the car driving dangerously with its headlights off. They began to pursue it, but Sheriff Bob Gualtieri later said they disengaged when the car ran a red light and sped away.
A few miles away, another deputy spotted the vehicle, ran the tag and discovered the car was stolen, then trailed it at a distance. Several cruisers followed the car into a cemetery, where it plowed into the water at an estimated 35 mph.
When investigators later pulled the car from the murky water, they discovered the lifeless bodies of Laniya Miller and Ashaunti Butler, both 15, and Dominique Battle, 16.
Attorneys for the girls' families have accused deputies of failing to take any action to save the girls during the several minutes it took the car to sink, and the viral video accompanies comments critical of the sheriff's office.
"This is so disgusting, horrible, horrific, insane. Lock everyone involved in a car and let them drown. How do you do this as a person?" complained one Facebook post featuring the edited video.
That viral clip contains some off-color commentary by at least one deputy.
"I thought I heard some yelling as they were going down," the deputy is heard saying as he casually leans on a cruiser. "But now, they're done, dude."
But the sheriff's office says that footage was taken away from the scene where the attempted rescue had taken place. Gualtieri has insisted that two deputies immediately tried to enter the water, but found it too dangerous to continue.
"You got video on there that shows those same deputies without their gun belts on, without their clothes on," the sheriff said. "Deputies don't just take their clothes off for any reason in the middle of the night at 4 in the morning. They took their clothes off because they went in the water to try and rescue those girls."
Friday, they re-posted dash-cam footage which they said supported that version of events.
"Unfortunately, some people are irresponsibly and falsely posting on Facebook that deputies did not attempt to rescue the three girls who tragically drowned while fleeing from the police in a stolen car a few weeks ago," Friday's Facebook post read. "The sheriff stated at the time that deputies removed their gunbelts and clothes and tried to enter the water to rescue the girls, but the conditions in the water prevented them from doing so. This is exactly what happened, and we stand by that."
Both pieces of footage are among several minutes of video, radio calls, and scene photos released by the sheriff's office earlier this month.
FOX 13 has asked the families of the teens for their reaction to the document release, but they have not yet commented on it.