(Reuters) - Three Florida teenagers drowned early Thursday when the car they stole went into a pond and trapped them inside, authorities said.
"That car became a death chamber for those girls," Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said in a news conference Thursday.
The bodies of Dominique Battle, 16, Ashaunti Butler, 15, and Laniya Miller, 15, were found after the car drove into the pond around 4 a.m. EDT (0800 GMT) as the driver apparently was trying to evade police, Gualtieri said.
The deputies were not actively chasing the car and did not have their emergency lights on, Gualtieri said.
The car was stolen in St. Petersburg the night before, he said. The owner of the car told police a friend had borrowed it to give the girls a ride to a nearby park, the sheriff said.
On the way there, the friend stopped at a Walmart to buy a television, leaving the car running, and when he came outside, the girls had taken off with the car, Gualtieri said.
Hours later, the car was spotted driving with its lights off but police decided not to pursue when they couldn't pull it over, Gualtieri said. Later still, the deputies spotted the car in a cemetery and followed it but did not give chase, he said.
Then the deputies saw the car go into a pond inside the cemetery at about 35 miles per hour, he said.
"They tried to get in there and rescue those girls, and they just couldn't do it," Gualtieri said.
It is against department policy to actively pursue a nonviolent offender, he said.
Juvenile crime, especially grand theft auto, has been skyrocketing in recent years in St. Petersburg, Gualtieri said.
The three teens had, between them, seven arrests - most of them for grand theft auto, he said.
"On the eighth time, they died," Gualtieri said. "Unless we do something different, we will continue to see more lives lost. Three dead teenagers is not acceptable."
(Reporting by Karen Brooks; Editing by Alan Crosby)