Punta Gorda Police Chief denies responsibility for his officer’s killing of retired librarian

As part of a motion seeking to dismiss the criminal charges he’s facing, Punta Gorda Police Chief Thomas Lewis and his defense team have made some unbelievable claims.

Although he’s only been charged with a misdemeanor, Lewis is fighting for his career.

The fight began Aug. 9, when former PGPD officer Lee Coel loaded wadcutters into his .38 caliber revolver instead of blanks before a shoot/no-shoot demonstration. Coel then shot and killed retired librarian Mary Knowlton. The killing made international news.

Prosecutors have charged Coel with manslaughter. Lewis fired the young officer after Coel pleaded not guilty.

Lewis was charged with culpable negligence — a misdemeanor. He’s been on paid leave ever since, but remains employed by the city.

His attorneys recently filed a motion to dismiss the negligence charges.

According to court documents, they argued that “such demonstrations had been held before by the police department and the Sheriff’s Office, and that he merely appeared at the demonstration, while other officers were delegated to organization, safety and participation.”

Chief Lewis, the documents state, “had no knowledge of the violations of department policies and regulations by the officers. He believed the statute was being arbitrarily applied because no one had been charged in previous demonstrations.”

As a non-lawyer, I interpret the chief’s four-part defense strategy as thus:

  • Look at all the people we haven’t killed.
  • I was just there, but I wasn’t in charge.
  • It’s my guys’ fault, not mine.
  • You’re picking on me only because someone was shot to death.

If I was a juror in his upcoming trial, which begins later this month, none of these arguments would sway me.

Evidently, they didn’t sway the trial judge either.

On Friday, Lee County Judge Devin George denied Lewis’ motion to dismiss the case

“As it applied to the facts of this case, if Defendant (Lewis), as argued by the State, implemented and designed the demonstration without any policies or protocols in place for citizen safety or oversight of the officers participating, such acts or omissions would create a risk of death or great bodily harm when a live firearm is involved. Defendant would or should have been on notice of that risk,” Judge George wrote in his order denying Lewis’ motion to dismiss.

I certainly couldn’t have said it any better.

We’ll have gavel-to-gavel coverage of the chief’s upcoming trial, unless of course he pleads guilty and resigns — the only honorable option left to him.


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.


  1. How soon they forget.

    Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis addressed the media Thursday morning and called this “a devastating time” for Knowlton’s family, the police department and the community. He took full responsibility for the tragedy, which happened after he opened the program with a presentation about the department.


    “I am 100 percent accountable for the actions of our department,” he said.

  2. Whatever happened to personal and professional responsibility? The officer pointed a gun at an innocent human being for demonstration purposes without first checking that the firearm was safe to use in that capacity. That is negligent, and when that negligence resulted in the killing of an innocent person, it becomes criminal. The chief, like any leader, is responsible for everything that goes on under his authority. Did he institute a second check procedure to ensure all safety protocols were being adhered to? Were there even any safety protocols in place?

    And before anyone accuses me of being an armchair quarterback, I have been either a participant or in charge of a lot of force-on-force training, some involving guns that would only fire blanks and some involving actual firearms that could fire live rounds but were loaded with blanks. Rule number 1 . . . never take anything for granted. Check . . . double check . . . triple check.

    • I have also designed and conducted force on force drills with duty weapons firing SIMS. I always had double safety checks performed. 2 officers including myself had to “safe” the weapons.

      Agreed the chief here is a coward. Just the type of paper pushing careerist that often makes chief thru politics and back stabbing . It’s why morale is often so low.

  3. Chuck Haggard on

    This is a stunning display of cowardice, craven self interest, a complete lack of leadership, and just general stupidity.

  4. If you use a gun , and kill someone with that gun , you are responsible . Most cops are cops for the wrong reasons , and we let them have guns . If a cop uses his or her gun , they did something wrong , and should be fired and face charges like every one else .

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