Chief: "More questions than answers" after mother drowned daughter in river

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The mother accused of murdering her child by throwing her in the Hillsborough River faced a judge this morning, but the quick hearing didn’t shed any light on the many unanswered questions in the tragic case.

A judge set no bond for Shakayla Denson, who faces a first-degree murder charge. She didn’t speak during the hearing, but wore an anti-suicide vest.

No motive has been established after Tampa police say the 26-year-old waded into the river Thursday afternoon and released 4-year-old Je'Hyrah Daniels into the water.

Chief Brian Dugan held a press conference after Friday's court hearing, but said his detectives are still digging into Denson's background and state of mind leading up to the tragic event. He explained his agency had "limited experiences" with her, and they were still unsure if Denson had any contact with the Florida Department of Children and Families.

It's also unclear whether Denson was under the influence of any substances.

"Unfortunately," Dugan said, "when you're dealing with these tragic situations, we tend to have more questions than answers...we still have a tremendous amount of information to sift through."

According to her arrest affidavit, Denson stole a 2007 Nissan Altima from a St. Petersburg car lot on 40th Street North just after 3 p.m. Two witnesses said the child was "forcefully pushed" into the backseat. One of the witnesses tried to stop Denson, but was struck by the stolen vehicle. That witness was not injured.

By 4 p.m., witnesses spotted the vehicle -- which still had a bright green price tag across the windshield -- parked near the Hillsborough River not far from the Columbus Drive bridge, and saw Denson pull Je'Hyrah from the car. 

"Witnesses say the child was screaming," Dugan explained. "At one point, both the child and the mother were screaming."

Dugan said Denson waded into the river until the water level reached her shoulders, and that's where she let go of Je'Hyrah and swam back to the bank as the child drifted under. The chief said they quickly found Denson walking southbound on Rome Avenue and she was taken into custody. 

Divers began searching the river at 4:16 p.m., and Je'Hyrah was found at 4:30 p.m. She was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital and was pronounced dead by 4:49 p.m.

The scene was tough on witnesses and first responders alike, the chief added.

"Our diver, when he found her and he brings her lifeless body to shore...I walked up to the diver and said, 'How old do you think she was?' He looked at me and he said, 'She's the same age as my child,'" Dugan recalled.  "So you can imagine what everybody was going through."