After deputy's girlfriend is found dead, suicide or homicide?

Medical examiner Dr. Predrag Bulic demonstrates how he thought O’Connell might have killed herself holding Banks’ pistol upside down.
Medical examiner Dr. Predrag Bulic demonstrates how he thought O’Connell might have killed herself holding Banks’ pistol upside down.
Published Nov. 25, 2013

News of the shooting arrived via police radio as Deputy Debra Maynard and two other officers were sipping late-night coffee at a Hess gas station. "The call came out, Signal 18, shot fired, possibly one of our own," Maynard recalled.

At 11:25 p.m., the three St. Johns County officers arrived at 4700 Sherlock Place, a one-story house in the historic North Florida community of St. Augustine. Deputy Jonathan Hawley was already there. "Oh my God," he cried, seeing a young woman he knew lying on the bedroom floor.

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 pistol that belonged to her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a deputy sheriff for St. Johns County. A second bullet had burrowed into the carpet.

Maynard escorted Banks, who had been drinking, out of the house. "All of a sudden he started growling like an animal," she said. With his fists, Banks pounded dents in a police car. "I told him, I don't care if you're intoxicated or not, you better sober up," Deputy Wesley Grizzard recalled.

Within minutes of the shooting on Sept. 2, 2010, Banks' friends, family and 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.

Banks gave this account: 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.

O'Connell's family, immediately suspicious, received a starkly different reception from the authorities. Less than two hours before she died, O'Connell had texted her sister, who was watching her daughter: "I'll be there soon." The family's request for an independent investigation was rebuffed, as was one sister's attempt to tell the police that O'Connell had been abused by Banks.

Before the sun rose the next morning, the sheriff's investigation was all but over. Detectives were so certain in their judgment of a suicide that they never tested the forensic evidence collected. Nor did they interview O'Connell's family, who would have told them that she was ecstatic over a new full-time job with benefits, including health insurance.

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.

Eventually, however, a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Rick Scott decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute and closed the case 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 Shoar, struck back in support of his officer, prompting an extraordinary conflict between two law enforcement agencies.

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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.

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.

The O'Connell case is a vivid demonstration of what can go wrong in an inquiry when the police confront potential domestic abuse in their ranks.

The New York Times examined the case in collaboration with the PBS program Frontline, reviewing police, medical and legal records, and consulting independent forensic and law enforcement experts.

The examination found that the investigation was mishandled from the start. "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. "Every death investigation should be treated as a homicide until proven differently."

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 Cuzzort, one of the paramedics who tried to save O'Connell. "She was a really pretty girl, and it looked like she was well taken care of. She just didn't fit the picture of typical suicide."

The job of informing the family of O'Connell's death fell to Maynard and another officer. They stopped first to tell O'Connell's brother Scott, himself a St. Johns deputy. He had introduced his sister to Banks.

"I said, 'Michelle's not with you anymore,' " 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.' "

O'Connell then drove with 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 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.

And Sheriff Shoar 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.

Shoar did not. The next month, his 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. "My investigators are far and above better than what FDLE is ever going to give you," he said.

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.

The early consensus among the detectives was that 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, a detective on the case, said.

Plus, there was "absolutely no bruising on Michelle," indicating the absence of a struggle, 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 issue in the case.

Not all of the officers were so certain about a suicide. "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.

At his direction, an officer took photos that show the gun — a Heckler & Koch .45-caliber pistol — on the ground just inches from 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, was on. There was also the unexplained second bullet, buried in the carpet inches from her body.

Lt. Bradley theorized that 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 to withdraw a weapon.

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," he 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."

Investigators collected the gun and other evidence, but 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; and failed to collect and test one of the shirts Banks wore that night.

Two days after the shooting, a medical examiner, Dr. Frederick Hobin, performed an autopsy and concluded that O'Connell had taken her own life.

A lack of curiosity

Although there was no suicide note, investigators believed that they had found the next best thing — cryptic text messages expressing concern about her daughter, Alexis, that O'Connell had sent while attending a rock concert that night with Banks.

"Promise me one thing," she texted her sister Christine, "Lexi will be happy and always have a good life." To her brother Scott: "Lexi never forget."

To investigators, the texts signaled a despondent young woman on the verge of suicide. Remarkably, though, they never asked her sister and brother to interpret those messages. Had they done so, they would have heard a very different narrative: about a young woman with a new job in a day-care center and high hopes for an independent future, but also a fear of Banks and how he might react when she announced that she was leaving him.

Hours before she died, O'Connell left her mother a voice mail, saying she would call the next day to make breakfast plans. She also stopped for lunch at Christine's apartment.

When the O'Connell family met later with Lt. Bradley, Christine complained that on the night of the shooting, officers had rebuffed her efforts to tell them what her sister had revealed at that lunch. "I said: Am I allowed to submit a statement? Because she told me a lot of things about — and I'm just going to spell it out for anyone here — domestic violence. She came to my house, she said: 'I'm leaving. I'm scared of this and that,' " she told Bradley.

This information was of no use, the police told her, because it was hearsay.

Christine told the New York Times that a few months earlier, Michelle called to say she was bleeding vaginally after Banks had shown her "a submissive move" during play-wrestling that got out of hand. "He slammed me so hard," Michelle told her, she said.

But Michelle would not let her call an ambulance. "She said, 'Please, you're going to make it hard on me.' "

Christine O'Connell said there were other incidents that went unreported for fear of causing trouble for Banks and for her relatives who worked at the sheriff's office. On one occasion, two family members said, Michelle told them that she had come home to find Banks masturbating to a cellphone picture of a former girlfriend; then, she said, he smeared semen on her face and hair. Banks denied the latter part of that story, records show.

Banks told state investigators that over time, his yearlong relationship with Michelle had deteriorated. So, on the ride home from the concert, when she said she was leaving him, "I said, 'Are we breaking up?' She said, 'Yes.' And I was, 'All right.' And we were talking about it, and we, we, I raised my voice, she raised her voice, we argued. But we got to the house, we were fine."

Banks told investigators that back home, they did not raise their voices. "We bought a dog sometime last year, and I asked her, I said, 'Who's going to get Chuck?' She said: 'You keep him. I've got Alexis, and I'll be fine."

As she continued packing, Banks said, he asked for one last kiss. She said no and asked him to leave, so he retreated to the open garage to sit on his motorcycle and wait. Soon after, he said, he heard a pop.

"I knew exactly what it was."

A mysterious blogger

Within days of the shooting, a woman at a computer 2,700 miles away in Washington state came across a tiny news article about the St. Augustine death. Over the years, the woman, who blogs as "Cloudwriter," had trained herself to spot suspicious cases of domestic abuse involving police officers. She herself had had a troubled marriage to a police officer. She was angry that the names of the dead woman and the deputy had been withheld. "She deserved a name," said the blogger, who does not want to be identified for fear of threats. "She deserved an investigation.''

With few leads, she began posting on the Internet, looking for a name. Eventually she found it, along with the name of Jeremy Banks. "Never did I say Jeremy did it," she said, adding, "This was, 'Let's find out what happened.' "

For the O'Connell family and friends, the blog became a rallying point. In January 2011, with the blog post drawing nearly 250 comments and the family complaining to the sheriff's office about its investigation, Sheriff Shoar asked for an independent inquiry by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Leading the inquiry was Rusty Rodgers, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement. He did what the sheriff's office had not: He interviewed the O'Connell and Banks families and others. He sent evidence for testing, hired a crime reconstruction expert.

Nothing made a bigger impact than his quick discovery of two neighbors, Stacey Boswell and Heather Ladley, who said they were talking outside on the night the fatal shot was fired. In separate interviews, the neighbors told Rodgers nearly identical stories: They were smoking cigarettes in Boswell's open garage when they heard the faint sound of arguing. Curious, they walked down the driveway to hear what was being said.

A man and woman were screaming. What came next was unexpected. "We heard her yell 'Help,' and there was one gunshot, and then she yelled 'Help' again, and there was a second gunshot," Ladley told Rodgers.

On the basis of the two women's statements, the pathologist, Dr. Hobin, changed his ruling to homicide.

For months, the forensic evidence collected by the sheriff's office had been sitting, unexamined. It was not until February 2011 that state investigators finally tested for fingerprints, DNA and gunshot residue. What they found raised a host of questions. No blood was found on the gun, nor did it have any DNA or fingerprints from Banks, who had worn his gun belt on his previous shift.

The lab found a forensically insignificant amount of gunshot residue on Banks's hands, even though he said he held O'Connell moments after she shot herself. Because a positive test can result from simply entering a room shortly after a gun goes off or by touching someone in that room, Rodgers suspected that Banks had washed his hands before the test — something he denied.

But the central forensic question concerned the bleeding cut above O'Connell's right eye, and whether it was a defensive wound — a possible sign of a violent struggle before the fatal shot.

To make sense of all this, the agency sought the opinion of a crime scene reconstructionist, Jerry Findley. He believed that the eye cut had indeed occurred before the fatal shot. The dimensions of the wound, he said, matched the protruding gun sight on the end of the pistol's barrel.

Findley also thought the location of the two spent shells might reveal something about who fired the gun. He acknowledged that the shells' location can sometimes mislead investigators because rescue workers may have accidentally kicked them. But that was highly unlikely in this case, he said, because there were sizable objects on the ground between the body and the shells. "You'd almost have to have a pitching wedge or something of that nature to get them over," he said.

Findley said he fired the gun 18 times in different positions and concluded that for the shells to end up where they had, whoever pulled the trigger had to have been left-handed. Unlike O'Connell, Banks is left-handed.

Findley gave his findings to the state agency. "The totality of the circumstances are not consistent with suicide," he concluded. "However, they are consistent with homicide."

That conclusion energized the investigation. The state agency began briefing the local state attorney, R. J. Larizza, and his staff. His investigators examined autopsy photos and noticed what looked like a broken tooth, not documented by the medical examiner. Eager to learn if it had been damaged in a fight or by the gun, prosecutors began considering whether to exhume O'Connell's body.

Then, with momentum building, the investigation was jolted by several events. In October, citing his close working relationship with the sheriff, Larizza asked the governor to appoint a special prosecutor. But before stepping aside, he told Dr. Hobin that he should wait for the new prosecutor before filing the revised finding of homicide. Hobin never did file it, and he was soon joined by a new chief medical examiner, Dr. Predrag Bulic.

Bulic reviewed the case file and solidly backed the sheriff's determination of suicide. He argued that there were no signs of battery and offered yet another explanation for the cut above the eye: O'Connell, he said, had turned the gun upside down, put the gun barrel in her mouth and pulled the trigger with her thumb. At that moment, the tactical light attached to the bottom of the gun barrel — now on top — had broken the skin above her eye.

That assumes O'Connell could have taken the gun from the retention holster in the first place.

Bulic could not remove a replica of the gun from the same make and model holster provided by the Times. After a struggle, he asked, "Does anybody know how to open it?" Bulic said that he probably would have figured it out eventually. "I see your point," he said. "But that doesn't mean that even a child cannot pull that by accident."

The Times asked three independent experts to evaluate Dr. Bulic's finding that the tactical light cut into her skin as the gun was fired. All said the theory lacked credibility.

The Times gave Bulic a replica of the gun and tactical light, and asked him to demonstrate how the eye wound might have occurred. When he placed the barrel in his mouth, the tactical light came nowhere near the skin above his eye.

To Peter De Forest, a respected forensic scientist, there is a simpler — and more plausible — explanation: O'Connell was battered before the fatal shot. "There's an old principle of logic," he said, "called Occam's razor — that if you have to twist things around and have a lot more explanations, that the simplest answer is often the best one."

'No, ma'am'

It fell to the special prosecutor, Brad King, a longtime state attorney from a nearby district, to assess the two opposing scenarios of how Michelle O'Connell had died. In March 2012, King's office contacted the O'Connells and said he and his team would deliver his decision at the St. Augustine courthouse.

Everyone sat around a long table, and as King made his opening remarks, O'Connell's mother grew impatient. "They were beating around the bush, just giving real vague descriptions of what was going on, and she says, 'Are you going to prosecute Jeremy Banks for the death of my daughter or not?' " recalled Michelle's sister Jennifer. "And he said, 'No, ma'am.' "

Scott, the brother who worked as a deputy for Sheriff Shoar, unleashed a tirade so emotionally charged that it cost him his job.

According to a memo from King's office, the decision had been based on the pathologists' findings: "Three medical examiners have reviewed the file and concluded that this was a suicide."

The crime scene reconstructionist hired by the state agency, Jerry Findley, took issue with the special prosecutor. When King's investigators came to talk to him, Findley said, "the whole tone of the interview was for me to tailor my report or soften my report to where it would be more conducive to suicide rather than homicide."

King never explicitly stated that O'Connell had killed herself. He simply concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to bring charges. The memo explaining his decision said that while the two witnesses who heard shouts that night appeared credible, their testimony did not "support any type of homicide conviction on its own."

A final reckoning

Three years after Michelle O'Connell's death, the case continues to tear at her family.

Scott O'Connell recently made up with Banks and now accuses the state agency of manipulating his family into thinking his sister was murdered. After a long talk in April with Sheriff Shoar, O'Connell was rehired.

Patty O'Connell and her daughters, along with their brother Sean, continue to believe that Michelle did not kill herself. "I still am hopeful that eventually, it may be 20 years, but eventually, we will have justice for my sister and for her daughter," Christine O'Connell said.

Sheriff Shoar has not been hesitant to speak out. Over the summer, he held what amounted to a pep rally for Banks, attended by his staff, at the Renaissance World Golf Village Resort. Scott O'Connell and his wife were there as well. The sheriff introduced Banks' parents, saying he had known them "for many, many, many years."

"Jeremy Banks had nothing to do with that case," he said, calling Banks and O'Connell "victims."

He motioned to Banks and added, "This guy right here came so damn close to being charged with homicide, it's scary." He asked Banks and O'Connell to stand. "Let's give these two guys a hand."