Monday, November 25, 2013

The Whole World Is Watching I

The late Tammany Hall political Boss WILLLIAM MAGEAR TWEED (sometimes referred to as WILLIAM MARCY TWEED), once reportedly said, "It's them damn pictures," referring to the satirical cartoons of Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly, based on facts reported in The New York Times, including a four-page supplement showing accounting records, published on July 29, 1871.

Our estimable St. Johns County political boss, SHERIFF DAVID SHOAR f/k/a "DAVID HOAR" must feel thattaway today about yesterday's New York Times story -- half the front page and four inside pages, chock full of inculpatory photographs, diagrams, reconstructions and forensic evidence. Lt. Columbo would be proud!

Sheriff DAVID B. SHOAR is hurtin' for certain.


It is the facts and the revealing "damn pictures" that people around the world first saw in the Sunday, November 24, 2013 New York Times, both online and one million copies in print, and with more "damn pictures" that they are already watching on the PBS website, the PBS Frontline story, "A Death in St. Augustine," which airs on hundreds of PBS stations tomorrow night, November 26.

The whole world is watching.

How do we here in St. Johns County respond to the ineluctable facts of coverups, incompetence and desuetude of law enforcement here in St. Johns County, Florida?

What is to be done?

Sheriff SHOAR's actions are contrary to the decency and dignity of a free people.
We've made so much progress here, and SHOAR's actions threaten our future. Already people on the Times' website are commetnng they don't feel safe here as tourists or new residents, because of how SHOAR handled the O'Connell case.

Thanks to recent city reforms, the Mumford & Sons' "Gentlemen of the Road" tour, and now the Sheriff's irrefrabably disgraceful conduct, we're on the world stage now.

Our 450th birthday of St. Augustine is fast approaching in 2015.

We and the O'Connell family deserves answers about Michelle O'Connell's death.

Sheriff DAVID SHOAR's actions are an embarassment and stench in the nostrils of st. Johns County, and St. Augustine. They are also legally actionable.

Also, coverups, corruption and bigotry are also bad for tourism.

Coverups, corrupt and bigotry must be extirpated.

We need transparency, honesty and compassion for victims -- not arrogant high fives, oceans of emotions and refusals of recusals (and refusals to sit for interviews). (See below).

As the ancient equitable maxim says, "Let justice be done though the heavens fall."

To be continued....

Poynter Institute of Journalism: Sheriff in NYT-Frontline story removes message dinging reporter

Sheriff in NYT-Frontline story removes message dinging reporter

by Andrew Beaujon

Published Nov. 25, 2013 10:10 am
Updated Nov. 25, 2013 11:54 am

In a “Message to the Media” that later disappeared from his office’s website, St. Johns County, Fla., Sheriff David B. Shoar wrote he was originally “more than willing” to discuss the death of Michelle O’Connell with New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich, who wrote about the case and helped make a “Frontline” documentary about it. O’Connell’s boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, is a sheriff’s deputy in St. Johns County.

Reached by phone, a representative for Shoar’s office said it was adding more documents and the message should reappear later Monday.

Shoar eventually decided against an interview, he wrote in a Nov. 14 letter to Bogdanich that’s still online, after he became convinced that “your story has already been written.”

Bogdanich “subsequently sent me a brief list of questions that I could answer if I chose to,” Shoar writes in his message to the media, saying he was “struck after reading his questions not because of their tone and implications, because that was expected, rather I was struck by how few questions were asked for a case so complex that he had been investigating for nearly a year.”

Shoar’s office already had a page collecting documents about the O’Connell case, including some of his correspondence with Bogdanich, but it’s down, too. In his media message, Shoar saluted “the vast majority” of media members he says are “committed to the truth and clearly understand the difference in ‘reporting’ the narrative instead of ‘creating’ one.”

“For eight months, Walt Bogdanich tried repeatedly, without success, to interview Sheriff Shoar. On more than one occasion, the sheriff agreed to in-person or phone interviews, only to back out,” Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha writes in an email to Poynter. “As the publication deadline approached, Mr. Bogdanich sent Sheriff Shoar written questions in a last ditch effort to get his response to our findings and his perspective on the case. The deadline for the sheriff to answer came and went without any response.”

Related: New York Times, ‘Frontline’ collaborate on investigation of Florida woman’s death

Tags: Investigative journalism, The New York Times

Related Posts
New York Times, ‘Frontline’ collaborate on investigation of Florida woman’s death

The Whole World Is Watching II

See Florida Health News and London Daily Mail

The world is watching St. Johns County this week in the wake of the New York Times/PBS Frontline stories on the death investigation bungled by our controversial St. Johns County Sheriff DAVID SHOAR.
Experts agree: ST. JOHNS COUNTY SHERIFF DAVID SHOAR should have immediately recused himself and the SJCSO ab initio from the moment e learned of the shooting death of his deputy's girlfriend.
Recusal was the ethical imperative.
Recusal is what our late Sheriff Neil Perry would have done, some people say.
I know that recusal is what the St. Augustine City Manager John Regan and Police Chief Loren Lueders would have done if the O'Connell shooting had occured in our City limits on September 2, 2010, rather than in a subdivision development home in St. Johns County).
Recusal is what any ethical law enforcement officer would have done.
Who among us would disagree?
What do you reckon?
See below.

Health News Florida, Investigation: "A Death in St. Augustine"

Health News Florida 11:50 pm Sun November 24, 2013.Investigation: 'Death in St. Augustine'
Share on facebookShare Share on twitterTweet Share on emailE-mail Share on printPrint
.By Health News Florida Staff
The death of Michelle O'Connell, a 24-year-old St. Augustine woman found dead of a gunshot wound, seemed suspicious for many reasons: She had complained to her sister that her boyfriend had been abusing her, and she was in the middle of moving out when she died.

Enlarge imageCredit New York Times
Michelle O'Connell and Jeremy Banks
Neighbors heard a woman screaming before two shots rang out. Deputies found the boyfriend drunk and in a rage when they arrived. The gun that killed her was his, and she would have had to hold it upside down to kill herself with it. There was no note. And yet her death was ruled a suicide.

Could that be because the boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, was a deputy in St. John's County Sheriff's Office -- the same office that investigated the case?

In an exhaustive report, the New York Times and Frontline found that the detectives never tested the forensic evidence collected after the shooting. Nor did they interview O'Connell's family and friends, who would have told them she was excited about starting a new job and that she was a loving mother with a 4-year-old daughter she adored.

When the Florida Department of Law Enforcement County entered the case, tested the evidence and conducted a new autopsy, its investigators came to quite a different conclusion. Its forensic expert classified the death as a homicide. But as the Times reports, the state couldn't get the local state attorney's office to prosecute.

The Times said domestic abuse and even homicide are often unpunished if the offender is in law enforcement. The team went through 29,000 complaints against law enforcement officers in Florida and found domestic abuse draws the most misconduct complaints but other types of offenses are more likely to lead to job loss.

And it isn't just Florida. In a related story, the Times reports that a report of domestic violence by law-enforcement officers is much less likely to result in job loss than other types of misconduct.

The televised version of "A Death in St. Augustine" is scheduled for broadcast on most PBS stations on Tuesday at 10 p.m.

London Daily Mail on Michelle O'Connell Shooting Death Investigation: Family of cop's girlfriend who 'shot herself dead with his pistol' claim she was murdered and his colleagues covered up the crime

Monday, Nov 25 2013

Family of cop's girlfriend who 'shot herself dead with his pistol' claim she was murdered and his colleagues covered up the crime

•Michelle O'Connell, 24, from St Augustine, Florida died from a gunshot wound to the mouth in September 2010

•A weapon belonging to her boyfriend, deputy sheriff Jeremy Banks, was found by her side
•The Sheriff's office ruled it was suicide based on Mr Banks' account but a subsequent investigation by state police found it was murder
•They found the sheriff's office failed to test any evidence, interview family and neighbors or download data from Mr Banks' cellphone

By Helen Pow
PUBLISHED: 07:30 EST, 25 November 2013 | UPDATED: 08:18 EST, 25 November 2013

A Florida family who claim their daughter was shot dead by her sheriff's deputy boyfriend in a domestic violence dispute are demanding justice.
Young mother Michelle O'Connell, 24, from St Augustine, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the mouth in September 2010 with her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks' duty weapon by her side.
He claimed to have been in another room and that she took her own life.

But Miss O'Connell's family are convinced she was murdered and that Mr Banks' police colleagues helped him cover up his involvement.

Justice: Young mother Michelle O'Connell, 24, pictured, from St Augustine, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the mouth in September 2010 with her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks' duty weapon by her side

Their demands for a proper investigation into her death has now come to global attention as a result of a lengthy investigation by the New York Times.
It found that after Mr Banks told his colleagues his version of events -that Miss O'Connell had broken up with him and taken her own life - the St Johns County sheriff's department effectively halted their investigation.
No evidence was tested, no family or neighbors were interviewed and no data was downloaded from Mr Banks' cellphone despite the fact that Miss O'Connell had shown no signs of being suicidal prior to her death.

Her family told the paper that Miss O'Connell had been excited about a new full time job at a day care center and was enjoying being a mother to her 4-year-old daughter Alexis more than ever.

More...•Thug charged with hate crime after he brutally attacked Orthodox Jewish man at random in 'Knockout Game'
•Police officer arrested for 'raping 19-year-old woman in back of his car while on duty' in THIRD complaint of sexual misconduct

But hours before the shooting she had made the startling confession to her sister, Christine, that Mr Banks had been violent towards her for months.

She added that she wanted to leave him but was scared of how he would react if she did.

But Mr Banks' colleagues at the sheriff's office weren't interested in Christine's testimony - the only thing Mr Banks was reprimanded for was not securing his service weapon when he got home.

After months of pressure Sheriff David B. Shoar finally asked Florida Department of Law Enforcement to re-examine the case.
An investigation led by Rusty Rodgers found two neighbors who heard an argument that night and a woman screaming for help before gunshots and then silence.

Free: After Mr Banks, pictured, gave his colleagues his account - Ms O'Connell had broken up with him and was packing to move out when she shot herself - the St Johns County sheriff's department all but wrapped up their investigation

The women were submitted to polygraph lie-detector tests and passed.

The results meant that state investigators, and the crime reconstruction expert they hired, were all convinced the sheriff's department botched the original investigation and that Miss O'Connell's death was a murder and not suicide.

Mr Banks told the investigators that the couple were at a concert on the of Miss O'Connell's death and that she told him on the drive home she was leaving him.

He said they argued briefly in the car and then 'we got to the house, we were fine.'

According to him she went into another room to pack her belongings and then moments later he heard a pop.

But neighbors Stacey Boswell and Heather Ladley, who were not approached by the sheriff's department, told the state investigators a different story.

In separate interviews, they each said they were smoking cigarettes in Miss Boswell's open garage when they heard arguing and walked down the driveway to hear what was being said.

Miss Boswell described how she heard a man and woman screaming and said she knew 'there was something wrong.'
She added: 'There was nothing playful, no nothing. It was somebody that was scared.'

They then heard a woman shout out 'help,' a gun shot and then 'help' again and another gun shot. After that, there was silence.

Their account prompted the medical examiner Dr. Frederick Hobin to change his ruling from suicide to homicide.

The investigators in February 2011 also examined the forensic evidence that was taken from the crime scene but never tested for fingerprints, DNA or gunshot residue.
They found that there was no blood found on the gun, nor did it have any DNA or fingerprints from Mr Banks, which is surprising given he'd worn it on his belt on his previous shift.

The lab also detected two spots of Ms O'Connell's blood on the inside of Mr Banks' T-shirt which casts doubt over his claim that he was in a different room when his girlfriend died.

The state investigators' also questioned how the young woman came to have a bleeding cut above eye - a crime scene reconstructionist claimed the cut had occurred before the fatal shot, a defensive wound that indicated a struggle.

But just as it appeared likely that charges would be brought, the local state attorney jolted the investigation, citing his close relationship to the sheriff, Mr Banks' boss.

Happy: Rather than acting suicidal leading up to her death, Ms O'Connnell was excited about a new full time job at a day care center and enjoying her 4-year-old daughter Alexis more than ever, her family

A new medical examiner was appointed before the previous one officially changed his ruling from suicide to homicide. The new one backed the sheriff's original determination of suicide and claimed the bruise above Ms O'Connell's eye was caused by a tactical light on the gun.

Three experts told The New York Times investigation that they didn't believe this was physically possible.

Finally, the case went to special prosecutor Brad King who in March 2012 said he wasn't going to prosecute Jeremy Banks.

'The day my family met with Brad King I refer to as the second-worst day of my life,' Christine said, 'Losing my sister was the worst.'

The state investigators were so unhappy they called for a special inquest and the re-constructionist claims the prosecutor who came to talk to him seemed to be intent on confirming the ruling of suicide rather than re-examining the case.

He said: 'The whole tone of the interview was for me to tailor my report or soften my report to where it would be more conducive to suicide rather than homicide.'

The memo explaining his decision said the testimony of the two witnesses who heard shouts and gunfire did not 'support any type of homicide conviction on its own.'

In the end the prosecutor rejected the call for an inquest, a decision which was greeted with gushing praise by the sheriff effectively closed the case.

However, when the newspaper started asking questions a year later he launched an inquiry into the state agency's investigation, alleging misconduct on behalf of the investigators.

In March a report was released a report which claimed the second set of investigators hyped up their case against Mr Banks and coached witnesses.

The report also claimed that the two witnesses had confessed they often smoked marijuana together and couldn't remember if they had done so that night even though the women said this was categorically not true.

Three years later, Michelle O'Connell's mother, sisters and brother continue to believe she didn't kill herself.

Chrisitine added: 'It's unfair to my sister, to her memory, to her daughter and to my family, I still am hopeful that eventually, it may be 20 years, but eventually, we will have justice for my sister and for her daughter.'

Read more:
We Demand a Grand Jury

Two Gunshots on a Summer Night

Read more:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

We shall overcome!

"Let's give these two guys a hand!" --- Walt Bogdanich and Glenn Silber have performed a great public service in their New York Times/PBS Frontine investigation of the September 2, 2010 shoooting death of a St. Johns County Sheriff's Deputy's girlfriend.

The Times article, "Two Shots on a Summer Night," and the PBS Frontline story, "A Death in St. Augustine," both end with a chilling videotaped quote from SHERIFF DAVID B. SHOAR at a pep rally for the deputy, which was attended by the deputy's parents, whom SHOAR said he had known for a "long, long, long time."

At the conclusion of the story, SHOAR is shown on videotape saying of the deputy and the alleged "suicide" shooting victim's brother "Let's give these two guys a hand."

Spoliation of evidence occured on a massive scale.

"This investigation stinks," says a forensic expert. The suicide explanation defies the laws of physics and logic. Enough. We need a federal investigation.

Refusal of Sheriff David Shoar and State's Attorney Ralph Joseph Larizza to sit down with investigative reporters is inculpatory, reminiscent of our “Fifth Amendment Governor,” RICHARD SCOTT, who once invoked the Fifth Amendment some 75 times in depositions in federal fraud cases where his Columbia/HCA paid $1.6 billion in fines for Medicaid/Medicare fraud.

We need a new Sheriff and new Medical Examiner.
We need competitive elections.

We need better oversight – Ombuds and Inspectors General for local government agencies.

We need government charters that define limited government and protect human rights.

We need more women Sheriffs. There are currently only two serving in Florida.

We need to end Officer Involved Domestic Violence (OIDV).

We need more local newspaper investigative reporting.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, Hannukah, Christmas and Solistice, our prayers are with the O'Connells and with all the victims of OIDV.

We're reforming our cities of St. Augustine and S. Augustine Beach. Let's focus now on St. Johns County. As President Johnson said after Selma, "We shall overcome."

What do you reckon?

Ed Slavin
Box 3084
St. Augustine, Florida 32085-3084

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Quo vobis videtor?

That's Latin for "what do you reckon?"
Read below the New York Times and PBS Frontline investigation concerning the O'Connell case, Officer Involved Domestic Violence (OIDV), and two elected local law enforcement officials.
Watch the PBS Frontline program Tuesday, November 26th.
Demand answers.
Keep asking questions.
Keep making disclosures.
Expect democracy.

New York Times/PBS Frontline Investigation of the O'Connell case

A Death in St. Augustine
Two Gunshots
On a Summer Night
A Deputy’s Pistol, a Dead Girlfriend, a Flawed Inquiry

By Walt Bogdanich and Glenn Silber

News of the shooting arrived via police radio as Deputy Debra Maynard and two other officers were sipping late-night coffee at the Hess gas station, a brightly lit outpost on a slumbering stretch of Dixie Highway on St. Augustine’s south side.
“The call came out, Signal 18, shot fired, possibly one of our own,” Ms. Maynard recalled. “When you hear it’s one of your own — adrenaline’s pumping.”
At 11:25 p.m., the three St. Johns County officers arrived at 4700 Sherlock Place, a one-story suburban house in this historic seaside community. A young deputy, Jonathan Hawley, was already there. “Oh my God,” he cried, seeing a young woman he knew lying on the bedroom floor, an inert, bloody mess.
Michelle O’Connell, 24, the doting mother of a 4-year-old girl, was dying from a gunshot in the mouth. Next to her was a semiautomatic pistol that belonged to her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a deputy sheriff for St. Johns County. A second bullet had burrowed into the carpet by her right arm.
Ms. Maynard quickly escorted Mr. Banks, who had been drinking, out of the house. “All of a sudden he started growling like an animal,” she said. With his fists, Mr. Banks pounded dents in a police car.
“I grabbed him and tuned him up,” another deputy, Wesley Grizzard, recalled. “I told him, I don’t care if you’re intoxicated or not, you better sober up.”
Within minutes of the shooting on Sept. 2, 2010, Mr. Banks’s friends, family and even off-duty colleagues began showing up, offering hugs and moral support. He huddled with his stepfather, a deputy sheriff in another county, before a detective interviewed him in a police car.

Mr. Banks’s Account
Detective Jessica Hines interviews Jeremy Banks on the night of the shooting. (3:17)Hines: All right, this is Detective Hines. It isofficially September 3rd at 1:23 in the morning.
Jeremy... I'm here with Jeremy Banks.
Hines: Jeremy, tell me about tonight. Where...Tell me where you were you at, what did you guys have going on?
Banks: We were at the amphitheater for the concert that went on.And, but, we argued a little bit there.
We, you know, argued a little bit earlier today, but nothing terrible.
Just we were both fed up with each other’s bullcrap that we’ve been going —
Banks: we’ve been dealing with.We’ve been together a year and some odd months.
I guess a month now. But – um...
We were at the show, I enjoyed the show, she enjoyed the show from what I understand.
Banks: And in the car, we were talking about it. We had decided that we were gonna break up.She was gonna move out.
25 seconds later
Banks: We came home and we weren’t arguing when we got home.We got home and
We, we talked about it, we just said, you know, enough’s enough.
We’ve been fighting, we’re done
Banks: and we’re tired of each other’s ——.I told her that I do love her, that I love Alexis, her little girl.
But, I just don’t feel like she’s — that we’re best friends any more.
We just, it’s not working out. And she agreed...
8 seconds later
Banks: I sat on my motorcycle and that’s when I...I heard the gun pop.
Hines: You... You were outside in the yard? Driveway?Banks: My motorcycle was in the garage, I was sitting on it with my head down.Just upset about, you know, the breakup.
Hines: Sure.Banks: I heard it pop and I knew exactly what it was.Just instinct. I just said, “Oh ——.”
And I ran inside, I started screaming her name and the bedroom door was locked and...
I screamed her name again.
Banks: I heard it go off again for the second time.I ran into the living room, I grabbed the phone, and I kicked the bedroom door in.
And I found her laying where she is.
And the sheriff’s office showed up.
Hines: OK.5 minutes 3 seconds later
Hines: What was it —  what’d you get to drink tonight?Banks: I was drinking beer.Hines: What kind of beer?Banks: Bud Light.Hines: Ugh.Banks: Big ones.Not gonna lie.
Hines: How many do you think you had?Banks: Four? Five maybe?Hines: OK.6 minutes 9 seconds later
Hines: And I know this part’s really hard, Jeremy, but...When you did get that door open...
You’re on the phone with 9-1-1. Tell me, tell me exactly what you did.
Banks: I kicked the door open.I kind of veered in and I saw her feet. I ran in.
I saw the blood coming out
and I just grabbed her hand and I started
Banks: I dialed 9-1-1.
.With his off-duty sergeant listening from the front seat, Mr. Banks gave this account: Ms. O’Connell had broken up with him and was packing to move out when she shot herself with his service weapon. He said he had been in another room.
Ms. O’Connell’s family, immediately suspicious, received a starkly different reception from the authorities. Less than two hours before she died, Ms. O’Connell had texted her sister, who was watching her daughter: “I’ll be there soon.” Yet when her outraged brother tried to visit the scene, officers blocked his way. The family’s request for an independent investigation was rebuffed, as was one sister’s attempt to tell the police that in the months before she died, Ms. O’Connell said she had been subjected to domestic abuse by Mr. Banks.
Before the sun rose the next morning over this place that calls itself “the nation’s oldest city,” the sheriff’s investigation was all but over.

Michelle O’Connell and Jeremy Banks, in a photo provided by the O’Connell family.Ms. O’Connell, the sheriff’s office concluded, took her own life. Detectives were so certain in their judgment that they never tested the forensic evidence collected after the shooting. Nor did they interview her family and friends, who would have told them that she was ecstatic over a new full-time job with benefits, including health insurance for her daughter.
Over time, though, the official narrative began to change. The sheriff asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to re-examine the case, and investigators found two neighbors who said they had heard a woman screaming for help that night, followed by gunshots. Their account prompted the medical examiner to revise his opinion from suicide to homicide, a conclusion shared by the crime reconstruction expert hired by state investigators.
Eventually, however, a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Rick Scott decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute and closed the case early last year. But that was hardly the final word. The state law enforcement agency asked for a special inquest into the death, saying significant questions remained. The sheriff, David B. Shoar, struck back in support of his officer, prompting an extraordinary conflict between two powerful law enforcement agencies.
And through it all, the O’Connell family continued to believe that the sheriff’s office, investigating one of its own, had blinded itself to the possibility that the shooting was a fatal case of domestic violence.
Domestic abuse is believed to be the most frequently unreported crime, and it is particularly corrosive when it involves the police. Taught to wield authority through control, threats or actual force, officers carry their training, their job stress and their guns home with them, amplifying the potential for abuse.
Related article: Departments Slow to Police Their Own AbusersYet nationwide, interviews and documents show, police departments have been slow to recognize and discipline abusers in uniform, largely because of a predominantly male blue wall of silence. Victims are often reluctant to file complaints, fearing that an officer’s colleagues simply will not listen or understand, or that if they do, the abuser may be stripped of his weapon and ultimately his family’s livelihood.
Officers investigating possible domestic violence face special circumstances “when it’s somebody you know or you’ve worked with,” said Mark Wynn, a former Nashville police official who teaches departments how to use model rules for handling domestic violence in their ranks. “Like the military, you build bonds together by saving one another’s lives.”
The model rules, issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, insist on zero tolerance for abusers and urge departments to begin formal investigations of all complaints immediately. Yet most departments, including the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, follow only parts of the policy. Law enforcement officers in Florida are arrested on charges of domestic abuse more often than they are on charges of any other form of misconduct, but other offenses are far more likely to cost them their jobs, according to an analysis by The New York Times of more than 29,000 complaints received by the state.
In St. Johns County, a review of records found three cases in recent years in which sheriff’s officers failed to open immediate investigations of domestic-abuse reports involving their colleagues. Two years before Ms. O’Connell’s death, supervisors learned of accusations of domestic abuse against an officer, but followed up aggressively only after his frightened wife fled the house naked, clutching her child, and called the authorities. Dismissal was recommended, but the sheriff kept the officer on staff.
The O’Connell case, in which the sheriff’s department failed to explore the possibility of domestic violence, is a vivid demonstration of what can go wrong in an inquiry when the police, lacking effective supervision and a clear mandate, confront potential abuse in their own ranks.
“Death in St. Augustine,” a “Frontline“ documentary produced in conjunction with this article, will have its premiere at 10 p.m. Tuesday on most PBS stations. A preview is online now.The Times examined the case in collaboration with the PBS investigative news program “Frontline,” reviewing police, medical and legal records, interviewing dozens of people connected to the case, and consulting independent forensic and law enforcement experts.
The examination found that the investigation was mishandled from the start, not just by the sheriff and his officers, but also by medical examiners who espoused scientifically suspect theories that went unchallenged by prosecutors. Because detectives concluded so quickly that the shooting was a suicide, investigators failed to perform the police work that is standard in suspicious shootings, including collecting and testing all available evidence and canvassing neighbors.
“This investigation stinks,” said Vernon J. Geberth, a former New York City police commander and the author of a widely used textbook on investigating suspicious deaths, who reviewed the case at The Times’s request. “Every death investigation should be treated as a homicide until proven differently.”
Sheriff Shoar, the most powerful elected official in this North Florida county and a former co-chairman of its domestic violence task force, declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a letter to The Times, he said, “I have a long history of holding subordinates accountable.”
Yet only when The Times began examining the case more than two years after the young mother’s death did the sheriff publicly acknowledge that his investigators “prematurely embraced the mind-set” that she had killed herself.
Even so, he defended his inquiry in a 153-page report and attacked those who had found fault with it, particularly two agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. At the sheriff’s request, the state agency is investigating his accusation that the agents engaged in misconduct during their inquiry.
Mr. Banks declined to be interviewed. But he has told investigators that he never harmed Ms. O’Connell. He recently filed suit against the state agency and its lead investigator, alleging misconduct.
In his letter, Sheriff Shoar called Mr. Banks a fine young man stigmatized for life.
“This case,” the sheriff wrote, “has been and always will be a suicide.”
The First RespondersWhat struck Crystal Lynn Cuzzort most were the little red slippers, just like ones her daughter used to have.
“I remember looking around and seeing little kids’ stuff and pictures,” said Ms. Cuzzort, one of the paramedics who was trying to save Ms. O’Connell as her airway filled with blood.
Ms. Cuzzort found herself wondering what had really happened. “Not that it’s out of the ordinary for anyone to commit suicide — we know that — but it is not common that a girl that age, 23, 24 years old, however old she was, but to have a young child and to commit suicide. She was a really pretty girl, and it looked like she was well taken care of,” she said. “She just didn’t fit the picture of typical suicide.”
Twenty-three minutes after the police arrived, Ms. O’Connell was pronounced dead.
The following account of that night is based largely on sworn, recorded interviews by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
playpauseThe 911 Call
Mr. Banks reports the shooting. (1:06)Operator: 9-1-1.Banks: Hey!Please get someone to my house, it’s 4700 Sherlock Place.
Operator: What’s going on?Banks: Please, it’s my girlfriend, I think she just shot herself, there’s blood everywhere, please— Operator: She what?Banks: She shot herself. Please— Operator: OK, one— Banks: Please just get somebody here please— Operator: Ma’am? Ma’am, I need ya to calm down.Banks: It’s mister, it’s sir!Operator: Ma’am, listen to me.Banks: It’s sir, it’s sir. Listen, hang on, now look here, let me tell you the truth.I’m Deputy Banks with the St. Johns County sheriff’s office. I’m, I work with ya’ll.
Get someone here now!
Operator: OK I need you to calm down, then. You know how it goes.What's the address? I don't— 
Banks: 4700 Sherlock Place.Operator: OK, what's going on there?Banks: — my girlfriend just shot herself with my duty weapon.Please get someone here now. Please.
Operator: Sir, we’re doing that while I’m talking to you. Is she still breathing?Banks: No! There’s blood coming out of everywhere. Please— Operator: OK, so she’s not breathing.Banks: Call dispatch on tac 2, get them here now.Operator: Sir they are on the phone, I need you to calm down.Banks: — please, please, please— Operator: Jeremy, we're coming as fast as we can, OK?Calm down for me, OK?
Banks: Please, you don’t understand, she just shot herself.Please get someone here, please!

.The job of informing the family fell to Ms. Maynard and another officer. They stopped first to tell Ms. O’Connell’s brother Scott, himself a St. Johns deputy. He had introduced his sister to Mr. Banks.
“I said, ‘Michelle’s not with you anymore,’ ” Ms. Maynard said. After the initial shock, he “did the strangest thing,” she said. “He immediately got up and got his gun, and we weren’t sure what he was going to do with it. And brought it to us and his car keys and said: ‘Please take these away from me right now. Get them out of here.’ ”
Mr. O’Connell then drove with Ms. Maynard to see his mother, Patty, who also worked at the sheriff’s office, as a file clerk. “My mom opened the door with a smile on her face — heartbreaking,” he said.
Back at 4700 Sherlock Place, investigators knew little beyond what Mr. Banks had told them — that after hearing the first shot, he ran in from the garage, heard the second shot, broke down the locked door and called 911. There was no suicide note, no apparent witnesses. A child suddenly had no mother to care for her.

Diagram based on police photos of the scene.
And the sheriff faced an important decision: have his office investigate the case itself or, as is often done when an officer may be involved in a suspicious shooting, call in independent investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
If anyone seriously considered this, it is not reflected in the sheriff’s official reports. The next month, Sheriff Shoar’s point man on the case, Lt. Charles Bradley, told the O’Connell family that the state’s investigators did not have the experience for the task.
“To be honest with you,” he said, according to a recording of the meeting, “my investigators are far and above better than what F.D.L.E. is ever going to give you.”
He did not disclose that the two lead detectives on the case had worked just three homicides between them, or that one supervisor had been disciplined for an “inept” investigation of an attempted murder, records show.
Lieutenant Bradley did object to the tone of the family’s questions.
“I feel like this is a damned inquisition on me,” he said. “I haven’t done anything wrong, guys. The sheriff’s office hasn’t done anything wrong.”
The early consensus among the detectives was that Ms. O’Connell had taken her own life. “For her to stand still and allow somebody to put a firearm in her mouth is ridiculous,” Eugene Tolbert, one of two detectives on the case, said.
Plus, there was “absolutely no bruising on Michelle,” indicating the absence of a struggle, Lieutenant Bradley told the family. That wasn’t exactly correct: she had a bleeding cut above her right eye, an injury that would become a central forensic issue in the case.
Not all of the officers were so certain about what had happened.

“I’ll just say it — when I first walked into that room, the first thought that went through my mind was, this is not good for Jeremy,” said Sgt. Scott Beaver, who initially took charge of the scene. “We need to document the scene as it is as much as possible, because I felt there would be questions later on.”
“I’ll just say it — when I first walked into that room, the first thought that went through my mind was, this is not good for Jeremy,” said Sgt. Scott Beaver, who initially took charge of the scene. “We need to document the scene as it is as much as possible, because I felt there would be questions later on.”
At his direction, an officer took photographs that show the gun — a Heckler & Koch .45-caliber pistol — on the ground just inches from Ms. O’Connell’s left hand, suggesting that she would have used her weaker hand to shoot herself. Curiously, the gun’s tactical search light, attached to the barrel, is on. There is also the unexplained second bullet, buried in the carpet several inches from her body.
“I mean, I was in the homicide unit for a few years, and it didn’t add up,” Sergeant Beaver said. “But I didn’t do more investigation into this to see why things were like they were.”
Officers also found two empty pill bottles belonging to Mr. Banks visible in Ms. O’Connell’s open purse. Pills from those bottles were found in her jeans pocket, and tests later found alcohol but no trace of pills in her system. If she had intended to kill herself by overdosing, why did she shoot herself? Lieutenant Bradley theorized that Ms. O’Connell made a “snap” decision.
Still, she would have had to pull the gun from its retention holster — designed to make it difficult for an unauthorized person, particularly one unfamiliar with guns, to withdraw a weapon.
Detective Tolbert said that every time something “bugged me” about the crime scene, there was a plausible explanation.
“You could say, she was holding the gun in her left hand, but she’s right-handed — that’s suspicious,” he said. But if she was intent on suicide, it would not matter which hand she used.
“As far as two shots being fired,” the detective added, “that kind of bugged me. But the more I thought about it, well, if she’s not familiar with the weapon, which is kind of what I got by the fact that the tac light is on, maybe she’s sitting here and she’s looking at this thing and doesn’t know how and, you know, then lets one ride by accident.”
The other detective, Jessica Hines, said she found nothing to suggest anything other than suicide.
Hours later, a sheriff’s officer, dropping off Ms. O’Connell’s car keys, visited her sister Christine. “He comes up and says: ‘Well, the investigation is done. It’s a suicide,’ ” she said.

Michelle O’Connell’s sister Christine; her mother, Patty; and her close friend Ciara Morris.The quick embrace of suicide colored investigators’ decisions from the start.
“It’s almost in police officers’ DNA, when they hear the word suicide, it’s like, ‘Oh, O.K., it’s not an important crime,’ ” said Mr. Geberth, the expert on homicide investigations. “Assume the suicide position — take shortcuts, don’t do this, don’t do that.”
In fact, though investigators collected the gun, clothing and other evidence, they never tested it for fingerprints, DNA or gunshot residue. Officers also failed to canvass neighbors; failed to file required reports on what officers had seen that night; failed to download Mr. Banks’s cellphone data or collect and test one of the shirts he wore that night and failed to isolate and photograph Mr. Banks before he was interviewed.
Two days after the shooting, a medical examiner, Dr. Frederick Hobin, performed an autopsy and concluded that Ms. O’Connell had taken her own life.

One morning over coffee, Dr. Hobin explained that because suicides are so fraught with emotion, they should be investigated even more rigorously than homicides.
“Investigating a suicide,” he said, “is like letting out a black dog that will come back later and bite you.”
A Lack Of CuriosityAlthough there was no suicide note, investigators believed that they had found the next best thing — cryptic text messages expressing concern about her daughter, Alexis, that Ms. O’Connell had sent while attending a rock concert that evening with Mr. Banks and her brother Sean.

Ms. O’Connell at a rock concert with Mr. Banks hours before she died, in a photo provided by the O’Connell family.
“Promise me one thing,” she texted her sister Christine, “Lexi will be happy and always have atood life.”
To her brother Scott: “Lexi never forget.”
To investigators, the texts signaled a despondent young woman on the verge of suicide.
Remarkably, though, they never asked her sister and brother to interpret those messages. Had they done so, had they ever interviewed her family or friends, they would have heard a very different narrative: about a young woman with a new job and high hopes for an independent future, but also a fear of Mr. Banks and how he might react when she announced that she was leaving him.
Ms. O’Connell’s life had not been trouble-free. She grew up without a father and competed for attention and space with five older siblings in a crowded St. Augustine apartment. The ocean and beach were her escape.
“She was an amazing athlete,” said her eldest sister, Jennifer Crites. “She could climb a tree faster than anybody.”
By her early teenage years, she began doing poorly in school and rebelling. When she was 15, she was taken into custody after a fight with a brother. The police were called to the O’Connell apartment again the next year, after she fought with a sister.
But with medication and counseling for what juvenile records describe as anger problems and depression, Michelle turned herself around. Her schoolwork and attitude improved profoundly, earning praise and enthusiastic support from juvenile authorities and clearing the way for her to work part time caring for children. “She had a great little smile, and children would do whatever she said,” her mother said.
At age 20, she gave birth to Alexis. “Lexi was her world,” said Ciara Morris, a close friend. “Everything that you asked Michelle to do, it was always, ‘Well, how is this going to affect Lexi?’ ”
As a single mother, Ms. O’Connell sometimes had to work three jobs. So when she secured full-time employment in a day care center, she felt she had finally made it.
“She had the job of her dreams,” said Teresa Woodward, her employer and one of her former high school teachers.
“She could bring Alexis in and take her home with her. No weekends, no nights, and she loved that. She had retirement benefits. She had everything.”
Hours before she died, Ms. O’Connell left her mother a voice mail message, saying she would call the next day to make breakfast plans. She also stopped for lunch at Christine’s apartment.
playpauseMs. O’Connell’s voice mail
A message to her mother on the day she died. (0:16)Machine: Saved message.O’Connell: Hey, Mom, I’m sorry that you, uh,got upset earlier.
Just want to tell you I love you
and I will call you tomorrow morning
O’Connell: and hopefully we can have breakfast one day.All right, love you, bye.

.When the O’Connell family met later with Lieutenant Bradley, the sheriff’s representative, Christine complained that on the night of the shooting, officers had rebuffed her efforts to tell them what her sister had revealed at that lunch.
“I said: Am I allowed to submit a statement? Because she told me a lot of things about — and I’m just going to spell it out for anyone here — domestic violence. She came to my house, she said: ‘I’m leaving. I’m scared of this and that.’ And I said, ‘Michelle, don’t go to the concert,’ ” she told the lieutenant.
This information was of no use, the police told her, because it was hearsay.
Later, Christine told state investigators that Michelle said she might have to make Mr. Banks believe that breaking up was his idea.

Ms. O’Connell with her daughter, Alexis, in a photo provided by the O’Connell family.
In an interview with The Times, Christine recalled that a few months earlier, Michelle called to say she was bleeding vaginally after Mr. Banks had shown her “a submissive move” during play-wrestling that got out of hand. “He slammed me so hard, and he put his knee up into my chest,” Michelle told her, she said.
But Michelle would not let her call an ambulance. “She said, ‘Please, you’re going to make it hard on me. Please, I don’t want any trouble.’ ”
Christine O’Connell said there were other incidents that went unreported for fear of causing trouble for Mr. Banks and for her relatives who worked at the sheriff’s office.
On one occasion, two family members said, Ms. O’Connell told them that she had come home to find Mr. Banks masturbating to a cellphone picture of a former girlfriend; then, she said, he smeared semen on her face and hair. Mr. Banks denied the latter part of that story, records show.
playpauseThe ‘Leg Sweep’
Mr. Banks said he took Ms. O’Connell to the ground after she threatened him. (1:16)
Agent Rusty Rodgers: You said you had to sort of put her on the ground. How exactly did you do that?Banks: Well, I grabbed her wrist and I put my leg behind hers and I just kinda swung her around and I put it,I just held her wrist on the ground until she calmed down because I didn’t wanna get hit.
Agent: Would that be what you would classify as an armbar takedown?Banks: I would… More of a leg sweep. I, you know, I put my leg behind hers and I just kind of turned and used her own momentum.Agent: How tall are you?Banks: Uh, 6-1-ish?Agent: How much do you weigh?Banks: 225.Agent: And how big is Michelle?Banks: Uh, she was a good six inches shorter than me, I guess, maybe, I don’t know.Agent: The autopsy report said she was 5-foot-4 and weighed about 119 pounds.Banks: OK.Agent: So you felt it necessary to do a leg sweep on her?Banks: Well I felt it necessary to kind of neutralize the situation and not get hit.Agent: OK, that’s good in police jargon. We’re just talking amongst ourselves, here—Banks: Well I —Agent: person-to-person—Banks: I'm sorry I — you know, I —Agent: In other words, I’m just asking you as a person, as a person-to-person, not as a textbook response to a police inquiry, OK?I’m just saying, was she that aggressive toward you, where you felt like to had to do a leg sweep to take her down?
Banks: She said, “I hate you,” she threw a chair down, and she ran across the house after me, sir, I had to do what I – I did what I did to make sure I didn’t get hit.Agent: OK.
.And about a month before the shooting, during an argument that turned physical, Mr. Banks used a “leg sweep” to put her on the ground so she would stop hitting him, he told the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Mr. Banks weighed almost twice as much as Ms. O’Connell.
“She was afraid of him, and Alexis was afraid of him,” Christine O’Connell said.
Had investigators wanted to know Ms. O’Connell’s mood in the hours before she died, they could have asked her brother Sean, who was with the couple at the concert.
Seeing that Mr. Banks seemed “pissed off,” Mr. O’Connell said, he told him: “ ‘Why don’t you trade spots with me and Michelle? If you don’t want to hang out with her, I will.’ So we were hanging out, and we were hugging and listening to music, having a good time, and she seemed really happy.”
After Ms. O’Connell’s death, her family found photos from the concert on her camera. The last one was taken around the time she texted her sister that she would be there soon. She is smiling.
Upon learning that investigators believed she had killed herself, Ms. Woodward called the sheriff’s office to say Ms. O’Connell would never have done that. “We wanted to be interviewed,” she said. No one came.
Twelve days after the shooting, Mr. Banks submitted to a second interview. In the videotaped interview, he made a surprising admission — that he had read the department’s investigative file.
“I know I probably shouldn’t have, but I just wanted to know what went down on the other side,” he told the detective, who did not respond.
“How did he gain access to a confidential investigative report, and how come she didn’t challenge him on that?” said Mr. Geberth, the homicide expert.
“He was never treated like a suspect,” said Ms. Morris, Ms. O’Connell’s friend. “He was treated like a brother. I mean, that’s the best way I can put it. He was treated like a brother.”
The BoyfriendJeremy Banks comes from a law enforcement family. His father, now deceased, was an officer in the state’s wildlife division; his stepfather works for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

Jeremy Banks, right, in a photo provided by the O’Connell family.
Mr. Banks’s job conferred power and authority at a young age, no college required. He carried a gun, wore a uniform and held a largely recession-proof position in an organization that commanded deep respect in the community.
“I believed in the sheriff’s office wholeheartedly. My family, you know, worked for the sheriff’s office,” said Ms. O’Connell’s sister Jennifer.
Mr. Banks, 23 when Ms. O’Connell died, had been on the force nearly four years. Later, he would admit that he had not always had “the best reputation.” “I was looked at as a young punk, just cocky, just full of himself,” he told internal affairs officers after being brought up on departmental charges for making an obscene gesture in uniform.
In the O’Connell case, the only formal accusation against Mr. Banks, for which he was reprimanded, was that he had not secured his service pistol. Indeed, there are indications that he was not always careful in storing his guns.
Crime scene photos show two long guns leaning against the wall in Mr. Banks’s house. Although departmental policy requires that weapons be secured, Mr. Banks told investigators that he sometimes dropped his gun belt on the floor after work.
“He had guns everywhere,” said Michael Plott, a deputy who once roomed with Mr. Banks. “I told him he had to keep the guns locked up in his room when my kids were there.”
playpauseDeputy Plott on Mr. Banks
Statement from his former roommate. (1:28)Plott: He used to live with me. He used to live in my house.22 seconds later
Plott: He’s had temper issues. He’d get mad and he’d run out of the house.Walk down the street, disappear for a while.
1 minute 30 seconds later
Plott: He would just, he’d start, he’d drink and he’d just get pissed.You know, he’d throw —— around and just throw a fit.
30 seconds later
Plott: There was a couple times where, you know, I had to, you know...grab a hold of him, say, man, you just need to chill out, you know.
5 minutes 10 seconds later
Plott: There was one night. I think they’d just got back from the Conch House, and, um...He was...
Apparently a girl he was supposed to meet or was supposed to go and hang out with him.
She called and canceled and he just, you know, just got really pissed off.
Plott: It's like, dude, you know, there’s more people out there.He was just cold, and mad, and angry, and he went in his room and slammed the door.
And then he came back out a little bit later and ran out of the house and I was like, you know...
I told John, I says, you know, he’s just trying to get attention...
Plott: Let him, let him blow off steam. I’m not his father. I’m not his babysitter.
.Deputy Plott said his former roommate also had anger issues. “His temper was uncontrollable,” he said. “He’d drink and he’d just get pissed” and throw things around, Deputy Plott added. But both he and another former roommate of Mr. Banks agreed that they had never seen him violent.
Mr. Banks nearly got into a fight at Thanksgiving at the O’Connells. The eldest brother, Justin, felt that Mr. Banks had treated his sister shabbily and insisted he leave. Mr. Banks refused, and with tempers rising told Scott, his fellow deputy, that he was “Signal 0” — carrying a weapon.
“I said, ‘Well, Jeremy, why would you bring a gun into a Thanksgiving dinner?’ ” Scott O’Connell told state investigators. “It’s time for you to leave.” The argument ended there, but the party was ruined.
Mr. Banks told state investigators that over time, his yearlong relationship with Michelle O’Connell had devolved into near-constant bickering. So, on the ride home from the concert, when she said she was leaving him, “I said, ‘Are we breaking up?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ And I was, ‘All right.’ And we were talking about it, and we, we, I raised my voice, she raised her voice, we argued. But we got to the house, we were fine.”
Mr. Banks told investigators that back home, they did not raise their voices.
“We bought a dog sometime last year, and I asked her, I said, ‘Who’s going to get Chuck?’ She said: ‘You keep him. I’ve got Alexis, and I’ll be fine.” Everything was calm, he said, and “I told her I loved her.”
As she continued packing, Mr. Banks said, he asked for one last kiss. She said no and asked him to leave, so he retreated to the open garage to sit on his motorcycle and wait. Soon after, he said, he heard a pop.
“I knew exactly what it was.”
A Mysterious BloggerWithin days of the shooting, a woman at a computer 2,700 miles away in Washington State came across a tiny news article that struck her as odd. It reported that the unidentified girlfriend of an unidentified deputy sheriff in St. Augustine had used his service weapon to take her own life, and that no foul play was suspected.
Over the years, the woman, who blogs as “Cloudwriter,” had trained herself to spot suspicious cases of domestic abuse involving police officers. The subject had special meaning for her, she said, because she had had a troubled marriage to a police officer.
After reading the article, published Sept. 3, 2010, she became angry that the names had been withheld. “She deserved a name,” said the blogger, who does not want to be identified for fear of threats. “She deserved an investigation. She deserved media coverage. She deserved for the conditions to be examined the same as me. I would want that, and I want that for her.”
With few leads, she began posting on the Internet, looking for a name. Eventually she found it, along with the name of Jeremy Banks.
“Never did I say Jeremy did it,” she said, adding, “This was not a ‘Let’s crucify Jeremy Banks.’ This was, ‘Let’s find out what happened.’ ”
For the O’Connell family and friends, the blog became a rallying point. “She gave our family a voice,” said Ms. Crites, one of the sisters.
In January 2011, with the blog post drawing nearly 250 comments and the family complaining to the sheriff’s office about its investigation, Sheriff Shoar asked for an independent inquiry by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Leading the inquiry was Rusty Rodgers, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement, named the agency’s Special Agent of the Year in 2008 and the Investigator of the Year by the State Law Enforcement Chiefs’ Association in 2010. He was well known in St. Johns County, having been called in before on sensitive cases.
In the coming months, Mr. Rodgers would do what the sheriff’s office had not: He interviewed the O’Connell and Banks families and others. He sent evidence for testing, hired a crime reconstruction expert and interviewed many employees of the sheriff’s office.
Nothing made a bigger impact than his quick discovery of the two neighbors, Stacey Boswell and Heather Ladley, who said they were talking outside on the night the fatal shot was fired. Mr. Rodgers had gotten a tip from Ms. O’Connell’s friend Ciara Morris, who had heard that the women might know something important.
In separate interviews, the neighbors told Mr. Rodgers nearly identical stories: They were smoking cigarettes in Ms. Boswell’s open garage when they heard the faint sound of arguing. Curious, they walked down the driveway to hear what was being said.
A man and woman were screaming, Ms. Boswell said in an interview with The Times. “There was something wrong,” she said. “There was nothing playful, no nothing. It was somebody that was scared.”
What came next was unexpected. “We heard her yell ‘Help,’ and there was one gunshot, and then she yelled ‘Help’ again, and there was a second gunshot,” Ms. Ladley told Mr. Rodgers. After that, silence.
“It was probably 10, maybe 15 minutes, and then the sirens came,” Ms. Boswell said. “That’s why we didn’t call anybody.”
The next day, the women said, they learned from a news crew in the neighborhood that the shooting had occurred in a deputy’s house. “I wasn’t really sure if I should say anything,” Ms. Ladley said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be involved in giving a statement against a deputy.”
Their account called into question Mr. Banks’s statements that he and Ms. O’Connell had not argued or raised their voices at the house that evening. The women gave sworn statements. Given the profound implications of their accounts, Mr. Rodgers also arranged for the Secret Service to give them polygraph tests. Both passed.
On the basis of those statements, the pathologist, Dr. Hobin, changed his ruling to homicide.

After Sheriff Shoar called in the state investigators, he assured employees at a meeting that the agency “won’t find anything,” recalled Ms. O’Connell’s mother, who worked in the office.
It took Mr. Rodgers just two weeks to prove him wrong.
A Question of ForensicsFor months, the forensic evidence collected by the sheriff’s office had been sitting, unexamined. It was not until February 2011 that state investigators finally tested for fingerprints, DNA and gunshot residue. What they found raised a host of questions.
No blood was found on the gun, nor did it have any DNA or fingerprints from Mr. Banks, who had worn his gun belt on his previous shift. Ms. O’Connell’s DNA was found on the gun, but there was no trace of her on the two pill bottles in her purse.
The lab found a forensically insignificant amount of gunshot residue on Mr. Banks’s hands, even though he said he held Ms. O’Connell moments after she shot herself. Because a positive test can result from simply entering a room shortly after a gun goes off or by touching someone in that room, Mr. Rodgers suspected that Mr. Banks had washed his hands before the test — something he denies, records show. Significant residue was found on Ms. O’Connell’s hand.
The lab also detected two tiny spots of Ms. O’Connell’s blood on the inside of Mr. Banks’s T-shirt. He told investigators he did not know how the blood had gotten there.

Ms. O’Connell had a cut above her right eye, shown in an autopsy photo.
But the central forensic question concerned the bleeding cut above Ms. O’Connell’s right eye, and whether it was a defensive wound — a possible sign of a violent struggle before the fatal shot.
To make sense of all this, the agency sought the opinion of a crime scene reconstructionist, Jerry Findley. Mr. Findley, a former police officer who has testified as an expert witness more than 150 times, was known in St. Johns law enforcement circles, having consulted on three cases there.
Mr. Findley believed that the eye cut had indeed occurred before the fatal shot. The dimensions of the wound, he said, matched the protruding gun sight on the end of the pistol’s barrel.
That conclusion was in conflict with the finding of Dr. Hobin, who found no evidence of battery and attributed the cut to the ejected bullet casing. Firearms experts told The Times, though, that the casing would have ejected away from her eye.

Mr. Findley also thought the location of the two spent shells might reveal something about who fired the gun.
He acknowledged that the shells’ location can sometimes mislead investigators because rescue workers may have accidentally kicked them. But that was highly unlikely in this case, he said, because there were sizable objects on the ground between the body and the shells. “You’d almost have to have a pitching wedge or something of that nature to get them over,” he said.
Mr. Findley said he fired the gun 18 times in different positions and concluded that for the shells to end up where they had — in the corner of the room, behind and to the left of the body — whoever pulled the trigger had to have been left-handed. Unlike Ms. O’Connell, Mr. Banks is left-handed. Mr. Findley also wrote that he found the absence of Mr. Banks’s DNA on the gun “suspicious.” Mr. Banks has denied cleaning the gun before the police arrived.
In late April, Mr. Findley submitted his findings to the state agency.
“The totality of the circumstances are not consistent with suicide,” Mr. Findley concluded. “However, they are consistent with homicide.”

That conclusion energized the investigation. The state agency, which has no prosecutorial authority, began briefing the local state attorney, R. J. Larizza, and his staff. His investigators examined autopsy photos and noticed what looked like a broken tooth, not documented by the medical examiner. (Dr. Hobin has acknowledged that he should have documented the mouth more thoroughly.) Eager to learn if it had been damaged in a fight or by the gun, prosecutors began considering whether to exhume Ms. O’Connell’s body.
Then, with momentum building, the investigation was jolted by several events. In October, citing his close working relationship with the sheriff, Mr. Larizza asked the governor to appoint a special prosecutor. But before stepping aside, he told Dr. Hobin that he should wait for the new prosecutor before filing the revised finding of homicide, the pathologist said in an interview. Dr. Hobin never did file it, and he was soon joined by a new chief medical examiner, Dr. Predrag Bulic.
Mr. Larizza did not respond to messages asking about Dr. Hobin’s account and about why he had waited months to declare a conflict of interest.
Dr. Bulic aggressively took control of the case. Ms. O’Connell’s mother had agreed to the exhumation, but the effort came to a halt after Dr. Bulic said it “would not produce any further forensic evidence,” records show.
Dr. Bulic reviewed the case file and solidly backed the sheriff’s determination of suicide.
He argued that there were no signs of battery and offered yet another explanation for the cut above the eye: Ms. O’Connell, he said, had turned the gun upside down, put the gun barrel in her mouth and pulled the trigger with her thumb. At that moment, the tactical light attached to the bottom of the gun barrel — now on top — had broken the skin above her eye.
That assumes Ms. O’Connell could have taken the gun from the retention holster in the first place.
Dr. Bulic could not remove a replica of the gun from the same make and model holster provided by The Times. After struggling with it, he asked, “Does anybody know how to open it?”
Dr. Bulic said that he probably would have figured it out eventually. “I see your point,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that even a child cannot pull that by accident.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Bulic’s upside-down-gun theory would come to dominate discussion of the case.
But there was a problem: The laws of physics, not to mention crime scene evidence, made the theory not only highly unlikely, but virtually impossible.
“Dr. Bulic’s theory is fraught with problems and almost laughable,” said Peter De Forest, a widely respected forensic scientist. “It’s emblematic of the entire official investigation.”
Occam’s RazorDr. De Forest has spent a lifetime trying to make sense of complex crime scenes, while passing on lessons learned to generations of future investigators at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“We get this idea from the media that we have all this high-tech stuff being done all the time,” said Dr. De Forest, who has a doctorate in criminology and has served as a consultant and expert witness for the police, prosecutors and defense lawyers. “The reality is that in many cases, there’s very little scientific input early in the investigation.”
That is particularly true, he said, in smaller jurisdictions like St. Johns County, where investigators have little experience with complex crimes. “Much of the problem in this case stems from a very cursory scene investigation and a very cursory autopsy,” he said. “Because of it, normally avoidable ambiguities abound.”
Given the significance of the cut above Ms. O’Connell’s eye, The Times asked three independent experts to evaluate Dr. Bulic’s finding that the tactical light cut into her skin as the gun was fired. All said the theory lacked credibility.
“The idea of it recoiling forward is absurd,” Dr. De Forest said. “Basically it appears to be an attempt to explain the wound without considering the possibility of antecedent physical violence.”
Peter Diaczuk, a firearms expert at John Jay, said he had fired guns tens of thousands of times and never experienced a gun moving forward. With a reporter present, he test-fired the same make and model gun with the same tactical light and documented the result with high-speed photography. “The tac light went rearward along with the rest of the gun,” he said.
Mr. Geberth, the New York expert on homicide investigations, said it was “absolutely ludicrous” that Ms. O’Connell “would take a gun, turn a tac light on, turn it upside down to shoot herself.”
Dr. Bulic’s theory was flawed for another reason, according to Dr. De Forest and Mr. Diaczuk: If Ms. O’Connell held the gun as Dr. Bulic suggested, the spent casing might not have ejected, because her grip — left hand underneath, right thumb pulling the trigger — would have covered the ejection port or impeded the rearward movement of the slide that ejects the shell.
If the shell had ejected, it would have gone in the opposite direction from where it was found. In addition, her hand would have been wounded, the experts said.
“This slide comes back incredibly fast and has two very sharp edges on the bottom rail,” Mr. Diaczuk said. Autopsy records mention no wounds to the hands.
Finally, Dr. Bulic appears to have measured the gun incorrectly. He said the distance from the outer rim of the tactical light to the gun barrel precisely matched the distance — 3 inches — from the cut above Ms. O’Connell’s eye to her mouth. As proof, Dr. Bulic taped a picture of the actual gun on top of an autopsy photo of Ms. O’Connell’s face.
But Mr. Diaczuk measured the gun and found that the distance from the outer rim of the tactical light to the top of the gun barrel was 2 3/16 inches — a “huge” error. “I’m not saying that the tactical light could not have made that injury,” he said. “I’m saying that it did not make that injury at the same time that the fatal shot was fired because it simply doesn’t line up.”
The Times gave Dr. Bulic the replica of the gun and tactical light, which measures within a tenth of an inch of the actual weapon, and asked him to demonstrate how the eye wound might have occurred. When he placed the barrel in his mouth, the tactical light came nowhere near the skin above his eye.
To Dr. De Forest, there is a simpler — and more plausible — explanation: Ms. O’Connell was battered before the fatal shot.
“There’s an old principle of logic,” he said, “called Occam’s razor — that if you have to twist things around and have a lot more explanations, that the simplest answer is often the best one.”
Special Prosecutor DecidesAs the new year approached, the O’Connell investigation had followed an increasingly tangled path. It fell to the special prosecutor, Brad King, a longtime state attorney from a nearby district, to assess the two opposing scenarios of how Michelle O’Connell had died.
In March 2012, Mr. King’s office contacted the O’Connells and said he and his team would deliver his decision at the St. Augustine courthouse.
Everyone sat around a long table, and as Mr. King made his opening remarks, Ms. O’Connell’s mother grew impatient.
“They were beating around the bush, just giving real vague descriptions of what was going on, and she says, ‘Are you going to prosecute Jeremy Banks for the death of my daughter or not?’ ” recalled Michelle’s sister Jennifer. “And he said, ‘No, ma’am.’ ”
“The day my family met with Brad King I refer to as the second-worst day of my life,” the other sister, Christine, said. “Losing my sister was the worst.” Scott, the brother who worked as a deputy for Sheriff Shoar, unleashed a tirade so emotionally charged that it cost him his job.
Dominick Pape, the head of the state law enforcement agency’s Jacksonville office, was so unhappy that he called for a special inquest.
According to a five-page memo from Mr. King’s office, the decision had been based primarily on the pathologists’ findings. “Three medical examiners have reviewed the file and concluded that this was a suicide,” it states. To Mr. Pape, their conclusions — particularly Dr. Bulic’s upside-down-gun theory — were confusing and unpersuasive.
Dr. Hobin, the original pathologist, would ultimately change his finding three times. After saying it was suicide and then homicide, he told a local reporter he did not know what had happened, before telling The Times that he again believed it was suicide.
Mr. King had also asked a former medical examiner in his district, Dr. Steven Cogswell, to review the case.
As a military pathologist in the mid-1990s, Dr. Cogswell had been criticized for concluding that Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had been shot in the head before his plane crashed in Croatia, killing all aboard. Air Force officials categorically rejected his finding.
Asked about the O’Connell case in an interview, Dr. Cogswell said he could not recall it in detail.
Mr. Pape also complained that Dr. Bulic and Dr. Cogswell had not written reports explaining their decisions. Dr. Bulic said he had not done so because the case was actually Dr. Hobin’s, not his. He said he had looked into the case “out of my pure curiosity and to satisfy the many different people who came and asked about my opinion.”
As for Dr. Cogswell, Mr. King said, “I simply was not willing to spend 5,000 taxpayer dollars to get another report to say it’s suicide.”
The crime scene reconstructionist hired by the state agency, Jerry Findley, also took issue with the special prosecutor.
When Mr. King’s investigators came to talk to him, Mr. Findley said, “the whole tone of the interview was for me to tailor my report or soften my report to where it would be more conducive to suicide rather than homicide.”
In the prosecutor’s memo, investigators wrote that Mr. Findley had not considered the upside-down-gun theory.
“That’s a lie,” Mr. Findley said. “I did consider that, and like I told them, I ruled it out fairly fast,” because guns recoil after firing and the shells would have ejected in the opposite direction from where they were found.
That was affirmed in several tests conducted by Mr. Diaczuk.
Mr. King backs his investigators. “It’s not in his report that he ever test-fired the gun upside down,” he said in an interview. “You can’t predict necessarily where a shot shell is going to end up. You simply can’t.”
He also disputed firearms experts’ statements about the tactical light and the eye wound. “The recoil is essentially going to make the tactical light move forward into the face as opposed to away,” said the prosecutor, a former deputy sheriff. “That is also consistent with my years of training with firearms.”
For all that, Mr. King never explicitly stated that Ms. O’Connell had killed herself. He simply concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to bring charges.
The memo explaining his decision said that while the two witnesses who heard shouts and gunfire that night appeared credible, their testimony did not “support any type of homicide conviction on its own.”

In the interview with The Times, Mr. King said that looking at the evidence, “I think even you have to say it’s legitimately possible that she killed herself. And if that’s the case, I lose.”
In the end, he rejected the call for an inquest.
The Sheriff ReactsSheriff Shoar greeted the decision with gushing praise for Mr. King’s two investigators, Bill Gladson and John Tilley. In a letter to Mr. King, the sheriff described them as “class acts” and “on top of their game,” adding, “From one elected official to another, I would never try to recruit someone away from your office, but I did tell Bill and John that I may know of some decent real-estate deals in St. Johns County, just kidding of course.”

Sheriff David B. Shoar has admitted some flaws in his office’s investigation of Ms. O’Connell’s death, but he defends the conclusion that it was a suicide.
Kidding aside, with his political connections, ties to the business community and charming yet combative appeal, Sheriff Shoar was usually in a position to assert his will around the county.
“You’re talking about a tremendous amount of leverage that one man can wield in a Southern county, when you’re a sheriff,” said Ben Rich, a former law enforcement officer who served as the chairman of the county commission.
After starting as a St. Augustine police officer in 1981, Sheriff Shoar has been elected three times, twice unopposed. Challenging his authority is not without risk, Mr. Rich said.
“I confronted Sheriff Shoar in 2006 and 2007 when I was the chairman regarding his budget and the bloating of his budget,” Mr. Rich said, “and he declared war on me.” Mr. Rich was up for re-election at the time, and soon the sheriff began appearing in ads praising the experience of his 24-year-old opponent. Mr. Rich lost.
His hard edge notwithstanding, the sheriff has cultivated a somewhat eclectic persona. He is a leading member of an influential Christian prayer group that believes in spreading its gospel in government offices and schools. Well-versed in history and popular music, he is given to extemporaneous discourses that touch on the likes of Seneca and the Stoics, Keats, Shakespeare, Solzhenitsyn and Stonewall Jackson.
When Mr. King decided not to prosecute Jeremy Banks, the sheriff saw it as vindication. Case closed.
A year later, after The Times began asking questions, he went on the offensive. He began a new inquiry — into how the state agency had investigated the shooting.
Citing The Times’s interest in the case, the sheriff had his office spend “hundreds of hours” combing through interviews conducted by Mr. Rodgers and his direct superior, Mark Brutnell.
In late March, Sheriff Shoar released a report that accused Mr. Rodgers of hyping his case against Mr. Banks, coaching witnesses and using false information to get a search warrant. The report, given to the news media and law enforcement officials, also accused Mr. Pape of failing to rein in his agent.
Sheriff Shoar also paid two former law enforcement officers — one of them an acquaintance — to review his report, and both agreed that Mr. Rodgers’s investigation had been flawed. Neither examined the underlying evidence or conducted independent interviews.
The sheriff’s report, filled with opinion and at times factually inaccurate, also sought to discredit the testimony of Mr. Banks’s two neighbors, who had given sworn statements about hearing a woman screaming for help.
One of them, Stacey Boswell, said in an interview that Mr. Rodgers had never sought to influence their testimony. “He just asked us what we seen, what we heard that night,” she said.
The report also said the women had confessed to investigators for the prosecutor’s office that they often smoked marijuana together in the evenings and could not remember if they had done so that night. The statement was underlined, in boldface type.

But in the interview, Ms. Boswell said, “That’s not true.” And Leanna Freeman, the lawyer for the second neighbor, said one of the investigators, Robert Hardwick, had confirmed that the women made no such admission.
Ms. Freeman said she asked Sheriff Shoar to correct his mistake, but he refused. (Mr. Hardwick declined to be interviewed.)
In his report, Sheriff Shoar did finally acknowledge — briefly — his department’s failure to canvass neighbors, interview the O’Connells, download Mr. Banks’s cellphone data, isolate and photograph Mr. Banks, collect all his clothing, send evidence for testing, interview the paramedics, write a crime scene log and file the proper reports.
The sheriff also questioned the decision to assign two “relatively inexperienced” detectives to “such a sensitive case.” (Just two months after the shooting, one of those detectives, Mr. Tolbert, was reprimanded for sexually harassing a female officer, records show.)
Despite the mistakes enumerated by the sheriff, only two midlevel supervisors were disciplined, and not seriously.
A Light TouchSheriff Shoar describes himself as a disciplinarian. “I have terminated, demoted, suspended and reprimanded many subordinates over the years,” he wrote in his letter to The Times.
At times, though, he has shown a light touch with wayward officers.
Three years before the O’Connell shooting, the sheriff’s office broke up a peaceful graduation party in a predominantly black neighborhood, firing pepper gas, unleashing a police dog, brandishing shotguns and making nine arrests. “If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was back in the ’60s — the only thing that was missing was a water hose,” said the party’s host, Charlie Gilliam.
Officers later filed a report saying that they were responding to a noise complaint, that they saw open bottles of alcohol, that bottles were thrown at them, and that the dog was unleashed after a young man pushed an officer.
But after internal affairs investigators determined that much of the report was fallacious, prosecutors dropped the charges, and residents received a $275,000 settlement. Sheriff Shoar, however, overruled his internal affairs department’s recommendation that the lieutenant in charge be suspended for three days and that an overly aggressive deputy with a history of misconduct be fired. In the following months, that deputy repeatedly engaged in misconduct before being dismissed.
As for the lieutenant, he would be the district commander on the scene the night Michelle O’Connell died.
A year before that, Sheriff Shoar’s disciplinary posture had been called into question in a domestic violence case involving a deputy named Halford (Bubba) Harris II.
Two supervisors learned of accusations that Mr. Harris had abused his wife. But no investigation was immediately opened, records show.
One sergeant did prepare an affidavit documenting the accusations. But he was told by his supervisor to hold it back, so he stuck it under the visor in his squad car, where it remained, even after another officer became aware of further incidents, according to Mr. Harris’s internal affairs file.
The case came to a head on Christmas Eve, when his wife fled their house and called the police. Internal affairs officers uncovered other possible acts of domestic violence before his hiring, records show. His wife said that before they married, he had held a knife to her throat and hit her. His ex-wife said he had threatened her with a gun. No charges were filed.
Col. Todd R. Thompson, the sheriff’s director of law enforcement, recommended that Mr. Harris be fired, saying his actions were “particularly egregious and trouble me deeply.”
In an interview, Mr. Harris insisted that he had never engaged in domestic abuse: “Is there proof?”
“They’re telling one story,” he added. “I’ll tell you another one.” He said the state attorney brought no charges and noted that, though they divorced after the Christmas Eve incident, his wife later wrote a letter of support, calling him “a wonderful man and father.”
Sheriff Shoar overruled the dismissal recommendation, citing mitigating factors, like an “exemplary” work record and an absence of citizen complaints.
“I hope you understand how fortunate you are to receive a second chance,” the sheriff wrote to his deputy.
After the decision leaked out and caused an uproar, Mr. Harris said, he was pressured to resign. He is now a deputy in a nearby county.
A Final ReckoningThree years after Michelle O’Connell’s death, the case continues to tear at her family.
Scott O’Connell recently made up with Mr. Banks and now accuses the state agency of manipulating his family into thinking his sister was murdered. After a long talk in April with Sheriff Shoar, which was transcribed and released to the public, Mr. O’Connell was rehired. He is no longer welcome in the family, his sister Jennifer says.
Patty O’Connell and her daughters, along with their brother Sean, continue to believe that Michelle did not kill herself.
“It’s unfair to my sister, to her memory, to her daughter and to my family,” Christine O’Connell said. “I still am hopeful that eventually, it may be 20 years, but eventually, we will have justice for my sister and for her daughter.”
Alexis O’Connell is 7 now. She and her grandmother recently moved to Virginia to live with the oldest O’Connell brother, Justin.
Jeremy Banks has declined to talk to The Times. “I’m not really sure that would be in Jeremy’s best interest,” said his lawyer, Robert L. McLeod.
Mr. Banks, who recently married, did acknowledge to investigators that there were questions he could not answer, such as why none of his DNA was found on his service weapon. “I know it’s got that plastic grip, and I’ve seen skin from my hand in there,” he said, according to his internal affairs file. “There should be DNA on there.” Or why neighbors said they heard screams followed by gunshots.
“Just because it raises questions doesn’t mean it happened that way,” Mr. Banks said.
The sheriff’s flawed investigation left many unanswered questions.
“It’s just simply the failure to collect evidence, and if it’s not collected at the beginning, chances are good it’s going to be lost,” said Thomas Cushman, a former prosecutor and longtime defense lawyer in town. “And if it’s lost, you can’t put it back together.”
Mr. King understands that there are questions, but he is firm in his decision not to prosecute.
“Yes, there is a visceral sense of ‘Oh, what if she was murdered and this guy goes free?’ ” he said. “There ought to at least be some visceral sense of ‘What if she did commit suicide and he’s in prison for the rest of his life?’ ”
Sheriff Shoar’s accusations have cast a long shadow on the state agency’s reputation. A spokeswoman said the agency would comment only after it completed its inquiry into the handling of the case by Mr. Rodgers, who is on paid leave, and Mr. Pape. A special prosecutor is also investigating.
The sheriff has not been hesitant to speak out. Over the summer, he held what amounted to a pep rally for Mr. Banks, attended by his staff, at the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort. Scott O’Connell and his wife were there as well. The sheriff introduced Mr. Banks’s parents, saying he had known them “for many, many, many years.”
“Jeremy Banks had nothing to do with that case,” he said, calling Mr. Banks and Mr. O’Connell “victims.” “I’d stake a 33-year career on it.”
He motioned to Mr. Banks and added, “This guy right here came so damn close to being charged with homicide, it’s scary.”
Then the sheriff asked Mr. Banks and Mr. O’Connell to stand. “Let’s give these two guys a hand.”

Produced by Nancy Donaldson, Mika Gröndahl, Xaquín G.V., Josh Keller, Jon Huang, Graham Roberts and Catherine Spangler.
Sarah Childress, Sarah Cohen and Rebecca R. Ruiz contributed reporting. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
Interview videos filmed by Frontline. Video of the scene by Phil Whitley.
Additional photography by Fred R. Conrad and Michael Appleton.


On Halloween, 1963, I dressed up as JFK. Some 22 days later he was murdered in Dallas.
I was six years old.
My father opined that JFK's murder was a conspiracy, and read every JFK conspiracy related book, including the Warren Commission report, after which he quizzed the eight top master seargeants in the 82nd Airborne Division, each of them a skilled marksman, each of whom agreed it was impossible for one shooter to make those shots.
In 1968, at age 11, RFK, my presidential candidate was murdered in Los Angeles.
In 1974, at age 17.5, I started a volunteer internship for Senator Ted Kennedy the day before my first classes at Georgetown University, eventually rising to the pay rate of $53/week, my first job.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of JFK's murder.
The conspirators have yet to be arrested, but there is no statute of limitations on homicide (not in civilized countries, anyway).
Yesterday, our Florida National Guard headquarters here in St. Augustine refused to fly its flag at half-staff, as directed by President Obama. Our Florida National Guard and Florida Governor Richard Scott are a "disgrace to the human race" in President Jimmy Carter's phrase.
As LBJ told Congress after Selma, "We SHALL overcome."
Stay tuned.

St. Johns County replacing illegal ATMS at Amphitheater, but they're still there today

Without a contract or request for proposal or any legal basis, St. Johns County has inflicted $3 ATMs on Amphitheater and Farmer's Market customers, with dogy banksters and the county raking in tens of thousands of dollars in illegal charges ever since the Amphitheater was rebuilt and reoopened in 2006.
Caught red-handed, the County Administration has issued an RFP and bid the contract. Soon there will be free ATMs. No more ripoffs of captive customers -- Amphitheater attendees and Farmer's Market customers.
It's our money.
Be sure to ask for refunds of the money you've spent.
Thanks to the county for listening (sometimes) and doing the right thing (sometimes).
Once again, we're making St. Augustine and St. Johns County safe from autocratic one-party Republican misrule.
Keep watching.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Expect Democracy: Nuclear Weapons Whistleblower Wins Union Presidency

Congratulations to Ed Bricker! My former Hanford, Washington whistleblower client just got elected President of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1765 in Olympia, Washington.

Now a bus driver, Mr. Bricker was the first whistleblower at the Department of Energy's Hanford, Washington nuclear weapons plant, once operated by Rockwell and Westinghouse. Corporate goons called Ed Bricker a "mole" because he provided information to Rep John Dingell, then-Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and its powerful Subcommittee on Invesigations. Interrogating those corporate thugs, goons and gumshoes in days of depositions was truly an honor.

USDOL OSHA investigator John Spear, then Assistant Administrator of oSHA in the Pacific Northwest, found that Bricker had been spied on illegally in retaliation for his protected activity.

Ralph Nader has half a chapter in his book on corporate lawyers about Mr. Bricker's case. (NO CONTEST: Corporate Lawyers and the Perversion of Justice in America)(1998).

In 2006, Ed Bricker published a letter defending me in the St. Augustine Record, after I was attacked by then-Mayor GEORGE GARDNER. Earlier, Bricker had defended me on the St. Augustine Record's "Talk of the Town" website, supporting my concerns about our City's illegal dumping. (He was then an environmental regulator for Washington State). As a result, Bricker was attacked unmercifully by the "Anonymice," with one falsely impersoanting Bricker's wife and others making threats.

Congratulations to Ed, Cindy and all the Brickers!

Encouraging Signs

Five decades ago, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote rabbis that St. Augustine was "the most lawless" city in America, the KKK ran this town and county. Secrecy and corruption prevailed.

Today, there is not a single KKK vote in either our City or County Commission.

Today, GLBT rights are protected by the cities of St. Augustine and St. Augustine Beach, the Sheriff, and Mosquito Control.

Today, secrecy and Sunshine violations are no longer tolerated.

Today, Democracy is "On the March," in David Lillienthal's words.

Yesterday, I spoke to our City and County Commissioners, meeting together, about the St. Augustine National Historical Park and National Seashore, as I have since November 13, 2006 (see below). There was not one interruption. Not one hostile statement, whether from Commissioners or audience members. Not one comparison to Hitler, Goebbels, Communists or Nazis. No simulated gun noises and gun gestures. No uninformed comments about national parks or the federal government.

Our City and County still have a way to go. In particular, our County does. With your help, we're making this a better place.

Ex Mayor George Gardner Does It Again

Third generation politician, ex-GANNETT ("Chain Gang Journalism") Editor, ex-Mayor GEORGE GARDNER's latest newsletter on St. Augustine exhibits Babbitt-like bigotry against First Amendment Protected Activity by PBS and The New York Times.

This is not the first time GARDNER has attacked First Amendment rights.

In 2005, GARDNER was one of three Commissioners who vote aganst Rainbow flags on the Bridge of Lions, found to be a First Amendment violation by United States District Chief Judge Henry Lee Adams, Jr., who ordered the flags to be flown from June 8-13, 2005 for Gay Pride here (every other organization that ever asked was allowed to fly their flags, including the Broward Yacht Company and Flagler College).

In 2006, in his valdedictory speech as Mayor, GEORGE GARDNER attacked me for First Amendment protected activity, and was rihgtly exoriated by the St. Augustine Record on November 19, 2006 -- seven years ago today.

When GARDNER ceased to be Mayor, City Manager WILLIAM B. HARRISS put him on the payroll to write his newsletter, which he was already writing, making it in effect a City house organ.

In 2011, City Manager John Regan rightly cancelled GEORGE GARDNER's no-bid contract, one of many no-bid contracts that have been issued by local governments without local news coverage. (The notable exception was the no-bid helicopter contract, which "We the People" defeated and reversed, winning a full refund of our deposit).

In 2012, GEORGE GARDNER joined sixteen other local residents, including community activists, City Manager John Regan and me, riding together to Tallahassee February 14, 2012 to defeat FSDB's eminent dommain bill's threat to two historic neighborhoods, Nelmar Terrace and Fullerwood. Before the Florida State Senate K-12 Education Committee, GEORGE GARDNER was eloquent and helpful, for which we all granted him a plenary indulgence for all his past sins (see above).

Now, in 2013, GARDNER has inexplicably picked a fight with PBS and the New York TImes, archly entitling a short take "Not national publicity we want" (on the forthcoming Frontline story, "A Death in St. Augustine"). The show has not aired yet. It airs a week frm tonight. Questions and comments:
1. Who is "we?" (That snarky smirky mouse in King George's pocket?)
2. What is "want?"
3. The "want" here locally is the "want" of investigative journalism, ever since The Collective Press folded and ever since Folio Weekly editor Anne Schndler and went to First Coast News, no local print publication is investigating anything here in St. Augustine, Florida.
4. The "need" here is for the truth about those who occupy public offices, which Jefferson called "a public trust."
5. The lack of trust exhibited by GARDNER in the people is appalling -- he publicly denounced me for asking too many questions about illegal dumping in St. Augustine at the November 13, 2006 St. Augustine Ciy Commission meeting, leading the Record to defend me from GARDNER's defamation in a November 19, 2006 editorial, "Always important to stick to your guns."
6. Trust us. We deserve the truth. It's our money. It's our government.
7. Then-Mayor GEORGE GARDNER told me on February 24, 2006 that City Manager WILLIAM B. HARRISS had only dumped "clean fill" in our Old City Reservoir. It turned out to be 40,000 cubic yards of illegally dumped contaminted solid waste, dumped in defiance of St. Johns River Water Management District (SJRWMD) permit rules.
8. GEORGE GARDNER is a third-generation politician a "cognitive miser," one who "knows not that he knows not that he knows not." His insipid remarks about "A Death in St. Augustine" show that he does not want the truth about local institutions to be told. Pitiful.
9. After GLBT people here won a landmark U.S. District Court First Amendment victory, partly based on exposing the 1566 murder of a Gay man on orders of the First Governor of Florida, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, GARDNER opined that he only wanted to hear and have told "positive history" about St. Augustine.
10. You won't find any courses in "positive history" at any university. It figures that a blue-blood third generation politician from upstate New York -- and ex-GANNETT editor and ex-Mayor -- would have the chutzpa to emit such pompous public pronouncements and ukases. What do you reckon?

Sharp Elbows at FSDB

Ray Charles, Florida School for the Deaf and Blind (FSDB) and the U.S. Postal SErvice have the page one story in this morning's St. Augustine Record.

An FSDB alumni, Ray Charles' postage stamp was unveiled at FSDB yesteray. Local residents and elected officials were excluded from FSDB's and USDS' invitation-only event, which kicked our City and County's joint meeting on West Augusting infrastructure off the front page (and out of the newspaper entirely). Our City and County officials were blindsided and uninvited, and the USPS-FSDB Ray Charles stamp unveiling conflicted with the time of their joint meeting yesterday.

That's bad advance work and bad PR work by USPS.

That bad advance work and bad PR work by USPS is the seqelae of FSDB's preferences and invitation to USPS, which brandishes a bad attitude by FSDB. See below. USPS says it will come back for a public event, with the City of St. Augustine, early next year.

FSDB has a bully mentality, as evidenced by its buying up neighborhoing properties nad engaging in real estate speculation, while facing declining enrollments.

FSDB and its longtime board chair, Flagler College Chancellor WILLIAM L. PROCTOR, our erstwhile State Representative, showed their feckless thuggery by seeking eminent domain and seeking to preempt city zoning and planning laws. Active citizens helped halt their efforts. FSDB got a Pyrrhic victory: while FSDB got eminent domain, eminent domain is forbidden by law from ever being used in the Nelmar Terrance and Fullerwood neighborhoods of our Nation's Oldest City -- it is in the statute, and FSDB recorded this covenant in every single deed in those two historic St. Augustine neighborhoods.

Inspectors General and Ombuds Needed

As amply demonstrated by a raft of documents posted by Sheriff David Shoar on his website, concernng the death of a deputy's girlfriend, St. Johns County and St. Augustine need Inspectors General and Ombuds.

Government accountability requires it.

I have been advocating for creation of independent IGs and Ombuds offices since 2006. That was when we and FDEP caght WILLIAM B. HARRISS, then City Manager, red-handed. HARRISS dumped 40,000 cubic yards of solid waste in our Old City Reservoir. The County Code Enforcement office and County Sheriff refused to investigate HARRISS. HARRISS was never prosecuted or fined. In 2010, HARRISS resigned, going to work for the Sheriff, running his ST. JOHNS COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE FOUR STAR ASSOCIATION, INC., Sheriff Shoar's non-profit group.

The HARRISS-dumped contaminated solid waste was removed from the Old City Reservoir as a result of our community organizing and confronting HARRISS and AKERMAN SENTERFITT over their hare-brained scheme to return the solid waste to Lincolnville, where they proposed putting twelve feet of dirt on it and calling it a "park."

We won. The contaminated solid waste has been removed to a Class I landfill in Nassau County.

Yes we can!

The stench of the contaminated solid waste is gone, but the odor of corruption remains. We need Inspectors General and Ombuds here to assure accountability, starting with St. Johns County government, with oversight and investigation powers over the Sheriff, among others. That would require a County Charter, and a vote of the people. This time, let's do it right.

Quo vobis videtor?