Justice takes a holiday in Punta Gorda

Mary Knowlton is shown in family photos.

Mary Knowlton is shown in family photos during an interview with her son Steve Knowlton Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Punta Gorda.  (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

If a civilian firearms trainer accidentally shot and killed a student, I can all but guarantee he’d be celebrating more than a few birthdays behind bars.

Now, put a badge in his billfold and let him cry some crocodile tears in court and everything is forgiven. He shifts from offender to victim and is allowed to go on his merry old way.

Former Punta Gorda Police officer Lee Coel had his day in court yesterday.  He was charged with manslaughter for the 2016 killing of retired librarian Mary Knowlton.

Justice was certainly not served.

Rather than receiving the 15 years imprisonment he was facing, Coel was allowed to plead no-contest to second degree manslaughter. Charlotte County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Steinbeck sentenced Coel to 10 years of probation and withheld adjudication of guilt. So, if Coel successfully completes his probation, the whole thing disappears.

Coel must also pay restitution to Knowlton’s widower for the death.

I wonder how much the life of a 73-year-old retired librarian is worth.

As you’ve probably heard, Coel idiotically loaded wadcutters into his personal .38 revolver, thinking they were blanks. The wadcutters had been given to him by his supervisor, Lt. Katie Heck.

He shot at Knowlton during the most flawed use-of-force demonstration I’ve ever seen, which had been conceived by his idiot Chief of Police, Tom Lewis, who got the idea after watching YouTube videos.

Both Coel and Lewis were fired, but Heck quit the police department before she could be disciplined for her role in the killing and joined the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. She kept her rank and now serves as the Sheriff’s Public Information Officer. Her husband works there too. He’s also a lieutenant. I’m sure all of this is purely coincidental, and that there was no good ole boy networking at work.

In court yesterday, Coel said that “not a day goes by that I don’t replay this in my head.”

He’s well compensated for these flashbacks.

After he was fired, Coel filed a lawsuit against the Punta Gorda Board of Trustees for denying him disability pension. His case included statements from two physicians who claim that he suffered PTSD after the fatal shooting.

A judge awarded Coel $12,590.70. If he’d been actually convicted of manslaughter, he would have been required to forfeit all his “rights and benefits,” including the pension. Now, he keeps it all.

Before she accepted the plea deal, Judge Steinbeck said, “This is a very sad case. There are no winners in this courtroom.”

I strongly disagree.

Coel won.

Knowlton’s widower, Gary, and his two sons certainly lost.

Justice lost too.

I guess it took a holiday.


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. Unbelievable. My thoughts and prayers are with this family. I can not begin to imagine the pain and loss they have suffered.

  2. Pingback: Unjust conclusion to a sad case.

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