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Law and Order

State Attorney’s Office Charges Punta Gorda Officer and Chief in Death of Woman

Micheal Hirsh
State Attorney Steve Russell, 20th Judicial Circuit addresses reporters regarding Punta Gorda Police charges

State Attorney Steve Russell says the Punta Gorda Police officer who shot and killed a woman during a demonstration for citizens last August has been charged with manslaughter with a firearm. That charge against suspended police officer Lee Coel is a first degree felony. And Punta Gorda police chief Tom Lewis has been charged with Culpable Negligence in that case. That charge is a second degree misdemeanor.

The shooting took place outside the city’s public safety complex last August. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted a lengthy investigation. In December, their report was turned over to the State Attorney’s office.

At the news conference today, Russell declined to discuss the evidence because, he said, this is an active criminal case.

“I can however tell you there is a very voluminous amount of information we reviewed,” said Russell. “We looked at the crime scene, photographs, and videos of the incident. We went through a large volume of investigative material from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Further, many people were interviewed to help best illustrate what happened at the scene as well as what led to this turn of events.”

There was never any question Officer Lee Coel shot and killed 70-year-old librarian Mary Knowlton, of Punta Gorda. But there were many questions as to the nature of the shoot-don’t shoot demonstration being performed for members of the local Chamber of Commerce. Among them: how did real bullets end up in a gun that, at most, should have contained blanks? And why was there no written protocol for a demonstration in which an officer was going to point a gun at a civilian and pull the trigger? Presumably, that’s what State Attorney Russell was referring to when he raised the issue of, quote—what led to this turn of events?

Accompanied by his attorney Officer Coel surrendered at the Charlotte County Jail Wednesday. He was released on $5000 bond. Chief Tom Lewis was served with a written summons.

Neither Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik, nor Chief Lewis would speak publicly. WGCU has learned that Kunik held a closed door meeting Wednesday afternoon with the committee he appointed to conduct the city’s internal affairs investigation, which comes next.

The results of the FDLE investigation will not be made public until defense attorneys have an opportunity to review them.