As requested: The 911 call shows deception on the part of the Deputy. Statement Analysis of this case is not
challenging. Research by Avinoam Sapir is applied to 911 calls with the same "expected
versus unexpected" SCAN applies elsewhere.
Conclusion: Guilty knowledge by the caller.
On a Summer Night
A Deputy’s Pistol, a Dead Girlfriend, a Flawed Inquiry
ST. AUGUSTINE, FLA. — News of the shooting arrived via police radio as Deputy Debra Maynard and two other officers were sipping late-night coffee at the Hess gas station, a brightly lit outpost on a slumbering stretch of Dixie Highway on St. Augustine’s south side.
“The call came out, Signal 18, shot fired, possibly one of our own,” Ms. Maynard recalled. “When you hear it’s one of your own — adrenaline’s pumping.”
At 11:25 p.m., the three St. Johns County officers arrived at 4700 Sherlock Place, a one-story suburban house in this historic seaside community. A young deputy, Jonathan Hawley, was already there. “Oh my God,” he cried, seeing a young woman he knew lying on the bedroom floor, an inert, bloody mess.
Michelle O’Connell, 24, the doting mother of a 4-year-old girl, was dying from a gunshot in the mouth. Next to her was a semiautomatic pistol that belonged to her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a deputy sheriff for St. Johns County. A second bullet had burrowed into the carpet by her right arm.
Ms. Maynard quickly escorted Mr. Banks, who had been drinking, out of the house. “All of a sudden he started growling like an animal,” she said. With his fists, Mr. Banks pounded dents in a police car.
“I grabbed him and tuned him up,” another deputy, Wesley Grizzard, recalled. “I told him, I don’t care if you’re intoxicated or not, you better sober up.”
Within minutes of the shooting on Sept. 2, 2010, Mr. Banks’s friends, family and even off-duty colleagues began showing up, offering hugs and moral support. He huddled with his stepfather, a deputy sheriff in another county, before a detective interviewed him in a police car.
With his off-duty sergeant listening from the front seat, Mr. Banks gave this account: Ms. O’Connell had broken up with him and was packing to move out when she shot herself with his service weapon. He said he had been in another room.
Ms. O’Connell’s family, immediately suspicious, received a starkly different reception from the authorities. Less than two hours before she died, Ms. O’Connell had texted her sister, who was watching her daughter: “I’ll be there soon.” Yet when her outraged brother tried to visit the scene, officers blocked his way. The family’s request for an independent investigation was rebuffed, as was one sister’s attempt to tell the police that in the months before she died, Ms. O’Connell said she had been subjected to domestic abuse by Mr. Banks.
Before the sun rose the next morning over this place that calls itself “the nation’s oldest city,” the sheriff’s investigation was all but over.
Ms. O’Connell, the sheriff’s office concluded, took her own life. Detectives were so certain in their judgment that they never tested the forensic evidence collected after the shooting. Nor did they interview her family and friends, who would have told them that she was ecstatic over a new full-time job with benefits, including health insurance for her daughter.
Over time, though, the official narrative began to change. The sheriff asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to re-examine the case, and investigators found two neighbors who said they had heard a woman screaming for help that night, followed by gunshots. Their account prompted the medical examiner to revise his opinion from suicide to homicide, a conclusion shared by the crime reconstruction expert hired by state investigators.
Eventually, however, a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Rick Scott decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute and closed the case early last year. But that was hardly the final word. The state law enforcement agency asked for a special inquest into the death, saying significant questions remained. The sheriff, David B. Shoar, struck back in support of his officer, prompting an extraordinary conflict between two powerful law enforcement agencies.
And through it all, the O’Connell family continued to believe that the sheriff’s office, investigating one of its own, had blinded itself to the possibility that the shooting was a fatal case of domestic violence.
Domestic abuse is believed to be the most frequently unreported crime, and it is particularly corrosive when it involves the police. Taught to wield authority through control, threats or actual force, officers carry their training, their job stress and their guns home with them, amplifying the potential for abuse.
Yet nationwide, interviews and documents show, police departments have been slow to recognize and discipline abusers in uniform, largely because of a predominantly male blue wall of silence. Victims are often reluctant to file complaints, fearing that an officer’s colleagues simply will not listen or understand, or that if they do, the abuser may be stripped of his weapon and ultimately his family’s livelihood.
Officers investigating possible domestic violence face special circumstances “when it’s somebody you know or you’ve worked with,” said Mark Wynn, a former Nashville police official who teaches departments how to use model rules for handling domestic violence in their ranks. “Like the military, you build bonds together by saving one another’s lives.”
The model rules, issued by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, insist on zero tolerance for abusers and urge departments to begin formal investigations of all complaints immediately. Yet most departments, including the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, follow only parts of the policy. Law enforcement officers in Florida are arrested on charges of domestic abuse more often than they are on charges of any other form of misconduct, but other offenses are far more likely to cost them their jobs, according to an analysis by The New York Times of more than 29,000 complaints received by the state.
In St. Johns County, a review of records found three cases in recent years in which sheriff’s officers failed to open immediate investigations of domestic-abuse reports involving their colleagues. Two years before Ms. O’Connell’s death, supervisors learned of accusations of domestic abuse against an officer, but followed up aggressively only after his frightened wife fled the house naked, clutching her child, and called the authorities. Dismissal was recommended, but the sheriff kept the officer on staff.
The O’Connell case, in which the sheriff’s department failed to explore the possibility of domestic violence, is a vivid demonstration of what can go wrong in an inquiry when the police, lacking effective supervision and a clear mandate, confront potential abuse in their own ranks.
The Times examined the case in collaboration with the PBS investigative news program “Frontline,” reviewing police, medical and legal records, interviewing dozens of people connected to the case, and consulting independent forensic and law enforcement experts.
The examination found that the investigation was mishandled from the start, not just by the sheriff and his officers, but also by medical examiners who espoused scientifically suspect theories that went unchallenged by prosecutors. Because detectives concluded so quickly that the shooting was a suicide, investigators failed to perform the police work that is standard in suspicious shootings, including collecting and testing all available evidence and canvassing neighbors.
“This investigation stinks,” said Vernon J. Geberth, a former New York City police commander and the author of a widely used textbook on investigating suspicious deaths, who reviewed the case at The Times’s request. “Every death investigation should be treated as a homicide until proven differently.”
Sheriff Shoar, the most powerful elected official in this North Florida county and a former co-chairman of its domestic violence task force, declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a letter to The Times, he said, “I have a long history of holding subordinates accountable.”
Yet only when The Times began examining the case more than two years after the young mother’s death did the sheriff publicly acknowledge that his investigators “prematurely embraced the mind-set” that she had killed herself.
Even so, he defended his inquiry in a 153-page report and attacked those who had found fault with it, particularly two agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. At the sheriff’s request, the state agency is investigating his accusation that the agents engaged in misconduct during their inquiry.
Mr. Banks declined to be interviewed. But he has told investigators that he never harmed Ms. O’Connell. He recently filed suit against the state agency and its lead investigator, alleging misconduct.
In his letter, Sheriff Shoar called Mr. Banks a fine young man stigmatized for life.
“This case,” the sheriff wrote, “has been and always will be a suicide.”
The First Responders
WHAT STRUCK CRYSTAL LYNN CUZZORT MOST were the little red slippers, just like ones her daughter used to have.
“I remember looking around and seeing little kids’ stuff and pictures,” said Ms. Cuzzort, one of the paramedics who was trying to save Ms. O’Connell as her airway filled with blood.
Ms. Cuzzort found herself wondering what had really happened. “Not that it’s out of the ordinary for anyone to commit suicide — we know that — but it is not common that a girl that age, 23, 24 years old, however old she was, but to have a young child and to commit suicide. She was a really pretty girl, and it looked like she was well taken care of,” she said. “She just didn’t fit the picture of typical suicide.”
Twenty-three minutes after the police arrived, Ms. O’Connell was pronounced dead.
The following account of that night is based largely on sworn, recorded interviews by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The job of informing the family fell to Ms. Maynard and another officer. They stopped first to tell Ms. O’Connell’s brother Scott, himself a St. Johns deputy. He had introduced his sister to Mr. Banks.
“I said, ‘Michelle’s not with you anymore,’ ” Ms. Maynard said. After the initial shock, he “did the strangest thing,” she said. “He immediately got up and got his gun, and we weren’t sure what he was going to do with it. And brought it to us and his car keys and said: ‘Please take these away from me right now. Get them out of here.’ ”
Mr. O’Connell then drove with Ms. Maynard to see his mother, Patty, who also worked at the sheriff’s office, as a file clerk. “My mom opened the door with a smile on her face — heartbreaking,” he said.
Back at 4700 Sherlock Place, investigators knew little beyond what Mr. Banks had told them — that after hearing the first shot, he ran in from the garage, heard the second shot, broke down the locked door and called 911. There was no suicide note, no apparent witnesses. A child suddenly had no mother to care for her.
And the sheriff faced an important decision: have his office investigate the case itself or, as is often done when an officer may be involved in a suspicious shooting, call in independent investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
If anyone seriously considered this, it is not reflected in the sheriff’s official reports. The next month, Sheriff Shoar’s point man on the case, Lt. Charles Bradley, told the O’Connell family that the state’s investigators did not have the experience for the task.
“To be honest with you,” he said, according to a recording of the meeting, “my investigators are far and above better than what F.D.L.E. is ever going to give you.”
He did not disclose that the two lead detectives on the case had worked just three homicides between them, or that one supervisor had been disciplined for an “inept” investigation of an attempted murder, records show.
Lieutenant Bradley did object to the tone of the family’s questions.
“I feel like this is a damned inquisition on me,” he said. “I haven’t done anything wrong, guys. The sheriff’s office hasn’t done anything wrong.”
The early consensus among the detectives was that Ms. O’Connell had taken her own life. “For her to stand still and allow somebody to put a firearm in her mouth is ridiculous,” Eugene Tolbert, one of two detectives on the case, said.
Plus, there was “absolutely no bruising on Michelle,” indicating the absence of a struggle, Lieutenant Bradley told the family. That wasn’t exactly correct: she had a bleeding cut above her right eye, an injury that would become a central forensic issue in the case.
Not all of the officers were so certain about what had happened.
“I’ll just say it — when I first walked into that room, the first thought that went through my mind was, this is not good for Jeremy,” said Sgt. Scott Beaver, who initially took charge of the scene. “We need to document the scene as it is as much as possible, because I felt there would be questions later on.”
At his direction, an officer took photographs that show the gun — a Heckler & Koch .45-caliber pistol — on the ground just inches from Ms. O’Connell’s left hand, suggesting that she would have used her weaker hand to shoot herself. Curiously, the gun’s tactical search light, attached to the barrel, is on. There is also the unexplained second bullet, buried in the carpet several inches from her body.
“I mean, I was in the homicide unit for a few years, and it didn’t add up,” Sergeant Beaver said. “But I didn’t do more investigation into this to see why things were like they were.”
Officers also found two empty pill bottles belonging to Mr. Banks visible in Ms. O’Connell’s open purse. Pills from those bottles were found in her jeans pocket, and tests later found alcohol but no trace of pills in her system. If she had intended to kill herself by overdosing, why did she shoot herself? Lieutenant Bradley theorized that Ms. O’Connell made a “snap” decision.
Still, she would have had to pull the gun from its retention holster — designed to make it difficult for an unauthorized person, particularly one unfamiliar with guns, to withdraw a weapon.
Detective Tolbert said that every time something “bugged me” about the crime scene, there was a plausible explanation.
“You could say, she was holding the gun in her left hand, but she’s right-handed — that’s suspicious,” he said. But if she was intent on suicide, it would not matter which hand she used.
“As far as two shots being fired,” the detective added, “that kind of bugged me. But the more I thought about it, well, if she’s not familiar with the weapon, which is kind of what I got by the fact that the tac light is on, maybe she’s sitting here and she’s looking at this thing and doesn’t know how and, you know, then lets one ride by accident.”
The other detective, Jessica Hines, said she found nothing to suggest anything other than suicide.
Hours later, a sheriff’s officer, dropping off Ms. O’Connell’s car keys, visited her sister Christine. “He comes up and says: ‘Well, the investigation is done. It’s a suicide,’ ” she said.
The quick embrace of suicide colored investigators’ decisions from the start.
“It’s almost in police officers’ DNA, when they hear the word suicide, it’s like, ‘Oh, O.K., it’s not an important crime,’ ” said Mr. Geberth, the expert on homicide investigations. “Assume the suicide position — take shortcuts, don’t do this, don’t do that.”
In fact, though investigators collected the gun, clothing and other evidence, they never tested it for fingerprints, DNA or gunshot residue. Officers also failed to canvass neighbors; failed to file required reports on what officers had seen that night; failed to download Mr. Banks’s cellphone data or collect and test one of the shirts he wore that night and failed to isolate and photograph Mr. Banks before he was interviewed.
Two days after the shooting, a medical examiner, Dr. Frederick Hobin,performed an autopsy and concluded that Ms. O’Connell had taken her own life.
One morning over coffee, Dr. Hobin explained that because suicides are so fraught with emotion, they should be investigated even more rigorously than homicides.
“Investigating a suicide,” he said, “is like letting out a black dog that will come back later and bite you.”