Former Punta Gorda officer who shot and killed librarian for the duration of coaching demo to get no-jail plea deal


Lee’s note: I just wrote this story for my newspaper. We will be sending a staffer to cover today’s two pm hearing about the plea deal.

Charlotte County prosecutors have accepted a no-jail plea deal for Lee Coel, who fatally shot Mary Knowlton for the duration of a 2016 coaching exercising.

Charlotte County prosecutors have agreed to a no-jail plea deal for Lee Coel, the former Punta Gorda police officer who’s accused of shooting and killing retired librarian Mary Knowlton in 2016 for the duration of a flawed use-of-force demonstration at the police division, according to Knowlton’s family members.

The plea agreement calls for Coel to be place on probation for 10 years, but he will serve no time behind bars, according to Knowlton’s son, Steve.

Mary Knowlton

Steve Knowlton and his father had been 1st told of the deal by a victim’s advocate — not a prosecutor — Tuesday evening, he mentioned.

They strategy to make their opposition to the deal identified to the judge overseeing the case at a hearing in Fort Myers this afternoon.

“Our family members categorically rejects this plea deal. We are devastated — devastated and outraged,” Knowlton mentioned Tuesday evening. “The complete time — considering the fact that 2016 — they told us they had a very good case and that they would get a guilty verdict. I guess the very good old boy network took more than.

“They have entirely dehumanized my mother. They have invalidated her as a human becoming. We had been most likely pretty much as well close as a family members. I watched my dad age 10 years in 3. He’s beside himself tonight,” Knowlton mentioned. “He feels like it just occurred all more than once more.”

Neither Fort Lauderdale lawyer Alvin Entin, Coel’s defense lawyer, nor Assistant State Lawyer Stephanie Russell returned calls looking for comment for this story.

What occurred

On Aug. 9, 2016, the Punta Gorda Police Department hosted a citizens coaching academy for the city’s Chamber of Commerce — with much more than 30 influential neighborhood leaders.

Coel was playing the “bad guy,” whilst Knowlton was randomly chosen to play the police officer. She was provided a handgun that fired non-lethal coaching rounds — which had been hand-counted just before the exercising — but no protective gear.

She’d by no means held a gun in her life.

According to court documents, Coel was supposed to pretend he was about to burglarize a automobile, then fire blanks downward to startle Knowlton.

As an alternative, he fired his gun toward Knowlton. And what came out weren’t blanks, but wadcutters: reside, flat-tipped target ammunition that resemble blanks but include lead bullets.

Two of them ricocheted off of nearby automobiles and struck Knowlton — one particular in the arm, one particular perforating the aorta. She bled profusely in the parking lot of the police headquarters as her husband and other folks watched from feet away. She died at the hospital.

Even though Coel was placed on administrative leave whilst the division investigated, it wasn’t till March 2017 when he was fired — two weeks following he was criminally charged.

Police coaching authorities and firearms instructors across the nation have strongly criticized the coaching situation that took Knowlton’s life.

Genuine weapons, even if they’re loaded with blanks, ought to by no means be made use of in use-of-force coaching — particularly if untrained civilians are involved, they mentioned.

According to court documents, Coel obtained in July 2016 what he believed was blank ammunition from Lt. Katie Heck, a former K-9 officer with the division and Coel’s instant supervisor. She had gotten it from her husband, a lieutenant with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Workplace, who’d found it whilst the couple was moving out of their house.

Heck was also the one particular who assigned Coel the “bad guy” part in the use-of-force demonstration.

Of the 3 boxes Coel received from Heck, he mentioned, two had been labeled “Blazer.” The other box was incompatible with Coel’s Smith &amp Wesson .38-caliber revolver.

When Coel tested the “Blazer” ammunition, he mentioned, he didn’t notice something various about its weight or look. But he mentioned the Blazer “blanks” had been slightly louder than the Winchester blanks he usually made use of.

On Aug. two, 2016, Coel mentioned he attended a citizens coaching academy for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Workplace, exactly where he made use of his revolver to fire 10 Blazer rounds. He mentioned neither deputies from the Sheriff’s Workplace nor officers from the Police Division recommended the Blazer rounds had been “anything but blanks.”

He also noted that the two agencies “observed without having comment” as he made use of his personal weapon for the exercising.

So when one particular of his supervisors, Capt. Jeff Woodard, brought only one particular Glock from the department’s armory for the exercising, Coel once more brought his individual weapon from house. It was not inspected just before the exercising.

Shifting blame

Knowlton’s 2016 killing prompted a series of finger-pointing inside the police division.

There was no appointed security officer for the exercising. The division had adapted its exercising from a YouTube video without having building written lesson plans or scripts. Officers couldn’t distinguish among blanks and reside ammunition. The instant vicinity was not cordoned off, and protective gear was not needed. Participants and onlookers had been not searched for unauthorized weapons or reside ammunition, and no security briefings had been performed just before the exercising — just some of the revelations uncovered by investigations following Knowlton’s death.

Coel’s departure presented a glimpse of what was to come for the police division. Woodard resigned in June 2017 following admitting that he had noticed Coel’s weapon just before the coaching exercising and did not inspect it. Heck now performs as a public info officer for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Workplace. She is nonetheless a lieutenant.

Quickly following, the police chief came beneath fire of his personal.

The very same day that Coel was charged with manslaughter, Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was charged with misdemeanor culpable negligence. Although a jury acquitted Lewis in June 2017, the police division performed its personal investigation that determined he had a “casual approach” to security for the duration of the shoot/do not shoot exercising.

Through many meetings with Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik, Lewis refused to resign and alternatively presented to accept a demotion to lieutenant. But Kunik objected. He feared that maintaining Lewis in the division would only develop “confusion, conflict and division.”

Lewis was fired on Aug. 30, 2017, much more than a year following Knowlton’s death.

Delay of justice

Coel’s case has lingered in the criminal justice program for much more than 3 years.

Citing substantial media coverage and threatening comments more than social media, Coel twice requested a transform of venue — when in 2017, and once more in 2019. He claimed that a nearby trial would impair a jury’s capability to attain an objective verdict and sought to move the trial to Broward County.

His 1st request was denied. His second request was granted “in portion,” pending the judge’s capability to come across an impartial jury. But if the trial is relocated, it will not be in Broward County. As an alternative, it will most likely be in Fort Myers, exactly where Steinbeck presides, according to Sclafani.

In March 2018, Coel’s attorneys asked the court to dismiss the charges, which additional prolonged the case.

“I had completely no intention to harm Mrs. Knowlton, or of putting her or everyone else in danger,” Coel’s motion-to-dismiss states. “I genuinely believed that the rounds I fired had been in truth blank rounds that would not injure Mrs. Knowlton or everyone else provided the distance among us.

“I would by no means, beneath any situations, knowingly use reside rounds in a shoot/do not-shoot situation or in any public demonstration or K-9 coaching exercising. This was a tragic accident.”

His motion to dismiss was also denied.

Right after he was fired from the police division, Coel filed a lawsuit in November 2017 against the Punta Gorda Board of Trustees for denying him disability pension. His case incorporates statements from two physicians who claim that he suffered post-traumatic tension following the fatal shooting.

A judge awarded Coel $12,590.70 in attorneys costs and expenses in September. But if he’s convicted of manslaughter, he will nonetheless be forced to forfeit all of his “rights and advantages,” like the pension.

Meanwhile, Knowlton’s husband, Gary, accepted a $two,060,234.23 settlement paid out from the city’s insurance coverage and harm recovery funds. The agreement produced no admission of fault or blame on behalf of the city or its police division.


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