Lawyer for Families of Florida Teens Who Drowned in Alleged Stolen Car Accuses Police of 'Smear Campaign'

Police say the teens were driving a car stolen from a Walmart parking lot.

April 22, 2016, 5:24 PM

— -- Lawyers for the grief-stricken families of three St. Petersburg, Florida, teen girls who died during a police chase of an alleged stolen car accused law enforcement officials of waging a "smear campaign" against the girls.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has released dash cam footage and a more-than-100-page report of the March 31 incident.

“The sheriff's office is trying to have an appearance of transparency,” the families’ lead attorney, Michelle Whitfield, told ABC News today, but Whitfield is challenging the sheriff's office on some major details of the case.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the girls, who were between the ages of 15 and 16, tried to evade a police pursuit because they were driving a car they stole from a Walmart parking lot.

"I didn't make it up," Gualtieri told ABC News. "I didn't make it up that at 4 o'clock in the morning they were driving a stolen car."

"Upon getting behind the vehicle in an unmarked patrol vehicle [Sergeant Skaggs] observed FL tag 764TDV. FCIC/NCIC [Florida Crime Information Center/National Crime Information Center] listed this vehicle stolen by St. Petersburg Police Department reference 2016-015027," according to a police report from the sheriff's office.

Whitfield said her own investigation reveals there is more to the story, insisting, "it has been a rush to judgment. It has been a smear campaign."

"Due to our ongoing information, there is a belief that the girls may have had permission to use the vehicle," Whitfield said. "Just because the vehicle is reported stolen doesn’t make it so."

The Florida Crime Information Center told ABC News it could not "access" any information about the alleged stolen vehicle "except for criminal investigative purposes."

The dash cam footage has also been a source of contention. Gualtieri is adamant that officers tried to wade into the water and save the girls' lives after their car plunged into the pond at the Royal Palm Cemetery, but had to abort the effort because it was "thick with sludge."

Whitfield said she reviewed the dash cam footage and the radio scanners, and found no such evidence.

"I don’t see anyone wet. I don’t see anyone drenched," Whitfield said. "No one said, 'Hey, I'm going in there to help these girls.' I find it hard to believe that they actually went in."

Gualtieri conceded that no police rescue effort was captured on video, but maintained the officers got into the pond, described in the police report as "heavily vegetative" and "approximately 15 feet deep."

"The officers got in the pond and just because it's not on cam doesn't mean it didn't happen," Gualtieri said.

"They've been arrested seven times in the last year on just auto theft charges," Gualtieri said of the girls. "These are not good kids. These are kids who are heavily engaged in criminal activity."

But Whitfield countered: "He is still being callous, and doesn’t care about these children."

"I can't imagine my child being killed in a pond with law enforcement around," she said. "At this point, my position is, we are trying to get answers for these families," Whitfield added.

“My daughter was not perfect,” Natasha Winkler, mother of Laniya Miller, one of the girls who drowned, told ABC's Tampa Bay affiliate WFTS. "What 15-year-old is?”

Winkler could not be reached by ABC News for further comment.

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