FDLE: No evidence former Punta Gorda officer intended to kill retired librarian

Published: March 15, 2017 3:59 PM EDT
Updated: March 16, 2017 6:17 AM EDT

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. State investigators found no evidence that a former Punta Gorda police officer intended to shoot and kill a retired librarian during a citizen’s academy class.

‘There is no evidence that officer Coel intended to use lethal ammunition,” the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said in a report released Wednesday. “It is apparent that officer Coel’s and others inability to differentiate between blank firing cartridges and .38 caliber ammunition resulted in Mary Knowlton’s death.”

Officer Lee Coel is charged with felony first-degree manslaughter for killing 73-year-old Mary Knowlton during the August 2016 training exercise.

Police Chief Tom Lewis, who is facing a misdemeanor second-degree culpable negligence charge for the incident, was placed on paid leave.

Coel was fired March 9 and has until March 24 to appeal the termination. He has yet to do so, a city spokeswoman said.

Blanks vs. real bullets

Punta Gorda police Lt. Katie Heck said she “probably” gave Coel a box of live ammunition, thinking they were blanks, the report said.

The blanks and lethal bullets are “similar in shape and size,” but neither resembled the bullets used in Coel’s service weapon, the report said.

Coel, who was playing a suspect in the exercise, used his personal weapon, a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, instead of his department-issued handgun, the report said.

Knowlton, who was playing a police officer in the training exercise, was given a bright blue simulation gun and “soap bullets.”

Lewis, the police chief, and another officer showed Knowlton how to use the gun, witness Michele Olsen said, according to the report.

Participants were not given any safety precautions, nor were any safety checks conducted, said Deborah Malinoski, according to the report.

Knowlton turned nervously to John Robert Wright, who told her to “give them hell,” the report said.

Four shots

Knowlton approached Coel while raising her weapon.

“What are you doing,” she said.

Coel, who was on one side of a police vehicle, jumped to the other side and fired four times:

  • One bullet ricocheted off the hood of a police vehicle and struck Knowlton in the stomach area.
  • Another also struck the hood first before hitting her in the left elbow.
  • The other two hit a vehicle.

She turned away from Coel, fell on her knees, and then on her face.

The group thought she was playing along with the exercise.

Wright thought she had a heart attack.

“Stay with us, stay with us, get paramedics,” Olsen remembered Lewis saying, according to the report.

Knowlton’s husband, Gary, was 10 feet away from her when she was hit, the FDLE said. He and many of the officers present initially believed she was playing along with the training scenario when she went down.

Then he turned her over and saw blood all over her, the FDLE said.

Life-saving attempt

John Robert Kennedy, a Punta Gorda marine patrol officer, was filling out a timecard when he heard the shots.

He went outside and saw a bullet hole in an unmarked police vehicle.

He followed the ambulance to Lee Memorial Hospital.

She flatlined three times while en route.

When Knowlton’s husband, Gary, arrived at the hospital, she had flatlined for the final time.

She was pronounced dead at 7:25 p.m.

It was the shot to the stomach that killed her, said the report, which referred to an autopsy that ruled the incident accidental.

It’s been loaded before?

This isn’t the first time Coel brought his own handgun to a shooting demonstration.

Coel has used his person gun at least four different times, and in two of those instances, the other officers training with him believed the gun may have been loaded, the FDLE said.

One of those times was on July 26, exactly two weeks to the day before Coel shot and killed Knowlton.

Coel was involved in a training scenario at the Charlotte County Gun Range when a deputy heard gunfire and “thought he saw dust or a disturbance on the ground,” according to the report. He asked a fellow deputy if he saw that and said “he thought he saw the ground moving as well.”

Later that day, Coel participated in another training scenario where a deputy claimed he “saw saw dirt fly up where Coel was pointing the firearm both down range and at the top of the berm,” the report said.

Numerous other incidents were also cited in the report, but it’s unclear whether Coel’s gun contained live rounds.

WINK News investigative reporter Dave Culbreth has more details: