Wednesday, November 19, 2014
MICHELLE O'CONNELL SHOOTING: Read Folio Weekly Article by Susan Cooper Eastman
By Susan Cooper Eastman
Clu Wright is a man of constant motion.
He talks in such a rush of such accelerated commotion, it’s hard to take in all of his words. His hands chop and dice the air like a Ronco Veg-O-Matic. His legs jiggle and bob. Asked to repeat a sentence, he launches into a variation on the theme. Asked again, he does it again. When I comment on how hyper he is, he tells me he’s slowed down as he’s aged. He used to be hyper, he says. He’s not making a joke.
The 51-year-old, with a silver moustache and goatee and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, retired as Clay County Fire Marshal in 2012, but he’s still active. He’s a part-time paramedic for Putnam County. He ran (unsuccessfully) for the Clay County Commission this year as a true Republican conservative who’d do away with development impact fees for schools. And he became a licensed private investigator and launched a company, Clu Wright’s Investigations.
On an early October morning, he offered to make the 54-mile drive from Keystone Heights to Jacksonville to meet with me. He was here in about 20 minutes. He had something very important to communicate. He’d spent five months reviewing the ostensible suicide of 24-year-old St. Augustine woman Michelle O’Connell, and he’d produced a 92-page report about it. He wanted to share it with the world.
O’Connell — as you may know, because this case has generated considerable controversy and media attention — died Sept. 2, 2010, from a single gunshot wound to the head in the master bedroom of the home she shared with her then-23-year-old boyfriend, St. Johns County Sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks. She was packing to leave him. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, three medical examiners, a state attorney, a special prosecutor and Jeremy Banks himself have all said that O’Connell killed herself with Banks’ gun.
Wright thinks that’s bullshit. Only, as a good, Bible-believing Christian, he wouldn’t use that kind of language.
Here are Wright’s conclusions, in four short sentences: 1) Jeremy Banks murdered Michelle O’Connell. 2) The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office knows it. 3) The evidence proves it. 4) No one’s going to do anything about it.
He’s not alone in doubting the official story. A year ago, in November 2013, The New York Times published the results of a nine-month investigation into O’Connell’s death, “Two Gunshots on a Summer Night,” by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Walt Bogdanich and Glenn Silber, which cast serious doubt on the suicide narrative and the SJSO’s willingness and ability to investigate one of its own — and in the process angered Sheriff David Shoar, who continues to stand by his deputy. (The story also upset the St. Augustine Record, which fretted about whether The Ancient City was “a victim of big media parachuting into a small town and just getting the pulse wrong.”)
Wright saw the accompanying PBS Frontline documentary, A Death in St. Augustine, and felt compelled to get involved.
“I knew something wasn’t right, so I pulled everything I could think of to get on it,” he says.
And when he reviewed photographs of the death scene taken by evidence technicians, he saw something he thought was big, something important, something he says the cops had missed, something state crime investigators had missed, something that he believes could crack the case wide open.
He saw a T-shirt.
Specifically, Wright saw a gray T-shirt,
on the bed just above O’Connell’s lifeless body. Look closely at a tight image of that shirt, Wright says, and you can see a spot of congealed blood, what looks like a bullet hole and perhaps gunpowder residue. All of that leads him to speculate that Banks stuffed the T-shirt in O’Connell’s mouth and fired his SJSO-issued Heckler & Koch into it and then threw it on the bed.
“[Banks] had to put it there,” Wright says. “[O’Connell] couldn’t have put it there. She was paralyzed. She’s dead. My theory is he may have put it in her mouth and shot her so that there’s no blood spatter.”
There’s no dispute that the fatal bullet lodged in O’Connell’s third vertebrae, instantly paralyzing her. Thus, Wright says, she couldn’t have put the shirt on the bed. Someone else had to have done that — at least, if his assessment of what’s on that shirt is correct. There’s no way to know that now. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, which quickly ruled O’Connell’s death a suicide, discarded the shirt without testing it for blood or gunshot residue.
Still, Wright says, the photographs themselves are evidence worthy of consideration.
Wright also points out that there’s no blood around the shirt. In the photos, most of the blood is pooling on the carpet under O’Connell’s head. There’s also no blood smeared on the side of the bed, as there would be if she had slid to the floor. Nor are there obvious bloodstains on other articles of clothing or on the bed.
That wasn’t all Wright says he found in the evidence photos, interview transcripts and police reports he reviewed. For instance, he says, he saw a black glove turned inside out on the hood of Banks’ car, which he says seems to match the black gloves in the back of Banks’ police cruiser. He argues that Banks may have worn gloves when he killed O’Connell, and discarded one of them on his car afterward. Wright also noticed a gun holster on the kitchen counter, which he believes is significant because the holster on the bedroom floor beside O’Connell’s body was locked and very difficult to open. He wonders if Banks’ service pistol fit into the holster on the kitchen counter, and whether the deputy had carried his gun in it that evening, when he was off-duty.
And in his report, Wright notes that Banks — who has always maintained that he heard two gunshots, and kicked open the bedroom door to find O’Connell lying on the floor with his service weapon beside her — in an interview with FDLE agent Rusty Rodgers, appears to agree that the death scene looks staged.
Wright quotes a portion of the interview transcript, taken in April 2011. In that interview, Rodgers tells Banks that the gun would not have fallen to the left of O’Connell’s body. Her body canted to the right, he says, and the gun would have fallen to the right, too.
Rodgers: “Uh, the forensic experts agree that that handgun was placed or staged in the position depicted in the death scene photographs. This isn’t magic, it isn’t voodoo, it just simply could not be the way the pictures say it is because it’s ass-backwards. OK, you agree?”
Rodgers: “I mean do you see the logic in that?”
Banks: “Yeah, I … yeah.”
Rodgers: “Do you agree with that, though?”
Banks: [Nods head] “Sure.”
That’s not quite a confession — you could argue that it’s more like a guy going along with an interrogator who’s badgering him — but it’s enough for Wright. “He admitted his guilt,” he says. “That’s the kind of stuff they are not picking up on.”
In February, Wright typed up his conclusions into a sprawling report, which he sent to Shoar, state Attorney General Pam Bondi, Gov. Rick Scott, the FBI, the FDLE, the Office of the Medical Examiner for St. Johns, Putnam and Flagler counties, three state attorneys’ offices, and journalists throughout Northeast Florida.
“Look at the evidence!” Wright exclaims emphatically. “That’s all I want.”
Wright appeared on WJXT-Channel 4 on Sept. 1, the day before O’Connell family members held a press conference on the fourth anniversary of Michelle’s death to ask Scott to reopen the case. “You probably could have somebody that’s guilty also that’s out there roaming the streets,” he told the TV station, “because if this evidence wasn’t looked at and the whole circumstance wasn’t looked at as far as the evidence that was collected, how can you come to a conclusion and say it was suicide?”
Beyond that, however — and even after a new witness emerged to say that Banks was acting suspiciously after O’Connell’s death, and Gov. Scott acceded to the family’s demands and ordered yet another investigation — Wright’s report hasn’t gained much traction.
Nobody asked Clu Wright to investigate Michelle O’Connell’s death, to spend his own money and his own time to acquire evidence and documents and pore over them. Nobody paid him to take this on. He doesn’t know the O’Connells. Never met them. Never met Jeremy Banks. Sure, it probably wouldn’t hurt his budding private-eye business to bust open one of the highest-profile mysteries in Northeast Florida, but that’s not why he’s doing it, he says.
“I’m looking for evidence,” he says. “It’s not about me. It’s about justice.”
Wright is dressed in goldish-green cargo shorts and a gray FSU T-shirt over a white T-shirt and brown suede Skechers. He dresses like a regular guy because he is a regular guy. He’s adamant that there’s nothing special or extraordinary about him. When I ask to visit him at his Keystone Heights home to see him in his element, he says there’s nothing to see. His wife does the decorating, and besides, he doesn’t understand why those sorts of details matter. “We got couches, TVs, the regular stuff everybody else got,” he says.
(And, yes, before you ask, Clu Wright, though it may sound too perfect for a private investigator, is his given name. His dad named him after Clu Gulager, an actor who played Billy the Kid in the NBC series The Tall Man and Deputy Ryker on the 1960s NBC series The Virginian.)
Wright worked for the Clay County fire department for two decades, from 1991 to 2012, when he retired, and he didn’t shy away from trouble. In 2012, for example, he filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics against car dealership owner and County Commissioner Ronnie Robinson, alleging that Robinson had attempted to interfere in fire inspections to help his business friends. The Commission on Ethics cleared Robinson of any wrongdoing.
Wright, as Clay County Fire Marshal, investigated suspicious fires, and says he was certified as an expert witness in court cases in the county. The first thing he’d do when investigating a case, he says, was rule out criminal intent — just like the first thing a criminal investigator has to do before proceeding is to decide whether or not a death is a homicide. (If someone had died in a fire, he was required by Florida law to call in the state fire marshal to investigate rather than do so himself. Wright says he would assist, however.)
Wright says the skills he honed as a fire investigator serve him well in his current line of work. “You enter a burned-up building and have to piece it back together to figure out where the fire started,” he says. “It’s connecting the dots.”
That’s what he says he’s trying to do with Michelle O’Connell’s death — connecting the dots, piecing it together, doing the basic work he believes St. Johns County Sheriff’s deputies were unwilling to do that night four years ago.
Even Sheriff Shoar has admitted his deputies didn’t investigate O’Connell’s death as thoroughly as they should have. (The sheriff’s office declined to comment for this story because the case is once again considered an active investigation.) Deputies left evidence at the scene. They didn’t ask that the evidence they did collect be tested for gunshot residue or DNA. Though Banks admitted to drinking that night, the cops never tested his blood alcohol level. A detective interviewed him in the front seat of her patrol car, rather than at the police station, with Banks’ off-duty sergeant present.
In short — as Shoar has acknowledged — they decided it was suicide, and that influenced how they went about their work. Two days later, the medical examiner confirmed it. As far as the police were concerned, that case was closed.
Except Michelle O’Connell’s family didn’t buy it. They never bought it. O’Connell wouldn’t have abandoned her 4-year-old daughter, they said. She was leaving Banks. She was about to start a new full-time job with health insurance. She was happy.
After months of pressure from the O’Connell family and a blogger who tracks how the cops handle allegations of domestic violence involving their own, in January 2011 Shoar asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate O’Connell’s death.
And when the FDLE began its inquiry, Agent Rodgers found some potentially important evidence that the SJSO had apparently overlooked. When he canvassed the neighborhood, Rodgers found two women who said that, on the night O’Connell died, they were in the garage of a nearby home, smoking cigarettes. They said they heard a woman scream for help, a gunshot, another cry and another gunshot.
(Shoar was critical of their statements, at first saying the women admitted to sometimes smoking pot in that garage, then arguing that the women were too far away from Banks’ home to have heard anything.)
The FDLE also tested Banks’ gun and found that it had no traces of his blood or his DNA on it, even though he had carried it earlier that day — raising the possibility that he had cleaned it. The gun did have some of O’Connell’s DNA on it, though.
Crime scene reconstruction expert James Findley told FDLE investigators that he didn’t believe O’Connell killed herself. “The totality of the circumstances are not consistent with suicide,” he wrote in a report. “However, they are consistent with homicide.” Rodgers and his supervisor, Dominick Pape, believed that O’Connell’s death was suspicious.
Shoar pushed back, and pushed back hard. His office prepared a 153-page review of the SJSO’s investigation that reads more like an indictment of the FDLE and the detective work of Rodgers and Pape.
The report charges that Rodgers “had an inappropriate relationship with the O’Connell family.” Rodgers led O’Connell’s brother, Deputy Scott O’Connell, to believe that his sister’s death “was indeed a homicide” and confided in him about the investigation. Shoar also said that Rodgers seized Banks’ cell phone and detained him illegally after interviewing him in the FDLE’s Jacksonville offices. Shoar’s report says Rodgers made an “unlawful arrest and detainment,” and that the agent never read Banks his Miranda warning.
“Because of the unethical conduct of these two individuals,” Shoar concluded, “a young deputy has been stigmatized for life.”
Banks sued both Rodgers and the FDLE. So did Scott O’Connell, who says Rodgers manipulated him. (Worth noting: Scott O’Connell was fired from the SJSO after an outburst when he learned Banks wouldn’t be charged in his sister’s death; he was rehired after he told Shoar he thought Michelle killed herself.)
Near the conclusion of the FDLE investigation, Gov. Scott asked State Attorney Brad King — who represents the Fifth Judicial Circuit, covering Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties — to investigate. He ultimately determined there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute Banks, which Shoar took as vindication. The family still didn’t give up.
Following the New York Times/Frontline investigation last year, pressure mounted again. And on the anniversary of O’Connell’s death this year, her family presented a signed affidavit from former bar owner Danny Harmon, who said that Banks came to his bar the day after Michelle’s death and said that O’Connell wasn’t going to ruin his life, and that all she ever did was put him down. The family asked Gov. Scott to once again reopen the case.
A few weeks later, Scott appointed yet another special prosecutor, Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Jeff Ashton, who represents Orange and Osceola counties. (Ashton’s office declined to comment for this story.) Shoar released a statement saying he was confident that Ashton would reach the same conclusion as two other state attorneys and three medical examiners — that O’Connell’s death was a suicide.
Because of their differences over Michelle’s death, Scott O’Connell is estranged from his older brother, two remaining sisters and mother. Earlier this month, the family appeared on Dr. Phil, where the television psychologist implored them to reconcile.
The FDLE, meanwhile, has placed Rodgers on leave while a special prosecutor investigates his conduct. Pape resigned in April 2013.
Banks’ attorney, Robert “Mac” McLeod, did not return phone calls for this story. He has previously told Folio Weekly in an email that “Mr. Banks is so obviously innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever in the tragic suicide of Ms. O’Connell, that 3 medical examiners and 2 state attorneys have concluded no evidence implicates him. It may make great copy to claim otherwise, and make loved ones of Michelle feel better, but it makes such allegations no less baseless and fictional.”
Despite the many lingering questions surrounding the case — and the fact that it is once again being actively investigated — Clu Wright has had difficulty getting anyone in power to listen to him.
In June, for example, Wright met with St. Johns County Chief Medical Examiner Predrag Bulic; on July 11, Bulic and investigator J. Kent Holloway signed a memo stating that unless the bloody T-shirt could be proven to have a bullet hole in it, the medical examiner’s office “sees [no] merit in these so-called pieces of evidence.”
That memo describes the meeting, during which Bulic “examined the photographs while Mr. Wright directed his attention to an obscure piece of clothing resting on a piece of furniture near the decedent’s body.”
Bulic is perhaps most notable for his explanation of how Michelle O’Connell received a wound above her right eye on the night she died. He theorized that she turned the gun upside-down and put it in her mouth. When she pulled the trigger, the gun’s tactical light surged forward and struck her, causing the injury.
The New York Times story characterized that theory as defying the laws of physics. It quoted eminent forensic scientist Peter De Forest, who said, “Dr. Bulic’s theory is fraught with problems and almost laughable.” He described the idea that a gun would recoil forward as “absurd.” De Forest offered a simpler explanation — “that O’Connell was battered before the fatal shot.”
Meeting Wright and looking at his T-shirt evidence didn’t change Bulic’s mind about O’Connell’s death. “Dr. Bulic is as confident in this office’s official diagnosis of the cause and manner of death as when he first made himself familiar with the case,” the post-Wright meeting memo concludes.
After Scott assigned the case to Ashton, Wright says he met with that office’s investigators, too. There, too, he came away disappointed. He says the investigators told him that their review was limited to assessing whether Harmon’s testimony changes anything. They won’t be going back into the case file, or retesting evidence, or re-interviewing witnesses.
“Their job is not to reopen the whole investigation of the case,” says Wright. “They got all my stuff. I don’t think that they are going to do anything.”
The refusal of the powers-that-be to consider his findings infuriates Wright. “If they would have gotten that shirt that night, this would have been solved. But they just want to let it go. They kind of joke and laugh and don’t do anything about it. They botched it the first time, and then they botched it again.”
Wright isn’t stopping with his criticism of the investigation into Michelle O’Connell’s death. He recently published another report examining a purported suicide in Clay County that he thinks was also murder. He says the victim’s family didn’t have the money to hire a private investigator, and he wishes there were a nonprofit to fund investigations like these.
If he could, he says, he says, he’d like nothing more than to conduct investigations into cases for people who don’t have the resources to launch their own.
“I’d do it all day long,” he says.