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2010 death of Michelle O'Connell continues to generate controversy and coverage

11:53 PM, Nov 14, 2013   |    comments
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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. --  It's been more than three years since Michelle O'Connell was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head. But the passage of time has not made her death any less painful for her family or any less controversial in the world of law enforcement.

First Coast News first broke the story last year, after obtaining a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report that challenged initial determinations that her death was a suicide.

O'Connell didn't fit the profile of a typical suicide victim. Just 24, a devoted mom, she was vibrant, healthy, about to start a new job.

The night of her death, Sept. 2, 2010, the only person in the house was her estranged boyfriend, St. Johns County Sheriff's Deputy Jeremy Banks. The couple had been drinking and fighting throughout the night, Banks told deputies, and had decided to part ways.

In fact, moments before she died, Banks said, O'Connell was packing to leave.

The fact that Banks was a sheriff's deputy complicated the case. So did the fact that at the time of her death, Michelle O'Connell's mother and brother both worked at SJCSO.

But despite the close and concentric layers of involvement, the Sheriff's Office didn't turn the investigation over to an outside agency, FDLE, for four months.

That agency came to a very different conclusion. FDLE determined that O'Connell's death was not a suicide, but a homicide, and the agency's report appeared to implicate Banks. It noted that the county Medical Examiner who initially ruled the death a suicide later changed his mind - a view he confirmed to First Coast News.

"I became convinced it was probably a homicide." Dr. Frederick Hobin said.

Crime scene analyst Jerry Findley, hired by FDLE to review the case, concluded that many aspects of O'Connell's death were "suspicious",  including the fact that she appeared to be kneeling when the fatal shot was fired, and that the gun has been fired twice, once into the floor.

Findley also said that the gun that killed O'Connell, Banks' duty weapon, didn't have any of his DNA or fingerprints on it, even though he'd worn it to work that day.

However, 5th District State Attorney Brad King declined to prosecute, observing that three medical examiners and responding deputies all believed it was a suicide. In a March 12, 2012 letter, he said the conclusions of the FDLE report were "unpersuasive."

For his part, Banks consistently denied any involvement in O'Connell's death. His attorney, Mac McLeod, emphasized the point.

"There's nothing in this young man's past to suggest he's even capable of this type of conduct," he told First Coast News. "He's not abused anybody, and he sure as hell didn't kill anybody. He was as distraught as anybody about this death."

Sheriff David Shoar was prompted by the story to conduct his own investigation. Though Shoar acknowledged missteps by his employees, his 153-page report faulted FDLE's "atrocious" tactics.

Shoar accused the lead agent of falsifying information and coaching witnesses, and called for his dismissal. That agent, former agent of the year Rusty Rogers, was suspended pending an investigation. He remains on paid leave.

His boss, Special Agent in Charge Dominick Pape, subsequently resigned.

On Wednesday, McLeod filed suit on behalf of Banks against both Rogers individually and FDLE as a whole, saying they had damaged Banks' personal and professional reputation. The suit seeks a jury trial and "damages in excess of $15,000."

"I've never even been exposed to such a bizarre attempt  to say somebody has done something criminal as this," said McLeod in an interview with First Coast News on Thursday. "It's the scariest crap I've seen."

McLeod acknowledged the suit may stir up the conversation again. But the issue is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. The New York Times and Frontline picked up the story late last year and have collaborated on an investigation.

The Times story is expected to publish Sunday Nov. 24. The hour-long Frontline will air Nov. 26. Shoar has not agreed to be interviewed for either story.

In the meantime, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office wrestles with the ongoing attention.

As spokesman Chuck Mulligan told First Coast News last year, the case torn the agency apart.

"In my 25 years in the Sheriff's Office, I've never seen a case with as many people involved and as many experts involved -- and still have questions in the end."

Speaking to First Coast News today, Shoar said that in an effort to resolve lingering concerns about the case, he has posted some related documents on the SJSCO website. But he conceded that any true resolution in this case remains elusive. "It's a difficult case. You like to have happy endings. This is one case there's not going to be a happy ending. Even with lawsuits there's no winners.

"At the end of the day you still have a young woman who lost her life and orphan."

First Coast News

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