A Death in St. Augustine
Glenn Silber and Walt Bogdanich
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE, a 911 call from an off-duty officer.
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: My girlfriend just shot herself!
ANNOUNCER: Did his girlfriend commit suicide─
PATTY O’CONNELL, Mother: I saw him be rough with her in my house.
ANNOUNCER: ─or was it a homicide?
BRAD KING, State Attorney, Florida: There was not sufficient evidence a crime had been committed.
ANNOUNCER: In an exclusive report with The New York Times─
WALT BOGDANICH, New York Times: Are you saying that you believe that Michelle might have been battered before the fatal shot was fired?
PETER DE FOREST, Forensic Scientist: Yes.
ANNOUNCER: ─FRONTLINE investigates this troubling case.
VERNON GEBERTH, Fmr. NYPD Homicide Commander: You can’t possibly investigate a member of your department the same way you investigate an average case.
BRAD KING: There is a visceral sense of, “What if she was murdered and this guy goes free?” There ought to be at least some visceral sense, “What if she did commit suicide and he’s in prison for the rest of his life?
ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE─
CIARA MORRIS, Friend: He was never treated like a suspect, he was treated like brother.
ANNOUNCER: ─ A Death in St. Augustine.
JENNIFER CRITES, Sister: Michelle was the youngest of all of us, of six. And she was the one that we always looked out for. She was an amazing athlete. She loved to swim. She could climb a tree faster than anybody. Michelle was very fun-loving. She was very outgoing.
CIARA MORRIS, Friend: I mean, Michelle just embraced life.
JENNIFER CRITES: She loved being a mom, even though she was a single mom. She made the best out of that situation. She worked two jobs, sometimes three jobs just to support Alexis.
CIARA MORRIS: Michelle went skydiving one time, and before she could go, she had to write a letter to Lexi just in case something was to happen to her.
READER: “My life began after having Alexis, and the love I have for her could never be measured. But I want to make sure that if something does happen to me that Alexis will be loved, safe, happy, praised and protected. I don’t like thinking about it because I plan on being here for Alexis for a long time.”
JEREMY BANKS: Hey! Please get someone to my house! It’s 4700 Sherlock Place. Please!
DISPATCHER: What’s going on?
JEREMY BANKS: Please! Send─ my girlfriend, I think she just shot herself! There’s blood everywhere!
DISPATCHER: She what?
JEREMY BANKS: She shot herself! Please! [unintelligible]
DISPATCHER: Ma’am? Ma’am, I need you to calm down.
JEREMY BANKS: It’s mister! It’s sir!
DISPATCHER: Ma’am, listen to me─
JEREMY BANKS: It’s sir! It’s sir. Listen─ hang on, let me tell you the truth. I’m Deputy Banks with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. I work with y’all. Get someone here now!
NARRATOR: On September 2nd, 2010, 24-year-old Michelle O’Connell died from a gunshot to the mouth. The gun belonged to her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a deputy with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office in St. Augustine, Florida.
DISPATCHER: Everybody’s coming. Your friends are on the way.
NARRATOR: Deputy Debra Maynard was on duty that night.
DEBRA MAYNARD, Fmr. Sheriff’s Deputy: We stopped off at the Hess station around 10:00 PM. Sergeant Beaver was there with Corporal Shand and myself, and we were having some coffee. Call came out, “Signal 18, shot fired.” Immediately, when you hear that it’s a shooting involving one of your own, you know, adrenaline’s pumping. And we jumped up from the table and ran out and got in our cars and started heading down US-1.
I pulled up on this side. We noticed the door open to the house, went in through the kitchen. And first door on the left I noticed was open, is where I saw some feet laying on the floor. And I proceeded in the room, and I saw Deputy Banks crouched down by the bathroom door and a female laying on the floor, some blood dripping from her face.
There was a gun off to her left side. And I noticed the tac light was on and the holster was just right next to the gun on the floor.
NARRATOR: Beside her on the carpet, investigators found a second bullet hole, and nearby, the shell casings.
DEBRA MAYNARD: Sergeant Beaver ordered me to go ahead and get Jeremy out of the room. I smelled a lot of alcohol on Jeremy’s breath at that point. And besides being blown away with the alcohol smell, he was just─ Ah! He was angry. He wasn’t sad, he was “Arrggghhhh!”
I had never met Michelle, so I wanted to positively ID her, and I went out in the kitchen and her purse was on the counter. I noticed there were two pill bottles with Jeremy Banks’s name on it on the top of her purse.
NARRATOR: The bottles were empty, but inside her pocket were 50 pills, including the painkiller hydrocodone.
Soon, other members of the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office, some of them off-duty, began to arrive.
Lt. TOM QUINTIERI: When I arrived, there were several units already on scene.
NARRATOR: These are law enforcement interviews with officers who were on the scene that night.
Lt. TOM QUINTIERI: And Sergeant Faircloth─ I don’t know how, but he got there very quickly, so he went to Jeremy and stayed with Jeremy the whole time. And several other deputies─ I don’t know how they found out, but everybody started showing up.
Dep. MIKE PLOTT: I went up to Jeremy, just, you know, asked him he was OK, and I, you know, advised Jeremy that, you know, I’m here for him, anything he needs.
NARRATOR: Over the next two hours, Deputy Banks, seen here in the yellow T-shirt, huddled with family and friends. He was then interviewed in a police car by his colleague, Detective Jessica Hines. His off-duty sergeant sat in on the interview.
Det. JESSICA HINES: All right, this is Detective Hines. It is officially September 3rd at 1:23 in the morning. You were outside in the yard, driveway?
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: My motorcycle’s in the garage. I was sitting on it. And I heard a pop, and I knew exactly what it was. And I ran inside. I started screaming her name. The bedroom door was locked, and I screamed her name again. I heard it go off again a second time. I ran into the living room. I grabbed the phone. I kicked the bedroom door in, and I found her laying where she is when the sheriff’s office showed up.
NARRATOR: Among the responding officers, a consensus developed: Michelle O’Connell had taken her own life.
Cpl. MARK SHAND: It appeared she had committed suicide.
OFFICER: I’m sure, yes, that the suicide word was thrown around.
Cpl. MARK SHAND: We were standing out front, discussing it, and it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
NARRATOR: And from Detective Hines, who interviewed Deputy Banks.
Det. JESSICA HINES: I didn’t have any suspicions that it was anything other than suicide. I think that’s what we were all kind of discussing, but just making sure that we covered our bases. It’s always a CYA thing, just in case it’s not what it appears to be.
DEBRA MAYNARD: At which point, Sergeant Beaver told Corporal Shand and myself to make family notifications.
PATTY O’CONNELL, Michelle’s Mother: The police come here. I was told that Michelle killed herself, and I knew that─ I said, “That’s not Michelle” because Michelle loved Alexis and she never would have left her! She would never─ it’s not right! And she should still be here today!
JENNIFER CRITES, Sister: They didn’t come to my house any later than maybe four hours after she had passed, and they were already saying that it was suicide.
CIARA MORRIS, Friend: And when I heard suicide, I mean, I was, like, “No way.” I mean, Michelle was planning her future. You know, Michelle was not planning suicide.
NARRATOR: One of Michelle’s brothers, Sean O’Connell, had been with her just hours earlier at a concert.
SEAN O’CONNELL: I’d heard that Michelle was dead and they think it was a suicide. I didn’t believe it for one bit. So my friend drives me over. About two blocks away, he drops me off, and I start walking towards Jeremy’s house. And there’s four St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office deputies, and they said, “Sean, you need to go home right now.” And I said, “I want an outside investigation. I don’t want you guys to deal with this.” He said, “No, we’re not doing that.”
NARRATOR: The next day, Michelle O’Connell’s body was delivered to the local medical examiner, Dr. Frederick Hobin. His autopsy report showed she had alcohol, but no other drugs in her system. He found that the fatal bullet had severed her spinal cord.
He also found a cut and bruise over her right eyelid and said it was caused by the ejected shell casing when the firearm was discharged.
Dr. Hobin’s ruling bolstered the assumptions made on the scene by the sheriff’s office, Michelle O’Connell had committed suicide. The medical examiner submitted his report to the sheriff.
JENNIFER CRITES: I didn’t believe that Michelle killed herself, but I believed the sheriff’s office. I believed that they investigated and they did a thorough job. I trusted the sheriff’s office opinion immediately.
Sheriff DAVID SHOAR: Hello. My name is David Shoar, your sheriff in St. Johns County, Florida.
NARRATOR: David Shoar has been elected St. Johns County sheriff three times, twice unopposed.
Sheriff DAVID SHOAR: Our core values are non-negotiable, integrity and treating people with dignity and respect.
NARRATOR: The sheriff holds one of the most powerful positions here in historic St. Augustine. He is also one of the county’s largest employers.
JENNIFER CRITES: My family, you know, worked for the sheriff’s office.
NARRATOR: Michelle’s brother, Scott, was a deputy. Her mother, Patty, worked there as a file clerk. And a year before she died, Michelle met Deputy Jeremy Banks.
JENNIFER CRITES: One of our brothers introduced Michelle and Jeremy. And at first, we were all happy. He was a deputy. You know, my mom was thrilled.
PATTY O’CONNELL: He was in a policeman’s uniform. That’s what I first noticed, was the policeman’s uniform, you know? And I said, “Oh, she sees somebody that’s going to protect her.”
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL, Sister: But as the relationship progressed, and around the time that Michelle moved in with Jeremy, he disrespected her, controlled her. I heard less and less from Michelle.
PATTY O’CONNELL: She says, “Mom, it’s getting bad.” And that was about a month or two before she died. And I said, “Just come home.”
NARRATOR: The day she died, Michelle told family and a friend she had decided to end the relationship.
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: On September 2, 2010, Michelle came over with Alexis to have lunch. She loved this band, Paramore. I was going to watch Alexis while she went to the concert with Jeremy that night.
And I’m making lunch, and I said, “Well, what’s going on?” She was really upset. And she said, “Chris, it’s so bad.” And she just, you know, hung her head. I told her, you know, “Don’t go to the concert,” and she said, “No, I’m going to go. I bought the tickets. I’m going to go. I’m going to have a good time. But I’m breaking up with him tonight. It’s done. I’m leaving. I’m going.” And─ I’m so sorry! That was the last time I saw her!
SEAN O’CONNELL: My sister and I and my brother, we went to see Paramore in concert at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre. My sister showed up later with her boyfriend. Michelle seemed really happy and excited. I was excited to go see a concert. Jeremy just looked─ like, he really─ he looked pissed off.
So at about an hour into the concert, I basically said, “Hey, do you mind scooting over so I can hang out with my sister? If you’re not going to enjoy your time with her, then I sure as heck will.” And so they switched seats, and then me and her just started rocking out and jamming in our seats and standing up and dancing and singing.
NARRATOR: During the concert, Michelle sent cryptic text messages to a number of people, including her sister, who was babysitting her daughter.
“Promise me one thing. Lexi will be happy and always have a good life.”
“Promise you what?”
“That no matter what, Lexi will always be safe and loved.”
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: Obviously, I was receiving these texts that night, and I was worried. I said, “Well, she’s leaving him. There’s something going on.”
NARRATOR: As the concert ended, Michelle texted her sister one last time.
“I’ll be there soon.”
NARRATOR: Her final text was sent to her brother, Scott.
“Lexi. Never forget.”
NARRATOR: Jeremy Banks would later tell investigators that Michelle broke up with him on the way home from the concert.
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: That’s whenever she said, “I’ll have my things out by this weekend.” And I said, “Are we breaking up?” She said yes. And I was, like, “All right.” I raised my voice. She raised her voice. We argued. But when we got to the house, we were fine.
NARRATOR: A little over an hour later, Michelle O’Connell was dead.
TERESA WOODWARD, Michelle’s Employer: The day after Michelle died, I called the sheriff’s department because I wanted to talk to someone and let them know that the suicide thought was wrong.
NARRATOR: Teresa Woodward knew Michelle as happy and motivated. But Michelle’s life had not been trouble-free. As a teenager, she was put under the supervision of juvenile authorities for anger issues and depression, according to court records. But the records also show that with medication and counseling, her schoolwork and attitude had drastically improved.
And then at age 20, a life-changing event, motherhood.
TERESA WOODWARD: Michelle was all about Alexis and where she could take her and experiences she could give her and what she could do with her. She would never leave her daughter. She wouldn’t do that. I don’t know what happened, but that’s not what happened.
NARRATOR: Woodward says she had just promoted Michelle at her day care center to full-time status, with benefits.
TERESA WOODWARD: Michelle’s life was not spiraling down. She was happy with the changes she was making. The most difficult change she had to make was her personal life and her relationship with Jeremy. And she was trying to do that carefully and thoughtfully.
NARRATOR: By all accounts, their relationship was stormy. Jeremy Banks described it in an interview with Detective Hines 12 days after Michelle’s death.
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: And towards the end, we were arguing all the time.
Det. JESSICA HINES: What was it about?
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: Just stupid [expletive deleted]. Just─ that’s just how it was. It was just arguing over stupid, petty [expletive deleted].
Det. JESSICA HINES: OK.
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: It echoes in this room.
Det. JESSICA HINES: Yeah, I know.
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: I don’t really like that.
Det. JESSICA HINES: No. [laughter] Yeah, great room. Did she ever make any threats of suicide to you? Did she ever say anything?
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: A couple of months ago, maybe a month, a month-and-a-half or so, we got into a big fight. Words got heated, and I told her to pack her [expletive deleted] and get out of my house. And she was in the process of doing it, and she came at me, she tried to hit me, and I put her on the ground. She said, “Jeremy, I”─ I don’t remember exactly what she said, but I remember she said, “Sometimes you make me want to kill myself.”
Det. JESSICA HINES: And then since that time?
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: No, that was the only time she ever said anything like that.
Det. JESSICA HINES: OK.
NARRATOR: He later said Michelle told him she’d said it just to bother him. But Michelle’s family paints a darker picture of the relationship, that Banks was physically abusive, an accusation he denied in law enforcement interviews.
PATTY O’CONNELL: I saw him be rough with her in my house. He acted like he was fooling around, and he took her down, like the way police take a person down. And it was hard-core slam on the floor. And then when she complained, he immediately said, “Michelle, I’m not hurting you.” My gut feeling was that he was hurting her.
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: He put his knee up on her stomach and pressed really hard, and slammed her. And she called me, she said, “Chrissy, I’m bleeding.” And I told her I was going to call an ambulance, and she said, “Please, you’re going to make it hard on me. Please, I don’t want any trouble.” She was so scared to go for help.
I think she may have been influenced by the fact that he would lose his job and retaliate against her.
NARRATOR: But in the wake of her death, Michelle’s family says the sheriff’s office never gave them a chance to express their concerns.
JENNIFER CRITES: They didn’t speak to our family at all. They didn’t take our statements. They didn’t ask us, you know, anything leading up to those days, how my sister was and our interactions, or did I talk to her that night? Nobody asked.
NARRATOR: Finally, several weeks after Michelle’s death, the sheriff’s point man on the case, Lieutenant Charles Bradley, met with her brothers and sisters.
Lt. CHARLES BRADLEY: So hopefully, this will give you some closure as to what occurred that night. All indications are that she was contemplating suicide, based on her texts.
NARRATOR: The family disagreed with that interpretation of her texts.
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: I asked the night that Michelle died, 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. He chokes me. He hits me in the head. He does things sexually to me, and I tell him to stop”
I said, “Am I allowed to submit an affidavit just to testify to what she said?” And he said “No, none of that. It’s all hearsay.”
SCOTT O’CONNELL: If this was the sheriff’s daughter, it’d be much different. That’s what we’re feeling.
Lt. CHARLES BRADLEY: OK.
SCOTT O’CONNELL: Because this is emotion. Our sister cannot come back. Our sister will never come back! And we have questions. And if you’re not prepared to do this, bring the next person in. You’re a lieutenant of this agency. Stand up and answer our questions!
Lt. CHARLES BRADLEY: Ease up, bro. You know I’m doing the very best I can, guys, to show you all what happened, and I feel like this is a damn inquisition on me.
SEAN O’CONNELL: It’s not against you.
Lt. CHARLES BRADLEY: I haven’t done anything wrong, guys. The sheriff’s office hasn’t done anything wrong. And I can feel at this table─
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: We don’t know what we can─
Lt. CHARLES BRADLEY: ─that there’s a massive conspiracy theory, and there’s not one, guys.
SEAN O’CONNELL: Can I interject?
JENNIFER CRITES: What conspiracy theory are you talking about?
Lt. CHARLES BRADLEY: That Jeremy is the murderer of Michelle. OK? I keep getting that and I’ve been getting that over the last, you know, several weeks. So what we need to do, guys, is we need to─ we need to sit down and we need to just─ this is what it is and this is what happened.
NARRATOR: As far as the sheriff’s office was concerned, the case was closed.
But on the other side of the country, a solitary blogger had taken an interest in the story.
CLOUDWRITER: I came across this tiny article that said that a deputy’s girlfriend had killed herself with his service weapon.
NARRATOR: Writing under the alias “Cloudwriter,” she began asking questions.
CLOUDWRITER: My initial intention with the Michelle O’Connell case was to be sure that it wasn’t hidden. But this was not a “Let’s crucify Jeremy Banks,” this was “Let’s find out what happened.”
NARRATOR: She started her blog, “Behind the Blue Wall,” 10 years ago after a high-profile killing in Tacoma, Washington.
NEWSCASTER: In the midst of a nasty divorce from her husband, Tacoma police chief David Brame drove their children to Gig Harbor, parked near his wife’s car, shot her, then himself.
NARRATOR: The murder of Crystal Brame in 2003 brought the issue of officer-involved domestic violence to the public’s attention.
CLOUDWRITER: That day when Crystal was shot, everything changed for me. I realized I wasn’t the only one that was living afraid. I was married to a police officer, and it did get so that it wasn’t a good relationship anymore.
Since I started police domestic violence Web sites, I’ve acquired at least a thousand cases of officer-involved domestic violence. I wanted victims to see that there were other people, and I wanted departments to know that it’s out in the open now.
NARRATOR: Behind the Blue Wall became a place for Michelle O’Connell’s family and friends to vent their frustration with the sheriff’s investigation. There would eventually be about 250 comments.
JENNIFER CRITES: We had an outlet, finally, for the first time, and we were just hoping that people would see how we were being treated, what was going on, that we had questions that weren’t being answered. And we got a lot of attention, and I think that put the pressure on the sheriff to finally do the right thing.
NARRATOR: After four months of pressure from the O’Connells ─ and citing his own questions about his office’s handling of the case ─ Sheriff Shoar asked for a new investigation to be done by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, FDLE, a statewide agency that is often called in when there’s a potential conflict of interest.
Michelle’s mother, Patty, was working at the sheriff’s office at the time.
PATTY O’CONNELL: We were having a meeting. Sheriff Shoar walks in, says, “They will not find anything.” I heard him say that, “They will not find anything.”
RUSTY RODGERS, FDLE Agent: I’m Special Agent Rusty Rodgers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. I’m a law enforcement officer, and I’m conducting a criminal investigation, a death investigation, into the death of your sister, Michelle O’Connell.
NARRATOR: These are audio and video interviews the lead agent, Rusty Rodgers, conducted with members of the sheriff’s department, including Michelle O’Connell’s brother, Scott.
SCOTT O’CONNELL: It felt like to us as a family that it was rushed, they had their mind made up that it was suicide, and that the investigation could have went a different way and that he knew there was things in the past that he had done that she was going to report and that it was going to come out that this─ this deputy sheriff was not the true person that he was claiming to be and that he was actually a pretty bad person to her.
NARRATOR: Many of the responding officers Rodgers interviewed agreed with the sheriff’s conclusion of suicide.
Det. EUGENE TOLBERT: There were things that─ I don’t want to say bothered me because I felt like that every time something bugged me that there was a plausible explanation, you know what I’m saying? And for her to stand still and allow somebody to put a firearm in her mouth is ridiculous. You know, I just don’t see it happening.
NARRATOR: Others weren’t so sure.
Sgt. SCOTT BEAVER: When I first walked into that room, the first thought that went through my mind was, “This is not good for Jeremy.”
RUSTY RODGERS: Did you think it went down like Jeremy said it did that night?
Sgt. SCOTT BEAVER: I don’t think so. I mean, just─ I was a little uneasy where the─ I remember seeing the shot in the floor and where the gun was. I mean, I was in the homicide unit for a few years, and it didn’t add up. But I didn’t do more investigation into this to see why things were like they were.
Dep. MIKE PLOTT: They said that they had gotten in an argument and she had pulled the gun out of a secured holster and shot herself.
RUSTY RODGERS: That seem strange to you?
Dep. MIKE PLOTT: Yes.
RUSTY RODGERS: Explain why.
Dep. MIKE PLOTT: It’s a retention holster. Most people don’t know how to use them.
RUSTY RODGERS: Did you ever know him to have an explosive temper?
Dep. MIKE PLOTT: Oh, yes. Yeah, he’s had temper issues. You know, his temper was─
RUSTY RODGERS: [unintelligible] with you?
Dep. MIKE PLOTT: He’d drink, and he’d just get pissed. You know, he’d throw [expletive deleted] around and just throw a fit.
[www.pbs.org: Read the “New York Times” story]
NARRATOR: The story of Michelle O’Connell caught the attention of New York Times investigative reporter Walt Bogdanich, who, working with FRONTLINE, was examining how police departments handle cases when there is the possibility of domestic violence in their own ranks.
JERRY FINDLEY, Crime Scene Expert: I’ve been involved in crime scene and crime scene reconstructions for about 41 years.
NARRATOR: We went over the case with Jerry Findley, whose findings were critical to the FDLE investigation.
JERRY FINDLEY: I was contacted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to examine the evidence in the case and see if we could determine, or if I could determine, the manner of death involved in this.
NARRATOR: Findley analyzed the evidence the sheriff’s office had collected but never sent for analysis.
WALT BOGDANICH, New York Times: Testing showed that there was no blood found on the weapon. Is that unusual, in your view?
JERRY FINDLEY: For the type of injuries she had, I found it very unusual. I would’ve expected to find some blood on the gun somewhere.
NARRATOR: Findley said he also would have expected to find some of Deputy Banks’s DNA on the gun, but there was just Michelle O’Connell’s DNA, which he found suspicious because it was Deputy Banks’s regular service weapon.
He also noted the location of the shell casings, which to him indicted that the shooter fired with the left hand. Michelle O’Connell was right-handed, Jeremy Banks is left-handed.
And as for the injury to Michelle O’Connell’s right eyelid─
JERRY FINDLEY: I think that the injury above her right eye was caused by the front sight of the weapon, which is the same size as the injury. It’s 8 millimeters.
WALT BOGDANICH: Do you believe Michelle O’Connell committed suicide?
JERRY FINDLEY: Based on the evidence that’s present, I think it’s more consistent with homicide than suicide, the physical evidence.
NARRATOR: One of the most important discoveries by FDLE was two women who said they had heard screams the night Michelle O’Connell died. The sheriff’s office had never canvassed the neighborhood after the shooting, and the women had never reported it.
STACEY BOSWELL, Neighbor: We were in the garage having a cigarette. We heard some arguing, so that’s what initially brought us even out of the garage. And we walked over here so we could─ that the arguing was coming from that direction.
WALT BOGDANICH: Over there between the two houses?
STACEY BOSWELL: Between the house and the fence. We knew it was coming right from right over there in that open patch. At first, I couldn’t tell who it was. But one voice was higher than the other one, and then one was real deep. And then we heard─ we heard a woman yell for help, and then we heard a gunshot. And then there was another yell for help and then another gunshot.
WALT BOGDANICH: And then there was silence?
STACY BOSWELL: And then there was silence. There was no commotion, no nothing. It seemed like a long─ it was probably 10, maybe 15 minutes, and the sirens came. That’s why we didn’t call anybody. I knew somebody was coming.
WALT BOGDANICH: What did you think was happening?
STACY BOSWELL: Well, I didn’t know if it was an accident or─ you know, I didn’t know what had happened, but I knew it was “Help.” Plain as plain can be, it was “Help.”
WALT BOGDANICH: What kind of “help” was it when she yelled? I mean, what was your sense of her─ her emotional─
STACEY BOSWELL: There was something wrong. Something happened, and then the gunshot. You knew something was wrong. It wasn’t─ there was nothing playful. No nothing. It was somebody that was scared.
NARRATOR: The women’s testimony was considered so important, FDLE asked the Secret Service to give them lie-detector tests. Both passed.
Agent Rodgers presented his findings to the medical examiner, Dr. Hobin, who had initially ruled Michelle’s death a suicide. Hobin said the witness accounts were so persuasive that he changed his mind. He explained to a local reporter.
Dr. FREDERICK HOBIN, Medical Examiner: Well, I became convinced that it was probably a homicide.
NARRATOR: And as he noted in this document, “I amended Michelle’s death certificate by indicating that she was shot by another person and that the manner of death was homicide.”
FDLE handed over the results of their investigation to the local prosecutor, R.J. Larizza. Investigators from his office soon asked the O’Connells’ permission to investigate even further.
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: At one point, they say to my mother we may need to exhume my sister’s body.
PATTY O’CONNELL: And I─ immediately, I said yes because I knew─ I said, “They’re going to find something that’s missing, that they overlooked.” And they said, “Fine.” They said, “We will get in touch with you, We will give you papers that you have to sign.” Weeks go by, nobody calls me.
NARRATOR: Behind the scenes, the case was unraveling. Though he declined to be interviewed on camera, Dr. Hobin told us that Larizza asked him to hold off from filing the amended homicide finding because the case was about to take a new direction.
And then Larizza asked to be recused, citing his office’s close professional relationship with the sheriff’s office.
JENNIFER CRITES: Now, all of a sudden, he wants out of the case. And it makes us think “What’s going on? Why─ you know, why do you want out?” Nobody understood that. Why didn’t he recuse himself day one if it was a conflict of interest?
NARRATOR: We tried to talk to Larizza.
WALT BOGDANICH, New York Times: R.J. Larizza, please. It’s the O’Connell case, and it’s Walt Bogdanich from The New York Times calling. He’s not available? Is he in the building? Can you tell me that? He’s not. Can you tell me where he is, please? OK. Can you tell me why he hasn’t responded to my voicemail messages or my many emails?
NARRATOR: With Larizza off the case, Florida governor Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor. The governor cited the potential prosecution of Jeremy Banks.
BRAD KING, State Attorney, Florida: My goal and my role was to determine if I could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed a homicide.
NARRATOR: State attorney Brad King relied on the opinions of three medical examiners, who all concluded it was suicide. One was Dr. Hobin, who had again changed his mind, from homicide back to suicide.
WALT BOGDANICH: Based on what your medical experts have told you, there were no defensive wounds on Michelle O’Connell. Why is that important?
BRAD KING: I think the importance of that to them was that there was no struggle.
WALT BOGDANICH: Because if there was a struggle, that might mean what?
BRAD KING: I don’t know. I don’t know what they thought about that.
WALT BOGDANICH: Fair to say that if they had found defensive wounds, that might raise questions about whether Michelle O’Connell actually killed herself?
BRAD KING: It would depend on the nature. And I─ and that’s one thing that I don’t like to do, is to speculate.
NARRATOR: King consulted with the new medical examiner who had recently taken over from Dr. Hobin.
PREDRAG BULIC, M.D., Chief Medical Examiner: I basically inherited the case from the previous medical examiner. When I reviewed the case and all the material, it became apparent to me that this was a suicide.
NARRATOR: Dr. Predrag Bulic altered the course of the investigation with a new theory explaining the injury above Michelle O’Connell’s eye.
Dr. PREDRAG BULIC: The only sound, solid forensic explanation is that the gun was upside-down and the tactical light caused that.
BRAD KING: My understanding was that it was from the recoil of the gun. And therefore, the recoil is essentially going to make the tactical light move forward into the face, as opposed to away. And that’s─ that was their opinion. That is also consistent with my years of training with firearms.
NARRATOR: After a three-month review, King called in the family.
JENNIFER CRITES: We’re in the courthouse, at a long table, Christine, my mother, my brother Scott and myself. I believed that the state attorney was going to get on board and bring charges, and we were going to walk out of that office that night, and Michelle’s death was going to be vindicated. That didn’t happen.
BRAD KING: My conclusion was that there was not sufficient evidence to believe that a crime had been committed. The evidence has to exclude any reasonable hypothesis of innocence, and point only and solely to the guilt of the defendant.
JENNIFER CRITES: I was devastated. I could not believe that this was happening. And at that point, my brother became upset and said that this was “f-ing” ridiculous, and he wanted, you know, to know how Brad King would feel, you know, having a daughter─ if something happened, you know, to his daughter, how would he feel?
NARRATOR: Because of his angry outbursts about the case, Scott O’Connell was fired from his job at the sheriff’s office.
In the end, Brad King declared Michelle O’Connell’s case closed.
BRAD KING: When you talk about this case, yes, there is a visceral sense of, “Oh, what if she was murdered and this guy goes free?” There ought to be at least some visceral sense, “What if she did commit suicide, and he’s in prison for the rest of his life?” And neither one─
WALT BOGDANICH: And that’s what juries are for, I suppose, and what─ you know─
BRAD KING: Well, they’re for that only if there is sufficient factual basis to start that process.
NARRATOR: No charges have been brought, and her death officially remains a suicide.
The shadow that lay across Michelle O’Connell’s death was the question of how effectively law enforcement investigates cases involving its own officers, especially when there is the possibility of domestic violence.
DOTTIE DAVIS: In my 32 years in law enforcement, I can probably count on these fingers the number of agencies that have actually held officers accountable and terminated their employment. It is very rare that you see an officer even prosecuted because most prosecutors don’t want to file criminal charges against an officer because they need them for their cases.
NARRATOR: Dottie Davis spent 32 years on the Fort Wayne, Indiana, police force. She says she was in a violent marriage to a fellow officer. Today, Davis talks to departments around the country about the issue of officer-involved domestic violence.
DOTTIE DAVIS: So many agencies, when I walk in, will say, “Not our agency. Not anybody here.” And the fact of the matter is, it’s estimated six to seven incidents happen before they ever call the police. But if your abuser is the police, you’re going to call his or her agency to the home to investigate?
And in today’s technology, a victim calls 911, well, guess what? Their statement’s right on the screen for every fellow officer and every friend of that officer to read, and to make a call and let him know what she just told the dispatcher and that people are responding.
WALT BOGDANICH: That’s a frightening scenario you just presented.
DOTTIE DAVIS: It’s the truth.
[www.pbs.org: A systemwide failure?]
NARRATOR: There is no comprehensive data on the extent of officer-involved domestic violence, and nationally, there are only voluntary guidelines on how to deal with these kinds of cases. But we analyzed the policies and procedures of some of America’s largest police departments.
SARAH COHEN, The New York Times: We chose the 61 departments that had at least 1,000 officers, based on FBI data. We asked them to tell us how they handled complaints of police domestic violence. We recorded the first reaction we got from people. And there were a lot of first reactions that went, “We have no idea what you’re talking about.” And most of these respondents were sworn officers themselves and were responsible for knowing what was in their standard operating procedure.
NARRATOR: We found only one agency that had fully implemented the recommended procedures and safeguards.
In the case of Michelle O’Connell, her family believed 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.
DISPATCHER: Everybody’s coming. Your friends are on the way.
NARRATOR: We asked former New York City police commander Vernon Geberth to review the sheriff’s investigation.
VERNON GEBERTH, Fmr. NYPD Homicide Commander: I have personally investigated, supervised, assessed and consulted on over 8,000 homicides.
WALT BOGDANICH: Eight thousand?
VERNON GEBERTH: Eight thousand.
NARRATOR: Geberth is the author of the widely used textbook Practical Homicide Investigation.
VERNON GEBERTH: Every death investigation should be treated as a homicide until it’s proven differently.
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: Hey!
VERNON GEBERTH: Deputy Banks reported the case as a suicide.
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: My girlfriend─ I think she just shot herself!
VERNON GEBERTH: Friends of his responded to that.
DISPATCHER: She what?
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: She shot herself! Please!
VERNON GEBERTH: Early on, the case was being assumed to be a suicide.
Cpl. MARK SHAND: We were standing out front, discussing it, and it was a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Det. JESSICA HINES: I didn’t have any suspicions that it was anything other than suicide.
VERNON GEBERTH: There’s some serious red flags in the investigation. Deputy Banks should’ve been removed from the scene and brought to the station house. And the interview shouldn’t have been conducted in the police car at the scene, it should’ve been in a controlled environment.
Det. JESSICA HINES: All right, this is Detective Hines. It is─
VERNON GEBERTH: Now, his sergeant arrived at the scene and basically babysat him. And when he was finally interviewed two hours after the event, the interview takes place in a police car, with Sergeant Faircloth sitting in.
Lt. TOM QUINTIERI: Sergeant Faircloth, I don’t know how, but he got there very quickly. So he went to Jeremy and stayed with Jeremy the whole time.
VERNON GEBERTH: Since when do we invite people to sit in on an interview? I know I wouldn’t.
Det. JESSICA HINES: What did you get to drink tonight?
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: Bud Light. Big ones. [laughs]
VERNON GEBERTH: There’s no courtesy in a homicide investigation. There’s absolutely no reason in the world to have anybody sit in on the interview.
Det. JESSICA HINES: Comfy spinning chair, not the suspect chair. [laughter]
VERNON GEBERTH: I got the impression that he was treated special. I saw in the second interview on September 14th, he actually said to Detective Hines, “Oh, I checked the file and read because I wanted to see what was going on on the other side.”
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: I’ve already read the report. I know I probably shouldn’t have. I just wanted to know what─ what went down on the other side.
VERNON GEBERTH: How did he gain access to a confidential investigative report, and how come she didn’t challenge him on that? I don’t get it.
Det. JESSICA HINES: I think that covers it all. Let’s get out of this room─ echo-y room.
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: Yeah.
VERNON GEBERTH: This investigation stinks, OK? You can’t possibly investigate a member of your department the same way you investigate an average case because people know each other. There’s friends. You leave yourself open to criticism. I think that the sheriff’s office made a major mistake when they didn’t bring FDLE in immediately. Do it right the first time. You only get one chance.
[www.pbs.org: Policing the police]
NARRATOR: Our examination also raised questions about the work of the county’s medical examiner, Dr. Bulic, whose upside-down gun theory was crucial to the outcome of the case. This is his official documentation, a cut-out photograph of the gun taped onto Michelle O’Connell’s autopsy photo.
WALT BOGDANICH, New York Times: I believe this is the only report that you had authored to back up your suicide conclusion?
PREDRAG BULIC, M.D., Chief Medical Examiner: Report?
WALT BOGDANICH: Yeah. Have you written any reports on this case?
Dr. PREDRAG BULIC: No, this is not my case. This was just out of my pure curiosity and to satisfy the many different people who came and asked about my opinion.
WALT BOGDANICH: We obtained a replica of the gun, and I’d like you to show me how you believe she held the gun. This is the gun and─
Dr. PREDRAG BULIC: I have to pull it out.
WALT BOGDANICH: I think it’s a retention holster.
Dr. PREDRAG BULIC: Apparently, we don’t know how to open this.
WALT BOGDANICH: Yeah.
Dr. PREDRAG BULIC: Does anybody know how to open it?
WALT BOGDANICH: You have to push that in there, and then push forward, and then it comes up. But before I do that, what makes you think Michelle O’Connell would do any better than you just did in trying to get this out of a retention holster?
Dr. PREDRAG BULIC: No, I─
WALT BOGDANICH: You have to know what you’re doing to get it out.
Dr. PREDRAG BULIC: Eventually, you would─ eventually, you would figure out─ if you gave me long enough, I would have probably─ no, but I mean, I see your point. And that doesn’t mean that even child cannot pull that by accident.
WALT BOGDANICH: Why don’t you show us how you believe she held the gun when she shot herself.
Dr. PREDRAG BULIC: The muzzle was in the mouth. The tactical light was aiming towards the─ the right eye. And this is the way that I believe that the suicide occurred.
NARRATOR: We went to New York’s prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice to have forensic scientists Peter De Forest and Pete Diaczuk go over Dr. Bulic’s work.
WALT BO GDANICH: Is this an impressive document, in your view?
PETER DE FOREST, Forensic Scientist: No.
WALT BOGDANICH: How would you describe it?
PETER DE FOREST: Amateurish.
PETER DIACZUK, Forensic Scientist: The scales here are not correct. The error is huge. And that would not allow that injury to be caused by the discharge of the firearm.
NARRATOR: We also asked them to test the theory advanced by Brad King that Michelle’s eye was wounded by the gun recoiling forward.
PETER DE FOREST: The idea of it recoiling forward is absurd. You know, basically, it appears to be an attempt to explain the wound without considering the possibility of antecedent physical violence.
PETER DIACZUK: In my use of firearms, it defies the laws of physics to have the gun go forward after it’s shot. I did, in fact, fire the gun and document it using high-speed photography. It simply confirmed the only movement post-discharge is rearwards, not forwards.
I’m not saying that the tactical light could not have made that injury. I’m saying that it did not make that injury at the same time that the fatal shot was fired.
WALT BOGDANICH: And that’s important because?
PETER DIACZUK: Well, if it made the injury in advance, that could’ve been some sort of an aggression taking place against the victim.
WALT BOGDANICH: So you actually used the real gun. You held it upside-down. What happened to you?
PETER DIACZUK: I set up the shot to fire it. At discharge, the slide came back and─
Ow! Damn it, that hurt!
This slide comes back incredibly fast and has two very sharp edges on the bottom rail. There would be at least one, if not two, gouges in the operator’s hand.
NARRATOR: Michelle O’Connoll had no such injuries on her hands. But she did have that cut on her eyelid.
PETER DE FOREST: The attempt is being made to explain the wound as resulting from that moment when the shot is fired, and discounting the idea of these being due to violence that took place before the shooting.
WALT BOGDANICH: Are you saying that you believe that Michelle O’Connell might have been battered before the fatal shot was fired?
PETER DE FOREST: Yes.
NARRATOR: For nine months, we made repeated visits to Florida, requested and reviewed thousands of pages of documents─
WALT BOGDANICH: I want to inquire about my Open Records request.
1st CLERK: What’s your name?
WALT BOGDANICH: It’s Walt Bogdanich.
NARRATOR: ─and attempted to interview most of the key participants.
WALT BOGDANICH: Hi.
2nd CLERK: Hi. How are you?
WALT BOGDANICH: Nice to see you again. I filed a request and I haven’t heard anything back. Do you know why?
SUPERVISOR: No. You’ll have to call the attorney.
NARRATOR: And repeatedly, we asked Sheriff David Shoar for an on-the-record, on-camera interview to discuss our unanswered questions. But he declined, saying in this letter that he didn’t want to participate in a story that “will create doubt about Deputy Banks.”
NEWSCASTER: Today, the St. Johns County sheriff fired back─
NARRATOR: But the sheriff did release to the press a 153-page report on the case.
NEWSCASTER: Shoar told us this is not a case where he’s trying to protect his own.
NARRATOR: He conceded his office had made mistakes, among them that Jeremy Banks should not have been interviewed in a police car on the scene─
Det. JESSICA HINES: What did you get to drink tonight?
Dep. JEREMY BANKS: Bud Light. Big ones. [laughter]
NARRATOR: ─that the neighborhood should have been canvassed─
STACEY BOSWELL: And then we heard a gunshot─
NARRATOR: ─the O’Connell family should have been interviewed─
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: Am I allowed to give a statement?
NARRATOR: ─and the evidence collected at the scene should have been analyzed.
Despite the errors, he insisted that his conclusions were right, and he accused FDLE and its lead agent, Rusty Rodgers, of serious misconduct in the case.
RUSTY RODGERS: I am special agent Rusty Rodgers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement─
NARRATOR: The sheriff claimed Rodgers was careless and reckless in his methods, used false and misleading information, and coached witnesses.
STACEY BOSWELL, Neighbor: I was not coached by anybody. He was nothing but professional. I only spoke to him a handful of times, and he was professional every time I spoke to him.
NARRATOR: The sheriff took particular pains to discredit the two women, among other things alleging they are regular marijuana smokers and couldn’t recall if they had been smoking that night
STACEY BOSWELL: Totally false. Completely. Nothing was ever said to us about any kind of drugs or alcohol.
NARRATOR: And Shoar also hired two former law enforcement officers, one an acquaintance, to review his report. And both agreed, based solely on what they read, that Rodgers’s investigation was flawed. As a result of the sheriff’s report, Agent Rodgers was put on paid leave while FDLE and a prosecutor investigate.
FDLE declined to comment, and Agent Rodgers was not permitted to speak us. But perhaps the most surprising twist of all, Michelle’s brother, Scott, claiming he was misled by Agent Rodgers, suddenly sided with the sheriff. We wanted to speak to him, but he declined.
And this summer, nearly three years after Michelle O’Connell died, Sheriff Shoar gathered his department at a resort hotel for an annual meeting that became a show of support for Jeremy Banks, and an announcement about Michelle’s brother, Scott.
Sheriff DAVID SHOAR: We also, of course, have Jeremy Banks with us. And all of you know Jeremy because you’re a co-worker. And his parents─ I’ve known them both of them for many, many, many years. Also with Jeremy is Scott O’Connell, who used to be employed at the sheriff’s office. Scott’s going to come back to work as a member of this agency.
There may be some of you in this room who have doubts about this case─ “I don’t know, man. I think it was a homicide.” Jeremy Banks had nothing to do with that case. I’d stake a 33-year career on it.
We had people that responded that night to that scene, and you know, they were right that night and they’re still right. This guy right here came so damn close to being charged with homicide, based on nothing, absolutely nothing!
JENNIFER CRITES: Losing Michelle has─ you have a distrust for law enforcement now. I surely have a distrust for Sheriff Shoar now.
CHRISTINE O’CONNELL: It may be 20 years, but eventually, we will have justice for my sister and for her daughter.
PATTY O’CONNELL: My granddaughter doesn’t have a mother anymore. My children don’t have their sister anymore. We have a right to stand up for Michelle. We have a right. And we have a duty. Her life was very special.
NARRATOR: As for Jeremy Banks, after a year’s paid administrative leave, he has returned to active duty. He did not respond to our requests for an interview. He is now suing FDLE and Agent Rodgers, accusing them of violating his civil rights.
Sheriff DAVID SHOAR: I’ve never stood up in the past and claimed to be right 100 percent of the time. In fact, I’m right maybe 60 percent, if I’m lucky. But on this issue, I’m right. And by me standing up here and having this conversation with you, I’m doing what I can to take care of him. And I’m going to ask that Jeremy and Scott stand up. Would you two stand up? Let’s give these two guys a hand.