Friday, December 30, 2016

PEOPLE MAGAZINE re: Michelle O'Connell murder coverup

Family and Friends of Florida Mom Michelle O’Connell Claim Her Death Was Murder — Not Suicide



Michelle O'Connell (left) and daughter Alexis
Police say a St. Augustine, Florida, woman killed herself with her boyfriend’s gun six years ago — but her relatives say they have proof she was murdered. Subscribe to PEOPLE now or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday, for more on this case.

When 24-year-old Michelle O’Connell died of a gunshot wound in St. Augustine, Florida, in September 2010, one thing was certain: The shot that killed her was fired from a service weapon belonging to her boyfriend, St. Johns County sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks.

Within hours of her death on Sept. 2, 2010, the case became surrounded by a controversy that persists six years later. Though investigations by the local sheriff’s office and three state attorneys have concluded O’Connell’s death was a suicide, those who knew her best claim they have proof of something more sinister.

They allege it was Banks who killed her as she prepared to end their relationship and escape his abuse — though investigators have dismissed this speculation, saying it lacks probable cause.

Banks, through his attorney, has also denied involvement. He has previously denied allegations he abused Michelle, and a sheriff’s internal investigation in 2010 “was unable to prove or disprove the allegations,” according to documents obtained by PEOPLE.

His attorney tells PEOPLE of the abuse allegations, “That information is patently false [and] has been demonstrated to be false.” Banks has also described fraught interactions with Michelle, according to the 2010 documents, including an argument about a month before she died in which she screamed and cried and said, “Sometimes [Banks made] her want to kill herself.”

That hasn’t deterred O’Connell’s friends and family. On their behalf, attorney Janet Johnson has requested the Florida Medical Examiners Commission convene a grand jury to review the case.

“They [friends and family] know better than anyone else whether she had it in her to commit suicide and no one talked with them,” Johnson tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “If they [investigators] didn’t know him [Banks], if he wasn’t a cop, if it were any other situation, they absolutely would have done that.”

Banks discovered O’Connell in their home that September day and was the one who first called 911 about her shooting injury. According to officials, she died of a gunshot wound to the back of her throat.

But O’Connell’s family is critical of the quick determination that she killed herself.

Michelle O’Connell
‘Michelle’s Bags Were Packed’

Just hours after her death, then-sheriff’s deputy Debra Maynard was sent to notify family members that the young mother had taken her own life — something she says haunts her to this day.

“Michelle’s bags were packed and on the couch,” Maynard, who was among the first responders on the scene, tells PEOPLE. “Typically, when a woman is getting ready to leave is the most volatile time. We know this, and statistics support it.”

Maynard’s suspicion is echoed by family and friends, who describe O’Connell as a doting mother to her 4-year-old daughter, Alexis — and a victim of Banks’ abuse.

“Everything revolved around Alexis,” childhood friend Ciara Morris tells PEOPLE. “Whether it was her job, where she worked, where she lived, where we hung out, it was always about what was best for Alexis. She would not have left Lexi without a parent.”

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Loved ones also say Michelle had no history of depression and was excited about recent changes in her life, including a promotion at the child care center where she worked.

Interviews and text messages on her cell phone reveal Michelle was busy making plans right up until the night she died. Earlier that day, she scheduled CPR classes required for her new position at work, signed up for benefits and planned breakfast with mother, Patty O’Connell, the next morning.

What’s more, multiple people say Michelle told them that, after attending a concert with Banks and brother Sean O’Connell, she intended to break up with Banks and move out of their home on the night of her death.

“She told me she was leaving him,” says friend Mindy Fox, adding that the two were saving money to rent an apartment together.

“We had plans for going out after the concert,” Fox says. “She told me she was going to go home, pack her stuff, make sure Lexi was okay and then she and I were going to go have a girls’ night out. We were texting throughout the evening, making sure that plans were still on.”

Sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks (right)
A History of Violence?

Michelle’s mom claims she witnessed Banks abuse her daughter.

“I actually saw him body slam her on the floor in my house,” Patty O’Connell tells PEOPLE. “That was the day I knew he wasn’t good for her.”

In a later interview with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about the altercation, Banks admitted to using a police tactic to bring Michelle to the floor during an argument when, he said, she attempted to slap him.

Alexis also accused Banks of abuse, according to notes from a July 2011 forensic interview with child welfare authorities. In those documents, a child protection worker wrote, “Alexis provided history of witnessing Jeremy Banks jumping on her mother and hitting her mother with a belt at their home. She reported her mother said, ‘Stop, stop,’ but Mr. Banks did not stop.”

Results of a second, private autopsy performed on Michelle’s exhumed remains earlier this year, at her family’s request, may support the abuse allegations. Orlando forensic pathologist Dr. William Anderson found that her lower jawbone was broken — a finding not mentioned in the earlier autopsy reports.

“The most reasonable explanation is that a hit in the jaw with a fist created the mandible fracture,” Anderson tells PEOPLE, noting that such blunt force trauma likely incapacitated Michelle prior to the fatal gunshot.

In a statement to the media, St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said, “The information presented is nothing new and all was reviewed during the initial autopsy.”

He described the ongoing attention as the work of “a few family members who will go to any lengths to maintain their moment in the spotlight.”

Friends and family believe that investigations by the sheriff’s office and state attorneys may have yielded a different conclusion if investigators had allowed them to tell their side of this story. Yet the O’Connell family, Fox and Morris all say their efforts to give statements were rebuffed.

“None of them ever wanted to speak to our side of our family,” Patty says. “What kind of investigation can you do without asking questions of both sides?”

Though Michelle’s case remains closed, they hope for a change.

“This is like a nightmare. But nightmares do end,” Patty says. “I think eventually this nightmare is going to end. I hope I live through it, that I’m alive to see the end of this and see justice for Alexis and her mommy.

“We knew she was trying to get away. If anybody wanted to live, it was Michelle.”


Melissa Niecko · Team Leader at Polaris Industries
I agree with the family, that Michelle was murdered. I read a very in-depth article from the NY Times that brings up multiple points that were left out of the inquisition of her case. First, even the ME could not remove Banks' service revolver from the holster. Second, the position of the gun to the body is inconsistent with a suicide. And, just listen to the 911 call. On the 911 call placed by her sheriff deputy boyfriend, he waits to ask for an ambulance, he tries to explain his story and who he is, before telling the address of where Michelle was.
Like · Reply · 7 · Dec 28, 2016 3:42pm

Sonya Serafin
Based on the information in this article and the unwavering concerns expressed by her family, there are clearly unanswered questions and do think this case should be relooked at by an objective, unbiased party. Good luck to all and hope conclusive closure can be found.
Like · Reply · 3 · Dec 28, 2016 10:39pm

Traci Estes-Gaidos
It sounds like some people are trying to protect a cop. Why was nobody in her family interviewed? Isn't that something you do, especially when you think it's suicide? You interview those closest to the person. It smells like one big cover up. When society already has trouble trusting police, why wouldn't you do everything by the book? Unless you don't want to...
Like · Reply · 2 · Dec 29, 2016 12:10am

Patricia Jensen
They did not interview neighbors, either. SJCSO protected Banks. I live in this county and I do not trust them. Watch the Frontline story "Murder in St Augustine" for more information about this case. It is a travesty of justice. I feel so sorry for Michelle's family - especially her daughter. :(
Like · Reply · Dec 29, 2016 10:12am

Barb Wheeler · Saint Augustine, Florida
This MURDERER lives on my street. 295 Lakeshore Drive, 32095.

I am sick of paying a salary to a known murderer. I know he's been protected by Sheriff David $Hoar because he is a Ponce/Meade descendent.

Michelle O'Connell's family deserves JUSTICE.

I will continue to watch his rented house, owned by Stacey Miller of BugAway.
I will hassle him every chance I have. If I have a opportunity to take him "out", I will.

I am watching.....
Like · Reply · Dec 29, 2016 1:11pm

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