Former captain's testimony reveals safety flaws in citizens academy

- In front of their chief, officers with the Punta Gorda police department took the stand Tuesday.

Each was questioned about what went wrong the night Mary Knowlton was accidentally killed during a training scenario.

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As testimony was given, it became apparent many things went wrong that night – beginning with some double-standards.

Officer Lee Coel wore protective gear. Knowlton did not.

Officers double- and triple-checked the gun she used in the demonstration, but they never even glanced at officer Coel's weapon.

The instructions were simple and straight-forward.

“Don't ever put your finger on the trigger unless you intend to utilize the weapon,” explained former Punta Gorda PD Captain Jeffrey Woodard during his testimony. “Don't turn it towards your classmates or anybody else.”

The gun handed to Mary Knowlton by Captain Jeffrey Woodard last August 9 came with a safety check and a lesson:

“Even though these were detergent rounds, they are live rounds so there is danger associated with it," Woodard warned.

Police made sure the gun Mary would use in a Citizen's Academy training exercise was in safe hands. But when it came to the gun Officer Lee Coel would use, the same rules were not applied.

“I had never performed safety checks or checked the other role players,” Woodard testified.

Coel, who played the bad guy in a "shoot, don't shoot" scenario, brought his own gun, which was allowed at the time by Chief Tom Lewis.

Evidence shows Coel loaded it with ammunition given to him by a co-worker, believing the rounds were blanks.

“Was he allowed to keep his own ammo for the K9 training? Yes sir,” Woodard said.

But nobody checked Coel’s gun. Nobody knew the bullets were real until he aimed it at Mary and pulled the trigger.

She was shot twice and fell to the ground as her husband and friends watched in horror.

Prosecutors say a series of mistakes led to this fatal moment and as the man in charge of the system, they say, Chief Tom Lewis is negligent.

“Was there ever a time safety officers were used? Assigned safety officers? The way we do those scenarios is: Everybody present is a safety officer. As far as a designated safety officer, I can't ever remember a conversation where somebody said, ‘You're a designated safety officer for the event,’” Woodard said.

Jeffrey Woodard resigned from the Punta Gorda police department earlier this month. He'd been at the department for more than 15 years.

He told the defense Tuesday he had seen Officer Lee Coel’s revolver prior to the demonstration and Officer Coel told him it was a gun that only shot blanks.

He says he wouldn't have been able to determine the difference between blanks and the bullets Officer Coel loaded into the gun.

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