FDLE: Citizen academy shooting death was accidental

- A report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement says the death of a woman shot by a police officer during a training demonstration last August was an accident, caused by the officer's inability to differentiate between blank firing cartridges and live .38 caliber ammunition.

The FDLE report, released Wednesday, gives a minute-by-minute account, based on surveillance video and witness accounts, of Mary Knowlton's death, during a citizens police academy hosted by the Punta Gorda Police Department August 9. It also answers the question of how live ammunition wound up in an officer's gun, during a "shoot/don't shoot" role play scenario.

Knowlton, a 73-year-old retired librarian, was chosen at random to play the role of a police officer who encounters a suspicious person breaking into a car. The scenario began when Knowlton, armed with a simulation training gun, confronts the suspect, played by Officer Lee Coel and engages him in a brief conversation. Officer Coel walks toward the front bumper of the car and grabs a revolver he had earlier placed on the bumper. It is at this point that Knowlton, playing the role of an officer, would have to decide whether to shoot, or don't shoot.

After grabbing the revolver, Officer Coel pointed it toward Knowlton and fired several times. The FDLE report says two bullets ricocheted off the engine hood striking Mrs. Knowlton in her abdomen and left elbow. After being struck, she bent over at the waist, spun around and fell to the ground. At first, most of those attending thought she was going along with the scenario. It wasn't until Chief Tom Lewis, Officer Coel and other officers rushed to her aid that they realized she had been shot and the bullets were real.

The question of how Officer Coel's gun wound up with live ammunition instead of blanks has been hanging over the investigation for months.

According the FDLE report, Coel loaded his personally owned .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with what he thought were four blank firing cartridges.FDLE investigators determined that the bullets were given to Coel by Lt. Katie Heck, who got them from her husband, who had stored them at their residence. The report says Lt. Heck believed the cartridges were blanks. Under the same assumption, Officer Coel stored them in the back of his patrol car along with three boxes of actual blanks. When he loaded his gun for the demonstration, he would have likely believed that all of the bullets stored in the back his patrol car were blanks.

The report says Officer Coel had earlier tested the ammunition with his supervisor, Corporal Leonard Prevatte, at the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office gun range. A single test fire was performed while pointing the revolver at the ground.

The report says, "It can be reasonably submitted that neither Coel nor Prevatte noticed the projectile striking the grass next to them, because they assumed they were firing blanks."

The report concludes, "There is no evidence that Coel intended to use lethal ammunition," in the role-playing scenario, and that, "It is apparent that Ofc. Coel's, and others,' inability to differentiate between blank firing cartridges and .38 caliber HBWC (hollow based wad cutters) ammunition resulted in Mary Knowlton's death. "

Mary Knowlton's tragic death had already lead to policy changes at the North Port Police Department. Sandi Poreda, a city spokesperson, says one of the new policies "prohibits any type of live fire or lethal ammunition from being present at any community demonstration". Another policy, she says "prohibits co-mingling live lethal and non-lethal rounds."

A separate investigation by the State Attorney's Office has led to charges against Officer Coel and Chief Lewis. Coel, 28, was arrested on a charge of manslaughter last month. If convicted he could get up to 30 years in prison. Chief Lewis is charged with culpable negligence and could face up to 60 days in jail if convicted.

In November, the Punta Gorda City Council approved a $2.06 million settlement with Mary Knowlton's family.

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