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Punta Gorda officer identified in fatal exercise that killed 73-year-old woman

Published Aug. 11, 2016

PUNTA GORDA — A woman was fatally shot by an officer while participating in a "shoot-don't shoot" exercise during a two-hour citizens academy hosted by the Punta Gorda Police Department in southwest Florida.

Police Chief Tom Lewis said the shooting happened Tuesday night as two of the 35 participants were randomly selected to take part in a live role-playing scenario "in which they make decisions on using simulated lethal force."

Lewis said Mary Knowlton, 73, was "mistakenly struck with a live round." She was taken to a hospital in nearby Fort Myers, where she was pronounced dead.

Steven Knowlton, a son of the woman, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that his father, Gary Knowlton, witnessed the shooting and is devastated. He said his parents had been married for 55 years.

Knowlton told the Fort Myers News-Press that his parents moved to a neat, ranch-style home in Punta Gorda Isles in 2001 from Prior, Minn., where his mom was a librarian and his father a CPA.

"She was an incredible woman," he told the newspaper. "She taught us good principles, spiritual life and good Christian attitudes."

He said his mother would forgive the officer who shot her.

"She knew he didn't mean to do it. I know the officer didn't mean for this to happen. I know he's in his own hell," said Knowlton, 51, who lives in Cocoa Beach. His brother, Bill, 53, is in Minnesota.

The citizens academy is a free, eight-session course designed to provide insight into city government, according to the city's website.

Lt. Katie Heck, a police spokeswoman, said that Tuesday night's session at the police station, which included a tour and plans for various exercises, was thrown into disarray by the events.

"There was a lot of confusion," Heck said. "It definitely was something that was unexpected and awful."

Heck said in the previous sessions she has been in, "everyone is involved in the role playing scenarios. She said they use "what we call simunition guns" for the session. Simunition products are real-looking weapons that fire a nonlethal projectile with reduced force.

"Exactly what happened last night is still under investigation," Heck said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating, according to the police chief. The officer involved in the shooting was identified as Lee Coel. He has been placed on administrative leave.

"I am devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event," Lewis told reporters during a late-night news conference at the Police Department. "If you pray, please pray for Mary's family, and for the officers who were involved. Everyone involved in this accident is in a state of overwhelming shock and grief."

A profile on a Facebook page that appeared to be Knowlton's said she had been a librarian at Scott County Public Library in Savage, Minn. She studied library science at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minn., and elementary education at George Mason University in Virginia.

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Her son told the News-Press that she was homecoming queen at Austin High School in Austin, Minn,

Carolyn Hartwigsen of Edina, Minn., told the Associated Press she was a longtime friend of Knowlton. She said Knowlton had a love of books and tried to instill that in young readers.

"So much is on the internet now. But, books are so important to have in children's hands. That was important to her," Hartwigsen said Wednesday morning.

Hartwigsen said the Knowltons would come back to Minnesota periodically to visit.

"She was the salt of the earth, a beautiful soul and the kindest woman you would know," she said.

Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies also offer citizens academy programs. Those agencies say they take extra precautions during simulations.

The Tampa Police Department said that at its academy, participants can take part in shooting scenarios using real firearms that are modified to only shoot blank rounds. Officers check all weapons before each drill.

"We have triple-check safety protocols, which means that three people are responsible to check the weapons," said Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty. "And one person is designated to keep an eye on the weapons at all times."

St. Petersburg police spokesman Rick Shaw said that at his department's citizens academy officers use simulated guns that aren't capable of firing live ammuntion, only "simunition" — basically, small paintball cartridges.

Participants wear safety gear, including helmets, and instructors don't return fire.

"There is safety check, after safety check, after safety check," Shaw said.

Those who go through the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's citizens academy do not use real guns or live ammunition except at the shooting range, against paper targets.

"At no time are firearms or anything resembling a firearm pointed at the participants," Sgt. Spencer Gross said.

Officer Oscar Vasquez of the Jacksonville, Ill., Police Department, who is president of the National Citizens Police Academy Association, said he had never heard of anyone taking part in one of the courses being fatally shot. He said most departments do not use weapons in "shoot/don't shoot" scenarios that are capable of firing a live round.

"When we run scenarios, we will use starter pistols," Vasquez told AP. "You can't even put live ammunition in them. No projectile is capable of coming out."

Some departments use video simulators, he said, and others use other types of non-lethal devices. Officers involved in most citizen academies don't typically even bring their service weapons into the classes, he added.

"The class is told in advance there will be no live firearms," Vasquez said.

Steven Knowlton told the News-Press he wished his mother had gotten as much media attention in life as she is getting now in death.

"She's a hero," he said. "But it has killed our family. I don't think I'll ever get over it. She will never be forgotten."

Times staff writers Claire McNeill, Zachary T. Sampson and Dan Sullivan contributed to this report, which uses information from the Fort Myers News-Press.


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