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Ken Welch: Sheriff not at fault for drowning deaths of 3 teen girls

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch took a field trip Friday to the cemetery pond where three teenage girls drowned in a stolen car.

The drowning happened about 3:50 a.m. March 31. The girls, who were being followed by Pinellas sheriff’s deputies, turned into Royal Palm North Cemetery, 2600 Gandy Blvd. and drove into a pond.

Deputies said they were unable to reach the car to get the teens out. But some community activists have charged deputies never made an effort and allowed them to die because they were black and in a stolen car.

The accusations that Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and his deputies were guilty of murdering the three teens prompted Welch’s visit to the scene. The uproar, he said, was gaining momentum. And, Welch said he was also concerned about the girls’ families.

“It weighed on my mind for a number of things,” Welch said Saturday. “I decided just to go out and take a look for myself.”

Welch’s conclusion: There was no way deputies could have gotten through the muck to get to the car without specialized equipment. The deputies and Gualtieri are not at fault, he said.

“It is sludge,” he said of the site. From the first step, Welch said, he saw the impossibility of getting to the car without special equipment, particularly in the dark.

Welch posted a video and still photographs on his Facebook page:

He also posted this statement:

“I am very sorry for the loss of Dominique Battle, Ashaunti Butler and LaNiya Miller and pray for their families. Last year, we lost three of my family members — India, Ty and Lamour. No matter how good or imperfect any of us are (or think we are), the sudden and violent loss of a young family member is traumatic for loved ones. We should remember that in our dialogue, and respect the grieving process that the families are going through.

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“That being said, making positive change in our community must be based on truth and facts. We will have many more conversations and actions to address this and other issues in our community. But given the escalating rhetoric on this incident and the sheriff’s deputies’ response that night, I thought that I would visit the accident site and see for myself if the water was accessible. In my view, it is not. The video below shows me sinking into the muck on my first step. I am open to any other information or evidence, but unsupported rhetoric and accusations will not move us forward, nor heal the destructive trends that are at work in our community. The only way to move forward is together, and on a foundation of truth and justice — for all.”

On Saturday, Welch added, “I am very sorry for the families of the three young ladies. No one deserves to die that way.”

He also referred to the escalating number of car thefts in the county, saying that’s a problem the community must come together to solve. Law enforcement, he said, does not have the tools to handle the thefts alone.

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