Warning signs plentiful before Punta Gorda cop’s fatal shooting
PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – There were signs of trouble years, even weeks before Lee Coel fired the bullet that killed Mary Knowlton.
Indicators that, according to internal memos obtained by WINK News, show a pattern of complacency, questionable decisions and insubordination.
The last sign came less than a month before Knowlton, a beloved retired librarian, was shot and killed during a citizen’s police academy demonstration in August.
But one of the biggest hints was how Coel became a Punta Gorda police officer.
“They knew ahead of time, him coming from Miramar, he had some issues,” said Steve Leskovitch, a Charlotte County attorney and former prosecutor.
Coel received two excessive force complaints as a rookie officer with Miramar police in 2012. One was for pulling a handcuffed man by the ankles from the back of his police vehicle, and the other was for nearly sufficating a suspect by turning the heat on high and not rolling down the windows, according to media reports.
He was forced to resign from his job.
Coel submitted applications to more than 20 South Florida law enforcement agencies. With no job offers, he started applying to Southwest Florida departments.
Punta Gorda was the only interested agency.
In his application, Coel said he was cleared of the excessive force complaints but violated two department policies.
He started at the department in March 2014.
“First of all, he shouldn’t have been hired,” said Scott Weinberg, a Charlotte County attorney and also a former prosecutor. One of Weinberg’s clients sued the city over an incident involving Coel. “Secondly, when you hire somebody that was asked to resign from a different police force, they should be on thin ice. The first incident that occurred, they should have gotten rid of him then and there.”
Coel’s personnel file with the department shows many positive accomplishments, but the internal memos were not included.
Punta Gorda police declined to say why.
“The Chief will not be providing an interview on the memo you referenced,” the department said in a written statement. “Continuing the public discussion of Officer Coel’s work product prior to the conclusion of both FDLE’s investigation and our own internal investigation is unfair and possibly improper on our end.”
Coel was home preparing for canine training in Feb. 2015 when, “in the haste of putting on his duty gear,” he fired his Taser while conducting an equipment check, according to an internal department memo.
The cartridge struck his bedroom ceiling. No damage or injuries were reported.
Law enforcement agencies typically have what is known as a use of force continuum, a ranking of the most lethal weapons at an officer’s disposal and when they should be used. An officer’s handgun is at the top of the list, usually followed by their Taser if they have one.
Coel received remedial training on how to perform a spark test on a Taser.
“I believe officer Coel’s accidental discharge of his Taser was due to complacency and I do not think any further remedial training is needed,” Lt. Jeffrey Woodard wrote in a memo to then-Chief Albert Arenal.
Weinberg, the attorney, believes the discharge should’ve served as a warning.
“To have an officer not check his Taser before he does a spark test, that is Barney Fife stuff,” he said.
On Oct. 23, 2015, Cpl. Thomas Quegan and a second officer responded to a home for a drug warrant arrest.
Coel radioed that he was also responding, an internal memo said.
Quegan, in response, said his assistance was not needed.
Coel showed up anyway.
“I observed Officer Coel observing us while standing outside of his vehicle,” Quegan wrote in an internal memo. “As I returned to my vehicle, Officer Coel approached me and began to lecture me on how important it was for he and his K-9 to be involved in these type of calls and further proceeded to question my judgement and tactics while handling the call.”
Coel added that he was teaching the second officer “bad habits” and that his K-9 should’ve been used, the memo said.
Coel received a written warning and was counseled by Quegan and Lt. Melissa Reynolds regarding the incident.
The person they were looking for wasn’t home.
Bite seen ’round the world
The following week, Coel made international news.
Coel was following Richard Shumacher, who was riding a bike in the dark with no lights, when he said Shumacher began to pedal faster and made several turns onto nearby roads before stopping in front of a home.
Moments later, Coel released his police dog to take down Shumacher. For two minutes, the K-9 ripped into the flesh under one of Shumacher’s arms.
The department has a community initiative where instead of an arrest, officers provide a warning and free bicycle lights for those riding in the dark without one.
Shumacher received a warning but was also charged with multiple offenses, including eluding an officer and DUI on a bicycle. He was hospitalized for nearly two weeks.
An outside expert hired by the department justified the K-9 use.
The department changed its K-9 policy to state that a suspect must show “aggressive resistance,” not just “active resistance” before a police dog is used. Later, the department discontinued the use of police dogs in suspect apprehension. The dogs will instead be used for evidence collection and community outreach.
Shumacher sued the city, then settled for $70,000. Most of his medical bills, which totaled $130,000, were written off by Lee Health.
Coel received international attention — and death threats — for what the department described in an internal memo as a “sensationalized” incident.
The threats led Coel to request the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office to have his home address unlisted.
He didn’t have his driver’s license when he made the request, so he asked an emergency dispatcher to retrieve his driver’s license number from a law enforcement database. He was told that would violate department protocol.
Coel then told a police supervisor he previously used the system to obtain his personal information.
Coel received remedial training on how to use the database, according to a July 2016 internal memo.
The memo was addressed to Chief Thomas Lewis. Five years ago, Lewis was suspended for two weeks for the same offense.
‘He’s still a cop’
About a month after the memo, Knowlton was shot in front of a room of 30 people.
Knowlton’s husband, Gary, was in the room.
There were supposed to be blanks in Coel’s gun.
The city reached a $2 million settlement with Knowlton’s family. The agreement exempts the city from further legal action by her family.
Coel was placed on administrative leave for two weeks.
Russell Kirshy, also a Charlotte County attorney and former prosecutor, wondered why Coel is still a police officer.
“As an attorney, I mean the Florida Bar would be smacking me around something fierce because you can’t just engage in constant misconduct,” he said. “He’s got five or six incidents of serious misconduct…he’s still a cop.”