Questionable arrest among multiple issues with troubled Punta Gorda cop
PUNTA GORDA, Fla. – An arrest that was questioned by a training officer and an assistant state prosecutor were among the indicators that Lee Coel was a problem officer within the Punta Gorda Police Department.
Internal memos obtained by WINK News detail issues brought up by superiors and fellow officers months before Coel shot and killed Mary Knowlton, 73, during a citizen’s police academy demonstration in August.
There were supposed to be blanks in Coel’s gun.
Coel remains on paid administrative leave.
The shooting, which is being investigated by the department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, followed multiple issues of complacency, questionable decisions and insubordination by Coel.
Among those questionable decisions was a traffic stop that turned combative.
Coel stopped a vehicle in June 2015 for traveling the wrong way on U.S. 41.
After requesting backup, two additional officers, Master Police Officer Bonnie Sills and her trainee, “Officer Trufan,” responded.
Trufan’s first name was not provided in an internal memo detailing the incident.
Coel’s police dog checked the vehicle for drugs, but none were found, the memo said.
Coel then said he was “changing hats” to conduct a sobriety test on the driver, Jacob Michael Hill.
“J. Hill agreed to perform field sobriety exercises, but [Coel] did not ask any of the related DUI questions,” Sills wrote in the memo. “J. Hill performed the walk and turn and this officer did not observe any indicators which would indicate an impaired driver.”
Coel argued with the driver, saying “he could do it again.”
Hill performed the second test. There was no indication of impairment, the memo said.
“[Coel] seemed to become frustrated with J. Hill and seemed to ‘excessively scrutinize’ J. Hill’s performance,” Sills wrote. “At no time did he miss heel to toe, counting, raising his arms or step off the line. He also performed the turn without any concerns.”
Sills felt the traffic stop was becoming excessive and that Coel was looking for a reason to make an arrest, the memo said.
Sills and Trufan left the scene “as the situation was going from bad to worse and felt this was not productive for a trainee to observe,” the memo said.
Moments later, Sills was called back to the scene.
“Upon arrival, I observed [Master Police Officer] Chow and [Coel] holding J. Hill over the back of a marked patrol unit and screaming at him to ‘spit it out,'” she wrote.
Hill was arrested after he “refused” to continue the sobriety test, the memo said.
Chow, whose first name was not provided in the memo, said he smelled marijuana, which was found in Hill’s mouth.
Sills questioned whether an arrest should’ve been made.
“J. Hill performed the requested sobriety exercises without any notable concerns and he probably should not have been placed under arrest,” she wrote. “The narcotics were not located until after he was placed in handcuffs only after refusing to continue to perform repeatedly without any indicators.”
Hill faced seven charges, including two felonies and a DUI.
State prosecutors dropped all but one charge. Hill pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession.
“I do not see how there was enough for a DUI/DUI arrest, and if that is out, then no [probable cause] to search incident to arrest,” Assistant State’s Attorney Tracy Detzel wrote in court documents. “Not sure should file on case.”
A dropped DUI charge rarely happens, said Hill’s attorney, Steve Leskovitch.
“I can count on one hand how many times a DUI has been dismissed prior to charges being filed,” said Leskovitch, who is also a former prosecutor. “This is one of them.”
The arrest cost Hill his home, his job as a roofer and his driver’s license for a year. No one would hire him, Hill said, so he returned to northern Minnesota.
“Now when he’s looking for employment, what shows up on his background? A DUI,” Leskovitch said. “Who the heck’s gonna hire somebody with that kind of record?”
Leskovitch said if he knew the full details behind Hill’s arrest, he would have “absolutely not” have accepted a plea deal.
Russell Kirshy, a Charlotte County attorney and former prosecutor, said Hill pleaded guilty because he had little choice.
“He pled to those because he was in jail for 35 days and he needed to get out,” he said. “Who’s not gonna take that?”
When asked about the arrest, Punta Gorda police provided nearly 50 pages of unrequested documents discrediting Master Police Officer Bonnie Buckelew, who sent the memo about the arrest to a department supervisor about eight hours after it happened.
The department added that the arrest was successful because Hill pleaded guilty to the possession charge.
That answer didn’t sit well with Kirshy.
“The problem is that the department’s answer to this was, ‘Well, it was a successful prosecution,'” he said. “And I have to tell you this, any department that defines this as a successful prosecution, they should all resign.”
Leskovitch had a different take on the situation.
“You always hear about corruption, but then to actually read it and know that it happens to someone you know, is actually quite disheartening,” he said.
Punta Gorda police declined an interview for this story, citing ongoing investigations into the fatal shooting.
A copy of the memo Buckelew sent is below: