A 26-year-old mother was charged with murder after killing her 4-year-old daughter by throwing her in a river and letting her drown, police said.
According to witnesses, Shakayla Denson waded into the Hillsborough River with her daughter, Je’Hyrah Daniels on Thursday, August 2nd. Roughly halfway across the river, she tossed the child and waded out. Initial reports had said that Denson allegedly threw the 4-year-old girl off a bridge, but authorities later confirmed that Denson waded in the river before tossing the child into it.
Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan confirmed the details in a news conference Friday morning, describing the girl’s death as “quite frankly, tragic, chaotic and just downright unbelievable, all at the same time.”
“There are much more questions than there are answers,” Chief Dugan said. “It’s a completely tragic event. It’s a crazy world we live in.”
People who witnessed this tragic incident firsthand say that they saw the little girl struggling and heard her screaming before her mother tossed her in the river.
According to a report from the Tampa Bay Times:
Along the banks, passersby turned and stared, telling police later Thursday that they watched the woman drag her daughter from a car, across the pavement and grass, up to the edge — and then into — the Hillsborough River.
The woman held the 4-year-old to her chest, witnesses said, and began to scream, too. She waded deeper. When the dark water reached her shoulders, the mother let go. As the little girl floated away, witnesses said they saw her head and hands rise into view. Then she disappeared.
Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan received the call about 4 p.m. and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “I kept thinking, well maybe it’s a bag of garbage,” Dugan said. “Maybe somebody didn’t see what they thought they saw.”
Rescue divers went into the river at 4:16 p.m. and within minutes, they pulled 4-year-old Je’Hyrah Daniels out of the water. She was pronounced dead at 4:49 by doctors at St. Joseph’s hospital.
The doctors told police Je’Hyrah likely drowned, but no one would know for sure until an autopsy was completed by the medical examiner.
“It’s the craziest world that we live in at times,” Chief Dugan said. “The child…is unfortunately now dead. The mom is in custody. Right now we are sorting through and trying to get some answers…we’re still trying to piece this whole thing together.”
Witnesses said Denson was acting bizarrely before and after throwing her daughter into the river.
Eddie Camacho, who owns a business near the river, told the Tampa Bay Times that he saw Denson running up and down the street wearing only a bra and black pants and no shoes in the rain. He said he watched her run across the street and into a parking lot where she was checking car door handles. When he went out to ask her what she was doing, she ran into the store and into the back storage area.
Osama Jamil, an employee of the store, was helping customers at the counter but went to the back to investigate. “It was weird,” Jamil said. “She was back there, washing her face. She was counting out loud, 19, 20, 21. I went back there to see if she was all right. She didn’t look right.”
Jamil asked Denson if she was OK, and she stopped washing her face and ran past him and then outside behind the building.
At a nearby apartment complex, Shawanda Smith said she saw a skinny black woman with messy hair, wearing a bra and leggings, throw her stuff into the back of a stranger’s Buick and lock herself in. The owner banged on the window until she ran away.
Two hours before Je’Hyrah died, a neighbor saw her playing barefoot outside her apartment building. She was later spotted outside an auto repair shop about a half mile away from her home and her mother was seen yanking her in between parked cars.
The shop’s owner, Abdelrazzaq Abdelrazz, saw Denson looking into windows before she shoved the girl into the back seat of a gray Nissan Altima and then hopped in herself, finding keys inside. She locked the doors.
“What are you doing, ma’am?” Abdelrazz recalled asking her. “Open the door!” He then tried to put himself in front of the car to stop her from leaving, but she pulled the car away and rolled over his foot as she drove off.
She then drove to the river where she committed the disturbing act.
Two witnesses told police they saw Denson as she “forcefully removed Je’Hyrah from the back seat of the Altima by the arm.”
They said Je’Hyrah was “screaming loudly and not cooperating” as Denson pulled her out of the car. Denson then went into the Hillsborough River while holding both of Je’Hyrah’s arms until the water reached her shoulders.
Witnesses say Shakayla Denson waded into the Hillsborough River with her 4-year-old daughter. Roughly halfway across the river, she tossed the child and began wading out, police say.
Denson is now charged with first-degree murder >> https://t.co/dlgPLNl7GH pic.twitter.com/yJqeDcsMYk
— ABC Action News (@abcactionnews) August 3, 2018
Vicki Walker gave the above photo of the mother in the river to ABC Action News. She told the TV station that she saw the woman in the water, but didn’t see the child, “which was very odd,” she said. “I’ve lived here for years, I’ve never seen anybody in the river.”
Walker said that the woman was by herself and that she watched her walk out of the river onto the bank, where she said the woman sat for a while. “There’s a part of me that’s like ‘oh my gosh, why didn’t I run over there? Why didn’t I talk to this person? Why didn’t I find out what was going on?’ I had no idea,” Walker added.
Police said they “quickly located the woman suspected of tossing the child in the water. She was walking nearby and was taken into custody.”
About 9 months ago, Shakayla Denson created a GoFundMe page titled “Life with je’hyrah.” It featured a photo of her and Je’Hyrah with the following caption:
“My daughter was recently diagnose with autism spectrum, my goal is to start saving for therapy equipment, and also for je’hyrah’s future. I’ve also gathered interest in reaching out to others living with autism, and would enjoy providing strategies and resources I’ve learn to help them get threw the day. Thanks and i appreciate it.”
Denson had set a goal of $ 1,500, but received no donations. The page has since been deleted and was replaced by one started by the girl’s father Jedaric Daniels to help cover funeral costs.
“Je’hyrah was a happy 4 year who’s life was taken away from her so suddenly! I am reaching out to ask for help with burying my only babygirl. In my entire 37 years of living, I have never endured so much hurt in pain. Je’hyrah was diagnosed with Autisum so she required a little more love and attention. I loved her with every bone in my body. Please help me lay Je’hyrah to rest!! She deserves a proper burial. NO AMOUNT IS TO SMALL!!!”
On Facebook, Kayla Denson referred to herself as “just a child of god, a growing [woman] finding her way.”
On another page, with the same profile picture as the first, she wrote that she worked at WellCare Health Plans and studied to become a Registered Nurse at Hillsborough Community College.
According to Florida court records, Denson also has a criminal record, which includes arrests for theft and criminal traffic cases, such as driving with a suspended license. The theft case dated back to 2016 and was a second-degree misdemeanor.
A candlelight vigil was held Saturday night (Aug. 4) to remember 4-year-old Je’Hyrah Daniels. Nearly 100 people gathered near the grassy bank of the Hillsborough River to remember Je’Hyrah.
“She loved French fries. She loved to eat French fries,” said Adeesha Hailey, a friend of the family who has known them for over 40 years. Hailey said she was still trying to understand why the little girl is gone.
“She wasn’t a monster,” Hailey said. “She didn’t beat her baby. Nothing like that. We just need to know what was going on. Something had to be going on to leave her baby out in the water and float away. We don’t know what made her take her out there and leave her and just walk away. We don’t know.”
Tragedy Daniels, a cousin of Shakayla Denson, said: “Right now, we are feeling upset and trying to do our best to get through it and find support for each other and the family. Things are just said all over but deep down, we know what we felt, what she felt, and that is not her and we got to stand by her and support her the best way we can and that is what we are here to do. And we are going to start by today, by showing support, for my little cousin and trying to keep the love going.”
About six weeks prior to Je’Hyrah’s drowning death, child protection workers fielded a report from someone who claimed Shakayla Denson wasn’t properly caring for her daughter, the Tampa Bay Times reported. According to the caller, Je’Hyrah was non-verbal and Denson seemed “overwhelmed and tired” from taking care of her.
A Hillsborough County Sheriff’s child-protective investigator wrote in a record of the initial report: “It seems like the mother is upset that she has these disabilities and (she) is not the baby she dreamed of having.”
On June 19th, someone called child services to report that Je’Hyrah had wandered off while visiting her great-grandmother’s home and walked to a nearby park. The tipster said they were concerned that Denson “is always tired and sleeping,” according to the report.
“The mother is easily distracted and doesn’t show much attention toward Je’Hyrah,” the tipster stated. “She just lets her run around and do what she wants. She doesn’t seem to have the maturity to address the special needs that Je’Hyrah has.”
During a June 20th visit to the home, an investigator found that Je’Hyrah seemed happy and healthy. The report stated that Je’Hyrah and her mother lived in a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment that was equipped with a security system and had no hazards. The mother and daughter also had a small dog, which the investigator said appeared to be friendly.
Denson told the investigator that she was shocked that someone had reported her and described herself as a great mother, but admitted that it was difficult taking care of a special-needs child as a single parent. She said she and Je’Hyrah’s father were not together, but he pays child support when he can, the report stated.
Denson denied that Je’Hyrah had ever wandered outside of their home, “but she is very preoccupied with water and always wants to jump in no matter where they are,” the report stated.
The investigator wrote in the report that Je’Hyrah seemed happy and energetic. She didn’t have any marks or injuries and responded to basic commands. The report noted that as the investigator and Denson walked through the residence, the girl would follow them.
The investigator said Denson told them her daughter’s autism diagnosis had changed her life. She said the girl couldn’t speak and would often throw tantrums. She said she kept the alarm in her apartment on to let her know if Je’Hyrah ever tried to wander outside. She said relatives helped care for her daughter, but she feared leaving her with others because they might not know how to deal with her behavior.
Denson said she worked 3 to 4 days a week at McDonald’s but was looking for a work from home job so that she could spend more time with Je’Hyrah. She said her daughter had received some behavioral therapy and she was working on getting her enrolled in the Florida Autism Center of Excellence (FACE).
“She denied that there is anything wrong with her that would prevent her from being able to take care of the child,” the report stated. “She denied that she is too immature to care for the child.”
The investigator also met with Denson’s sister, who sometimes helped watch Je’Hyrah. The aunt said her niece did try to wander sometimes, but Denson was good about supervising her, and she had no concerns for her well-being.
Two of Denson’s neighbors also said they had no concerns for the girl’s safety. The investigator noted in their report that Denson, who had two prior arrests for failure to appear in court, showed “no pattern of violent, impulsive, or concerning behavior.”
Investigators checked in again with Je’Hyrah’s grandmother in late July, and she reported that things were going well. By then, Je’Hyrah was linked with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, where she had been learning to communicate by pointing to pictures in a book. She had also been enrolled in the FACE school.
The investigation was closed on July 31st, concluding that there was no evidence of maltreatment, abuse or neglect. Two days later, Denson carried her screaming daughter to the Hillsborough River and left her to drown.
Denson was officially charged with murder in the first degree, aggravated child abuse and grand theft auto at her first court appearance on Friday, August 3rd. She was denied bond.
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