Apparent negligence by the Punta Gorda Police Department resulted in the shooting death of a senior citizen last August as she volunteered in a shoot/don’t shoot scenario at police headquarters. The officer who fired the shot has been charged with felony manslaughter. He was fired and is appealing his termination this week. The city’s police chief, Tom Lewis, is charged with misdemeanor culpable negligence. He is on paid administrative leave.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators and an outside consultant point to the lack of appropriate safety procedures. The police chief learned how to do the scenario on YouTube. And a police officer’s gun that should have been loaded with blanks, fired real bullets.
73-year-old retired librarian Mary Knowlton was allegedly shot dead by police officer Lee Coel last August 9th. She had volunteered to participate in the shoot/don’t shoot scenario the Punta Gorda Police Department had been running for about two years for its Citizens Academy. She would play a cop investigating a suspicious person. The city’s K-9 officer Coel, playing the role of a perpetrator, would confront her.
Coel wore dark pants and a gray hoody. As Knowlton approached, he went for his gun. Knowlton needed to decide quickly whether to shoot him with her paintball “Simunitions” handgun. But Knowlton never had a chance to decide. Coel fired two bullets, then pulled the trigger a third time, apparently on an empty chamber. And then once more, firing another round. One bullet went through the door of a police car. The other two ricocheted off the car. One hit Knowlton on the inside of an elbow. One pierced her abdomen. She died on the way to the hospital.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or FDLE, agents were on the scene within hours. They quickly zeroed in on the circumstances that made the shooting possible, circumstances State Attorney Steve Russell described as he defined the misdemeanor charge brought against Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis six months later.
“Allegedly, on or about August 9th of 2016, did unlawfully in Charlotte County, through culpable negligence expose Mary Knowlton to personal injury by failing to implement and utilize sufficient safety protocols contrary to Florida Statute,” said Russell.
FDLE Special Agents questioned all the witnesses. They interviewed Punta Gorda Police Lieutenant and Director of Employee Development, Recruitment and Training Christopher Salsman just after midnight. He told the FDLE there were four senior officers involved: Chief Tom Lewis, Captain Jeffrey Woodard, Captain (now acting Chief) Jason Ciaschini and himself.
The FDLE interviews show the agents focused on the .38 caliber revolver used in the shooting, and whether or not anyone had conducted safety checks beforehand on Officer Lee Coel and on that gun. Special Agent Mike Ortiz questioned Lieutenant Salsman.
Ortiz: “Did anybody—say a safety officer—did the safety officer, do you know—did they check that gun beforehand?”
Salsman: “I don’t know which officer was checking the weapon with him when it was loaded.”
Ortiz: “Okay. But was it normal for somebody to…”
Ortiz: “Would that have been your purview or would that have been Captain Woodard’s purview? Would he—“
Salsman: “Well, in—in this—in this particular case it would’ve been—it would have been incumbent on both of us.”
Ortiz: “Ok was that done? Was his weapon checked prior to the exercise?”
Salsman: “No, because by the time I had gotten out there the scenario had already been set.”
Ortiz: “Ok. So—“
Salsman: “So my presumption was that—that because everything was already in place, that those safety checks had already been completed.”
Agent Mike Ortiz also questioned Punta Gorda Police Captain Jeffrey Woodard. He oversees the everyday functions of nearly all the department’s sworn officers. The interview quickly focused on a safety check.
Ortiz: “So you had a—a talk with him. Um, any type of safety check?”
Woodard: “No, sir.”
Woodard: “He—he did tell me that he had his, um, gun in—in his waistband.”
Ortiz: “Which gun?”
Woodard: “The gun that he was going to use for the scenario.”
Ortiz: “OK. Did you do any weapons check?”
Woodard: “I did not. I went in, um”
Ortiz: “Weapons check of his weapon that he was—in his waistband?”
Woodard: “I did not.”
Ortiz: “Did you ask him if he had any other duty weapons on him or any other weapons?”
Woodard: “No, did, I did not.”
Ortiz: “You do any pat down on him?”
Woodard: “No, sir, I did not.”
Ortiz: “Who—who—who was in control of the scenario?”
Woodard: “Um, I’m not.”
Ortiz: “Whose—whose scenario was it? Somebody owned that scenario. Who—who owned it?”
Woodard: “I don’t think that that was ever discussed.”
The interviews show the department had no written protocol for a scenario it had conducted at least five times. No safety rules. No playbook. In a follow-up interview a week after the incident, FDLE Special Agent Patrick Crough asked Captain Jeffrey Woodard how they learned to do the shoot/don’t shoot scenario.
Crough: “Who makes up those training scenarios?”
Woodard: “The scenarios to the best of my recollection, they came off of a YouTube—um, they were YouTube scenarios that some other agency did.”
Crough: “Okay. And who in this agency is the one that, uh, gleaned or distilled what—that information from YouTube then put it into play here?”
Woodard: “Um, I believe it was the Chief.”
Crough: “The Chief himself?”
Woodard: “I believe so. Yes, sir.”
Woodard: “He was—he would have been the Captain at the time.”
Crough: “Okay. Got you.”
The problem with copying scenarios off of YouTube is that only the fun stuff is on the screen. You can watch any number of them without seeing any of the planning, or the safety checks on the officer playing the role of suspect. This is one example from Maricopa County, Arizona.
The transcripts of the FDLE interviews show no one was assigned to check Officer Lee Coel’s gun for the demo. No one patted him down to be certain he wasn’t carrying another gun he might accidentally use. No one questioned why Coel was using his personally-owned .38-caliber revolver instead of, for example, a department-owned starter pistol that just goes BANG but cannot fire bullets. And no one looked inside Officer Coel’s revolver. If they had they would have seen it was loaded with .38 caliber wadcutters rather than blanks. The NRA Blog defines wadcutters as flat front bullets designed to punch distinct circular holes in paper targets.
City records show that in February of 2016 the Punta Gorda Police department purchased three boxes of .38-caliber Winchester blanks for Coel to use while training his police dog. The FDLE report on the shooting says he had those blanks in the rear of his K-9 car. But on the night of the shooting, he’d loaded the gun with the wadcutters. They weren’t department-issued bullets. FDLE investigators wanted to know where he got them?
The answer came in their interviews with Lieutenant Katie Heck, the department’s community relations officer. Her husband is a Charlotte County Sheriff’s lieutenant. And her interview with Special Agents Patrick Crough and Gary Negrinelli revealed he had lots of ammunition stored in their home.
Crough: “Was there ever a time you remember where you supplied him with blanks, that you handed him blanks?”
Crough: “Okay. When was that?”
Heck: “Um, it was when I moved, ‘cause we cleaned out all of our ammo.”
Heck: “So we moved July 4th weekend. So it was sometime the second week of July; I gave him a box. It was definitely a small one.”
Heck: “And it was of blanks, and they were left over from my husband.”
Heck: “‘Cause we just determined there was no—we didn’t need them.”
Negrinelli: “Um, any other kind of ammo that you ever, uh, gave him?”
Negrinelli: “Just those blanks.”
The problem was, the bullets weren’t blanks and the agents knew it. The FDLE reports the box was labeled with the code for Hollow base wadcutters. But Heck, who told the agents she isn’t “a gun person,” told them she didn’t know the difference.
According to a report by an outside committee created by Punta Gorda’s City Manager and chaired by Cape Coral’s retired Police Chief, Lee Coel’s use of ammunition obtained from someone other than the department’s armorer constitutes “a clear violation of the policy that was in place at that time.”
When State Attorney Steve Russell announced the charges against Coel and Chief Lewis, many Punta Gorda residents expressed outrage that others whose actions appear to have contributed to Mary Knowlton’s death were not also charged.
But Russell said deciding whether or not to bring charges—and against whom—is a complicated procedure that focuses on whether the evidence will support a conviction.
“We follow a process in every case to look at the factual evidence presented to us,” said Russell. “We look at admissible evidence. We look at those allegedly involved and then we reach a decision on the law and the facts as who may be appropriate to be charged, and at what level.”
The FDLE interviews with high-ranking Punta Gorda officers exposed a cavalier attitude toward safety in a weapons exercise with more than forty civilians and police officers observing. But one of the two interviews with Captain Jeffrey Woodard revealed the scenario had been conducted at least four times with Officer Lee Coel acting as the perpetrator. Each time Coel had used that same, personally-owned .38 revolver. No one had ever checked that weapon to determine what it was loaded with. FDLE special agent Mike Ortiz asked Captain Woodard if Lee Coel said anything immediately after the shooting:
“He did make a statement,” said Woodard. “He goes, I—I—I just don’t understand what happened. These are the same rounds that I use all the time.”
Three times at Citizen Academy presentations the Punta Gorda Police Department got lucky. But on August 9th 2016, its luck ran out. The city’s own internal affairs investigation, which could target additional officers, is on hold until the two criminal cases are resolved.