Former Punta Gorda officer who shot and killed librarian during training demo to get no-jail plea deal

Lee’s note: I just wrote this story for my newspaper. We will be sending a staffer to cover today’s 2 pm hearing about the plea deal.

Plea deal: Punta Gorda officer who killed librarian won’t go to jail

Posted at 9:58 AM Updated Oct 16, 2019 at 9:58 AM

Charlotte County prosecutors have accepted a no-jail plea deal for Lee Coel, who fatally shot Mary Knowlton during a 2016 training exercise.

Charlotte County prosecutors have agreed to a no-jail plea deal for Lee Coel, the former Punta Gorda police officer who’s accused of shooting and killing retired librarian Mary Knowlton in 2016 during a flawed use-of-force demonstration at the police department, according to Knowlton’s family.

The plea agreement calls for Coel to be put on probation for 10 years, but he will serve no time behind bars, according to Knowlton’s son, Steve.

Mary Knowlton

Steve Knowlton and his father were first told of the deal by a victim’s advocate — not a prosecutor — Tuesday evening, he said.

They plan to make their opposition to the deal known to the judge overseeing the case at a hearing in Fort Myers this afternoon.

“Our family categorically rejects this plea deal. We are devastated — devastated and outraged,” Knowlton said Tuesday night. “The whole time — since 2016 — they told us they had a good case and that they would get a guilty verdict. I guess the good old boy network took over.

“They have totally dehumanized my mother. They have invalidated her as a human being. We were probably almost too close as a family. I watched my dad age 10 years in three. He’s beside himself tonight,” Knowlton said. “He feels like it just happened all over again.”

Neither Fort Lauderdale lawyer Alvin Entin, Coel’s defense attorney, nor Assistant State Attorney Stephanie Russell returned calls seeking comment for this story.

What happened

On Aug. 9, 2016, the Punta Gorda Police Department hosted a citizens training academy for the city’s Chamber of Commerce — with more than 30 influential community leaders.

Coel was playing the “bad guy,” while Knowlton was randomly selected to play the police officer. She was given a handgun that fired non-lethal training rounds — which were hand-counted before the exercise — but no protective equipment.

She’d never held a gun in her life.

According to court documents, Coel was supposed to pretend he was about to burglarize a vehicle, then fire blanks downward to startle Knowlton.

Instead, he fired his gun toward Knowlton. And what came out weren’t blanks, but wadcutters: live, flat-tipped target ammunition that resemble blanks but contain lead bullets.

Two of them ricocheted off of nearby cars and struck Knowlton — one in the arm, one perforating the aorta. She bled profusely in the parking lot of the police headquarters as her husband and others watched from feet away. She died at the hospital.

Although Coel was placed on administrative leave while the department investigated, it wasn’t until March 2017 when he was fired — two weeks after he was criminally charged.

Police training experts and firearms instructors across the country have strongly criticized the training scenario that took Knowlton’s life.

Real weapons, even if they’re loaded with blanks, should never be used in use-of-force training — especially if untrained civilians are involved, they said.

According to court documents, Coel obtained in July 2016 what he thought was blank ammunition from Lt. Katie Heck, a former K-9 officer with the department and Coel’s immediate supervisor. She had gotten it from her husband, a lieutenant with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, who’d discovered it while the couple was moving out of their home.

Heck was also the one who assigned Coel the “bad guy” role in the use-of-force demonstration.

Of the three boxes Coel received from Heck, he said, two were labeled “Blazer.” The other box was incompatible with Coel’s Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver.

When Coel tested the “Blazer” ammunition, he said, he didn’t notice anything different about its weight or appearance. But he said the Blazer “blanks” were slightly louder than the Winchester blanks he normally used.

He also noted that the two agencies “observed without comment” as he used his own weapon for the exercise.

So when one of his supervisors, Capt. Jeff Woodard, brought only one Glock from the department’s armory for the exercise, Coel again brought his personal weapon from home. It was not inspected before the exercise.

Shifting blame

Knowlton’s 2016 killing prompted a series of finger-pointing within the police department.

There was no appointed safety officer for the exercise. The department had adapted its exercise from a YouTube video without developing written lesson plans or scripts. Officers couldn’t distinguish between blanks and live ammunition. The immediate vicinity was not cordoned off, and protective gear was not required. Participants and onlookers were not searched for unauthorized weapons or live ammunition, and no safety briefings were conducted before the exercise — just some of the revelations uncovered by investigations following Knowlton’s death.

Coel’s departure offered a glimpse of what was to come for the police department. Woodard resigned in June 2017 after admitting that he had seen Coel’s weapon before the training exercise and did not inspect it. Heck now works as a public information officer for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. She is still a lieutenant.

The same day that Coel was charged with manslaughter, Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was charged with misdemeanor culpable negligence. Although a jury acquitted Lewis in June 2017, the police department conducted its own investigation that determined he had a “casual approach” to safety during the shoot/don’t shoot exercise.

During several meetings with Punta Gorda City Manager Howard Kunik, Lewis refused to resign and instead offered to accept a demotion to lieutenant. But Kunik objected. He feared that keeping Lewis in the department would only create “confusion, conflict and division.”

Lewis was fired on Aug. 30, 2017, more than a year after Knowlton’s death.

Delay of justice

Coel’s case has lingered in the criminal justice system for more than three years.

Citing extensive media coverage and threatening comments over social media, Coel twice requested a change of venue — once in 2017, and again in 2019. He claimed that a local trial would impair a jury’s ability to reach an objective verdict and sought to move the trial to Broward County.

In March 2018, Coel’s attorneys asked the court to dismiss the charges, which further prolonged the case.

“I had absolutely no intention to harm Mrs. Knowlton, or of placing her or anyone else in danger,” Coel’s motion-to-dismiss states. “I truly believed that the rounds I fired were in fact blank rounds that would not injure Mrs. Knowlton or anyone else given the distance between us.

“I would never, under any circumstances, knowingly use live rounds in a shoot/don’t-shoot scenario or in any public demonstration or K-9 training exercise. This was a tragic accident.”

His motion to dismiss was also denied.

After he was fired from the police department, Coel filed a lawsuit in November 2017 against the Punta Gorda Board of Trustees for denying him disability pension. His case includes statements from two physicians who claim that he suffered post-traumatic stress after the fatal shooting.

A judge awarded Coel $12,590.70 in attorneys fees and costs in September. But if he’s convicted of manslaughter, he will still be forced to forfeit all of his “rights and benefits,” including the pension.

Meanwhile, Knowlton’s husband, Gary, accepted a $2,060,234.23 settlement paid out from the city’s insurance and damage recovery funds. The agreement made no admission of fault or blame on behalf of the city or its police department.

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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.

4 Comments

  1. It’s time for the public to realize, and law enforcement to acknowledge, that officers are not firearms experts. The average patrol officer qualifies only annually, and fires only about 60 rounds. Many officers are not “gun people”, carry only because the job requires it, and do not train on theit own time. I am aware of one small town officer who carrier her duty pistol for a year without realizing the striker was broken and the gun wouldn’t fire. No one had ever taught her how to do a function check.

    • richard kluseck on

      Well said Richard Nascak. Military and Law Enforcement rank and file are usually only familiar with issued weapons. Elite personnel such as Special Forces (Green Berets) and some SWAT personnel are exceptionally skilled, and being schooled in firearms is one of their extraordinary traits. There is plenty of tragedy to bear in this incompetent dereliction, not just only on Lee Coel,but his supervisors up the chain of command should be alongside him at the defendants’ table. But that the good ol’ boy network is covering their tracks by shielding him with this deal is evident.

  2. Pingback: Weekend Knowledge Dump- October 18, 2019 | Active Response Training

  3. This article was really well written. Great attention to detail and seems very well researched. Great job covering this in-depth.

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