Where did Punta Gorda police find their fatal shoot/no-shoot drill? On YouTube

In addition to the use of social media as a training tool, FDLE reports show a departure from generally accepted safety protocols, questionable leadership and a lack of accountability at PGPD. 

by LEE WILLIAMS

Punta Gorda city officials recently released hundreds of pages of documents related to the Aug. 9 killing of retired librarian Mary Knowlton by former PGPD officer Lee Coel — including a 250-plus page investigative report prepared by special agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE).

The documents paint a damning picture of the small police department: Inept leadership, a complete lack of safety protocols that have been SOP at other agencies for decades, and an extremely dangerous, almost lackadaisical approach to firearm safety.

Coel shot Knowlton to death during a force-on-force demonstration — part of a “citizens academy” the department arranged for 32 members of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce.

Investigators found that Coel loaded wadcutters into his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson Airweight revolver, thinking they were blanks. No one thought to check the weapon.

Coel was charged with manslaughter. Police Chief Tom Lewis was charged with culpable negligence for exposing Knowlton to “personal injury, by failing to implement and utilize sufficient safety protocols.” Both have pleaded not guilty.

Coel was fired, but Lewis was placed on paid leave.

Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik wouldn’t say why he didn’t fire the police chief, too.

“The City Manager will make his decision about Chief Lewis based on the conclusion of the criminal case and information gained from the upcoming internal affairs investigation,” Sandi Poreda, the city’s contract crisis manager said in an email.

FDLE sent 10 special agents to investigate the killing.

Taken in their entirety, their reports indicate that something bad was bound to happen at PGPD.

It was only a matter of time.

Coel’s revolver not checked for live rounds

FDLE agents interviewed the 13 Punta Gorda police officers who were present at the event.

Punta Gorda Police Lt. Christopher Salsman told the agents he didn’t know who was with Coel when the revolver was loaded.

“Lt. Salsman stated it would have been under both his (Salsman’s) and Capt. Woodard’s responsibility to check Coel’s gun. Lt. Salsman didn’t check Coel’s gun because by the time he (Salsman) arrived at the scenario, the scenario has already been set. Lt. Salsman’s presumption was that because everything was in place, safety checks has already been completed. Lt. Salsman stated that he was not a firearms instructor.”

Salsman opened the cylinder of Coel’s revolver after the fatal shooting, and ejected four spent cartridges — aluminum in color.

“Lt. Salsman stated that he was not familiar with blank rounds.”

Punta Gorda Police Capt. Jeffrey Woodard told agents he “did not perform a safety check on Coel nor check Coel’s gun.”

Woodard told agents that he was “under the impression that the gun Coel used during the scenario was a K-9 ‘blanks gun’ used for nothing but K-9 training. The gun is a silver revolver, a .38 Special. Capt. Woodard said that .38 or .357 ammunition is not purchased, given out of maintained by PGPD. Blank rounds, however, would have been supplied to Coel for training purposes. Capt. Woodard stated that he doesn’t know what a blank round looks like.”

In a subsequent interview, Woodard couldn’t recall “when, if ever, a safety officer or any officer would perform a check of Officer Coel’s weapon and ammunition used during scenarios. Woodard said he understood Coel’s weapon to be a pistol designated blanks or a starter pistol that wasn’t capable of firing live rounds. Capt. Woodard said there has never been a scenario where live rounds were introduced via Coel’s weapon.”

Punta Gorda Police Officer Kelvin Jimenez, who had played the “bad guy” in previous scenarios, told FDLE that “in these type of scenarios, normally two people check the handgun to verify that live ammunition is not present in the weapon.” Jimenez said he and another officer he couldn’t recall checked Coel’s revolver for live rounds.

Chamber member Patricia Oliva said “there was no safety briefing done with Coel in front of the group to include whether Coel’s gun was a safety gun with pellets.”

Who’s idea was it? 

Punta Gorda Police Office Kelvin Jimenez was “unable to provide any information regarding who orchestrated the ‘Citizens Academy’ or developed the scenarios for the evening.”

Capt. Jeffrey Woodard told FDLE he “didn’t know who developed the scenarios, but believed the scenarios were based on a YouTube video featuring another agency. Capt. Woodard stated he didn’t believe there was a PGPD written script or manual detailing everyone’s duties and roles for the scenarios.”

In a subsequent interview, Capt. Woodard said he “believed the idea came from Chief Lewis.”

Who was in charge?

Punta Gorda Police Capt. Jason Ciaschini told the agents that Lt. Katie Heck “coordinated the evening’s event and he was only requested to take care of the tours. Capt. Ciaschini did not know who was in charge of the scenarios … When asked if there was a safety officer assigned to oversee the training event, Capt. Ciaschini answered he did not know. However, Capt. Ciaschini stated that he heard later in the evening that there may not have been a safety officer assigned.”

FDLE agents asked Punta Gorda Police Cpl. Rebecca Grim who planned the evening. “Cpl. Grim answered she was not aware of who coordinated the training event or scenario. When asked about safety officers, Cpl. Grim stated that normally there are safety officers assigned to training exercises, but she did not know if one was assigned to the event.”

Who provided the live ammo? 

Punta Gorda Police Lt. Katie Heck said she provided Coel with “blank” rounds, which belonged to her

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

husband, Charlotte County Sheriff’s Lt. John Heck.

Katie Heck said she opened one of the boxes and saw that the rounds were silver in color — the live CCI Blazer wadcutters.

Her husband John Heck told FDLE that he and his wife were moving and “had some old ammunition they wanted to get rid of, so Lt. John Heck gave his wife Lt. Katie Heck two boxes of blanks to give to Officer Coel.”

Agents showed John Heck a photo of the CCI Blazer wadcutters. He said they were not the ammunition ultimately provided to Coel, but in a later interview, Katie Heck said the CCI Blazer wadcutters were “probably the box of blanks she gave to Coel. Lt. Heck recalled that it was probably two boxes of ‘Blazer’ ammunition because she had them in a plastic bag and wouldn’t put only one box in a bag.”

Note: CCI does not manufacture any blank ammunition under the Blazer trademark.

According to the city spokesperson, Lt. Katie Heck remains on active duty.

No safety training for victim

For her role in the fatal scenario, Knowlton was given a Glock 19 converted to only fire Simunition training rounds — a plastic projectile filled with water-soluble paint. A firearms converted to fire Simunition is incapable of chambering a live rounds.

Susan Maher, a Chamber of Commerce member, told FDLE agents that Punta Gorda Police Capt. Woodard showed “Mary (Knowlton) the gun she would be using and how the bullets were not real. Maher stated she (Maher) isn’t familiar with firearms … Maher said Capt. Woodard didn’t cover any further safety aspects or instruction.”

John Pryor, a Chamber member and a certified Range Safety Officer told FDLE he considered taking Knowlton’s place in the scenario, but later decided against volunteering.

“Chief Thomas Lewis provided a safety overview regarding the Simunition gun that Knowlton would use in the scenario,” Pryor told FDLE. “Chief Lewis explained the safety measures with Knowlton, such as keeping her finger out of the trigger guard when holding the weapons.”

After Knowlton was shot, “Pryor and other class members were escorted into the classroom. Later, Chief Lewis came into the classroom and told the attendees that live rounds may have been used in the scenario.”

Chamber of Commerce member Sharon Slade Hueston told the agents that Knowlton “was not sure of how to use the handgun because they went over it with her several times.”

During the fatal scenario, Gary Knowlton stood just feet away and watched helplessly as his wife was shot and killed.

FDLE agents asked him if his wife had any firearms experience:. “Mr. Knowlton said that Mary had never handled a firearm.”

My take

Taken in the entirety, the FDLE reports show a department in crisis.

The interviews indicate that no one is really in charge and that even the most basic safety protocols are not only not being used, they’re a concept that’s foreign to PGPD leadership.

I’m told FDLE is auditing the department’s training program — a step in the right direction.

Until they improve their methods and learn how to conduct training in a safe manner, they shouldn’t be allowed access to even a paintball range.

Mary Knowlton never had a chance.

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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 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

3 Comments

  1. Patrick Shannon on

    Words utterly fail me.

    So, Lee, I have to commend you for your own ability to stay calm, to organize your thoughts, and to bring this information forth to us in such a rational manner. Thank you.

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