Punta Gorda police officer loaded wadcutters into his revolver instead of blanks

Former Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel loaded .38 Special wadcutters (right) into his Smith & Wesson Airweight revolver, thinking they were .38 Special blanks, (left). Photo courtesy Florida Department of Law Enforcement

There’s a reason why no legitimate police department uses real weapons during force-on-force training.

There’s a reason why we don’t point firearms — loaded or unloaded — at anything we’re not willing to destroy.

There’s a reason why we practice safe muzzle discipline.

There’s a reason why we assume every gun is loaded.

There’s a reason why firearms training should only be presented by qualified instructors.

Mistakes can happen, usually with tragic results.

According to investigative reports and crime scene photos released Wednesday, former Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel loaded Blazer .38 Special hollow-base wadcutters into his Smith & Wesson .38 Special  Airweight revolver, instead of Winchester blank rounds.

Coel then pointed his revolver at 73-year-old retired librarian Mary Knowlton and pulled the trigger four times.

Knowlton was hit twice.

“Mrs. Knowlton was struck by two of the four bullets that were fired. One bullet ricocheted off the engine hood of the parked car and struck Mrs. Knowlton in the abdomen, where it remained. Another bullet ricocheted off the engine hood and struck her in the inside of her left elbow, where it remained. A third bullet ricocheted off the engine hood and came to rest at an unknown location. The fourth bullet entered and lodged in the driver’s side door of the parked vehicle,” the FDLE report states.

An autopsy later showed that the fatal round perforated Knowlton’s aorta.

The FDLE report indicates that mistakes were made.

“There is no evidence that Officer Coel intended to use lethal ammunition while participating in the role play scenario with Mary Knowlton on August 9, 2016. Furthermore, it is apparent that Ofc. Coel’s, and others’, inability to differentiate between blank firing cartridges and .38 caliber HBWC ammunition resulted in Mary Knowlton’s death.”

Anyone who has ever taken even the most basic firearm safety course will see that a plethora of mistakes — an entire chain of mistakes — occurred long before Coel was unable to distinguish wadcutters from blanks, and then loaded the fatal rounds.

I’m sure there may be some who say — because the wadcutters and blanks look somewhat alike — that they now understand how this could have happened.

That’s bunk.

This never should have happened.

Adherence to even the most basic fundamentals of firearms safety would have prevented this needless, tragic death.

Every single officer who attended the “training” should be ashamed.

All it would have taken was for one of them to step up, call a cease-fire and object to pointing real guns at real people.

Instead, no one said a damn thing.

If this is the state of firearms training at the Punta Gorda Police Department, one has to wonder how the officers make it through an eight-hour shift without shooting each other.

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About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1741 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

16 Comments

  1. Richard Phillips on

    I was quite surprised when I first heard this story; it reminded me of a training session in Cincinnati involving only police officers; one of them put a gun with a training round (don’t know if the gun was “real” or not, the round wasn’t) against a student’s back and pulled the trigger; the shock wave destroyed her kidney. I don’t believe that she went on to become an officer (and could likely retire on the settlement, in any case.)
    I wondered then about the using any sort of potentially deadly items in training situations.

    At least it appears as if the officer didn’t actually point his gun directly at the victim and pull the trigger (although the results wouldn’t have been different.) Still, no excuse for this.

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  3. I think an even scarier thought is that if this happened at this department…how much is it a part of SOP at the thousands of departments around the country.

    I have been a part of a few top level training iterations for departments in FL and its pretty frightenening.

    In one we had to swap out real patrol cars for plywood cutouts because they kept shooting their own cars due to sight to bore issues.

    It amazes me we spend millions to train military who may or may not deploy or ever pull a trigger in defence of person or country, but we give our LEO the bare minimum training and yearly lowest common denominator re-certifications each year who will without doubt be put on out streets everyday or night.

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  6. Donn Gallahue on

    Having served with a Fla agency for 25 yrs, this really hits close to home…simply put, you NEVER use real firearms for ANY such scenarios…and really, with the current technology, there is no need to use real firearms…so sad…

  7. We do similar things on a regular basis in the military. We use blanks in training. We aim our weapons at each other when doing so. There are multiple safeties involved both physical in the form of the BFA and procedural involving inspections briefs and ensuing that a unit participating has not come from live fire.
    There are ways to reduce the risk. It is apparent that in this case none were implemented.

  8. Rev. Ronald James Coleman on

    and the officer after firing the first blank did not see it ricocet off the hood so he had to fire agian and my guess is that he did not see the second blank ricocet off of the hood either because he had his eyes closed. and obviously he did not see the third blank ricocet off of the hood because he was not looking but instead was looking at his playmates in the training exercise to make sure they were not in the line of fire and i guess that he did not see the fourth and final blank ricocet off of the hood because—————–. ok i get that he did not see any of the blanks ricocet because after all the blanks do not ricocet. but what i do not understand is why he could not tell the differance in the sound or the recoil or the holes in the widshield, assuming the victim was in the car because of the blank that was found in the drivers seat

  9. Stupid is as stupid does. Far too many children are brought up to ignore reality…it’s all a game. At some point, if they play their cards right, they get to play grown-up with real guns. Unfortunately, in far too many situations, their superiors either don’t, or can’t, take the time to teach them what their parents neglected to teach them about gun safety. Rule 1. Never point a gun at someone unless you are willing to shoot them!

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