The Tampa police chief’s voice seemed to halt more than once Friday as he updated the public on the shocking death of Je’Hyrah Daniels, who witnesses said was carried into the Hillsborough River by her mother Thursday afternoon and left there to drown.
Shakayla Monae Denson, 26, is charged with first-degree felony murder, aggravated child abuse and grand theft auto, Chief Brian Dugan said during a Friday morning media briefing.
Dugan described the girl’s death as “quite frankly, tragic, chaotic and just downright unbelievable, all at the same time.”
The chief said investigators are struggling to determine why Denson would kill her daughter.
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“Unfortunately, when you deal with these tragic situations, we tend to have more questions than we do the answers,” Dugan said. “We’re still digging into Denson and what her state of mind is.”
He said his office has to use caution in discussing the case to keep intact the integrity of the investigation.
“We’re going to have to figure out what her mindset was that took her and put her in a place where she would leave a 4-year-old to drown in the Hillsborough River,” Dugan said.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that a GoFundMe page created by Denson under the name Kayla Denson in October stated that Je’Hyrah had recently been diagnosed with autism. The page, which has been removed since the girl’s death, sought help funding therapies.
A page established Friday by Jedaric Daniels, who identified himself as Je’Hyrah’s father, confirmed the autism diagnosis. Daniels’ page is asking for help with funeral expenses.
“I loved her with every bone in my body,” Daniels wrote. “Please help me lay Je’Hyrah to rest. She deserves a proper burial.”
WFTS in Tampa reported that the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office wrapped up an investigation into Denson’s parenting just three days before Je’Hyrah was killed. The agency’s Child Protection Investigation Division began a probe June 19 into allegations of inadequate supervision of the girl.
The investigative report obtained by the news station states that about a month before, the toddler was with her mother at her great-grandmother’s home when she wandered away to a nearby park. Though the distance from the house to the park was not listed, the case worker estimated it to be about a six-minute walk.
“The mother seems overwhelmed and tired with caring for Je’Hyrah,” the summary of allegations in the report says. “Je’Hyrah is (redacted) non-verbal, and it seems like the mother is upset that she has these disabilities and is not the baby she dreamed of having.
“The mother is easily distracted and doesn't show much attention toward Je'Hyrah. 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.”
The case worker assigned to the investigation reported that Denson’s home was appropriate and free of hazards and had a security system that sounded if a door was opened. Je’Hyrah appeared well cared for and had no bruises or other marks visible on her body, the report says.
“She was playing in the house during the visit and appeared to be happy, healthy and active,” the report states. “She was bonded with the mother and appeared to listen to basic commands.”
The case worker wrote that Denson denied not watching her daughter properly and said when Je’Hyrah wandered away to the park, it was the girl’s grandmother and great-grandmother who were supposed to be watching her.
One statement in the report was particularly chilling in light of Je’Hyrah’s subsequent death.
“(Denson) denied that the child has gotten out of her home, but (Je’Hyrah) is very preoccupied with water and always wants to jump in, no matter where they are,” the report says.
Denson’s sister and some neighbors were interviewed during the investigation and raised no alarms about Denson’s ability to care for her daughter. She was ultimately cleared of the allegations against her.
The investigation was closed on Monday, according to the report.
Denson made a brief court appearance Friday from the Hillsborough County Jail. She stood silently next to her public defender as a judge ordered her held without bond on the murder and child abuse charges. Bond on the car theft charge was set at $2,000.
‘Things just unraveled from there’
Dugan gave reporters a timeline of the slaying, beginning at 3:09 p.m. at Jordan Auto Repair, where witnesses told investigators they saw a woman steal a 2007 Nissan Ultima. The car repair shop is about two blocks from the Silver Oaks Apartments, which is listed in jail records as Denson’s home address.
“Things just unraveled from there,” Dugan said of the car theft.
Witnesses at the scene told investigators they saw the woman, later identified as Denson, force a young child into the back seat of the car. A witness who tried to intervene was struck by the car, but was not injured, Dugan said.
Denson was next spotted around 4 p.m. at the intersection of N. Rome Avenue and W. Aileen Street, which meet feet from the bank of the river about a block north of the Columbus Drive Bridge. Witnesses told detectives Denson exited the car and forcefully removed Je’Hyrah from the vehicle.
Photos from the scene show tiny pink and black Nike sneakers lying under the car, apparently removed from Je’Hyrah’s feet in the struggle with her mother.
“She started dragging Je’Hyrah by the arm and heads toward the Hillsborough River,” Dugan said. “Witnesses report the child was screaming and, at one time, both the child and the mother were screaming.”
See Denson’s bond hearing, recorded by CBS Miami, below
The witnesses told police Denson grabbed Je’Hyrah with both arms and pulled her close to her chest as she waded deeper into the water, the chief said. When she reached a spot at which the water was near the top of her shoulders, Denson released Je’Hyrah into the water, the witnesses said.
“She then turned around, the mother turned around, and headed back to shore, leaving Je’Hyrah in the water,” Dugan said.
The Times reported that witnesses saw the girl’s head and hands rise once above the water’s surface, then they disappeared.
A photo shared with WFTS by a witness appears to depict Denson wading away from the spot where she dumped her daughter.
Denson returned to shore and began walking south on N. Rome Avenue, the chief said. Police officers, armed with a description from the witnesses, located her at 4:16 p.m., less than a mile from the crime scene.
Dugan said police divers called to the river began searching the murky waters about the same time that Denson was taken into custody. The girl was pulled from the river about 15 minutes later and Tampa Fire Rescue medics rushed her to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 4:49 p.m.
About an hour later, the witnesses to the girl’s death positively identified Denson as the woman they saw dump her in the river, Dugan said.
The chief said the slaying has been hard on the people who witnessed it, who were plagued by a sense of helplessness as it unfolded very quickly before their eyes.
“You know, the river is very dark. You couldn’t see. There’s not much visibility,” Dugan said. “So I feel for their frustration of not being able to help the young girl.”
First responders were also affected drastically by Je’Hyrah’s death. Dugan described the moment the girl’s body was found by one of the divers who raced to the scene.
“When he found her and he brings her lifeless body up to shore, and he hands her over to Fire Rescue and they take her into the ambulance and haul her off to St. Joe’s, I walked up to the diver and I said to him, ‘Well, how old do you think she was?’” Dugan said. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘She’s the same age as my child.’
“So you could imagine what everyone was going through.”