A former Punta Gorda police officer who fatally shot a 73-year-old librarian during a citizens academy couldn’t tell the difference between blank rounds and ammunition, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation concluded.
However, the report states former officer Lee Coel wasn’t the only one who couldn’t differentiate between the blanks and bullets.
“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,” the conclusion of the report stated.
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Punta Gorda Police requested the Florida Department of Law Enforcement conduct the investigation.
Knowlton, a 73-year-old librarian, was taking part in a citizens academy at the Punta Gorda Police Department with members of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce on Aug. 9, 2016, that started at 5:30 p.m.
Following a presentation and tour, the rest of the night was cleared for role-playing exercises aimed to show citizens what it was like for police “to contend with adversarial or violent people,” according to the report.
Some attendees were randomly selected to participate, including Knowlton; the rest watched from several yards away.
In the incident, Coel portrayed a suspicious person who was possibly breaking into a parked car while Knowlton assumed the role of a police officer in a “shoot/don’t shoot” scenario. It was all captured on a PGPD surveillance video camera around 6:49 p.m.
Coel placed his personal .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver loaded with what he thought were blanks on the front of a police vehicle used in the scenario.
However, Coel had actually loaded four cartridges of lethal ammunition into the gun, unbeknownst to him, according to the report.
Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt and safety mask, Coel peered into a vehicle as the scenario began. Knowlton confronted him and “engaged him in a brief conversation,” the report read.
Coel walked to the front of the car, grabbed the gun, pointed it in Knowlton’s direction and fired “several times” while moving around the parked car.
Knowlton was struck by two bullets, one in her abdomen and another in her left arm. Two other bullets were fired, but did not strike Knowlton.
When Knowlton bent over after being shot, others thought she was “going along with the scenario” until she fell to the ground. Even then, those around thought she was having a medical episode until officers rushed to her side.
Knowlton was taken to Lee Memorial Hospital where she was pronounced dead at 7:25 p.m. on Aug. 9, 2016.
According to an interview with a lieutenant, it “was a repeat scenario that was done many times and that Coel had played the bad guy in this exact same scenario” about four times. It was this lieutenant and a captain’s responsibility to check Coel’s gun.
Officials determined the ammunition used by Coel was .38 caliber Blazer hollow based wad cutters (HBWC). The company that manufactures these does not make blanks under the Blazer name, according to the report.
Investigators recovered several boxes of bullets from Coel’s patrol vehicle, including the .38 caliber Blazer HBWC and three boxes of “Winchester Super X” .38 Special blank ammunition.
The report also states the .38 caliber CCI Blazer HBWC and the Winchester blank firing cartridges are similar in shape and size.
Lt. Katie Heck of the Punta Gorda Police Department told investigators she “probably” gave Coel the ammunition but thought they were blanks. She got them from her husband, who works for the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. Heck’s fingerprint was found on one of the boxes of CCI Blazer HBWC .38 caliber ammunition taken from Coel’s patrol vehicle, according to the report.
Coel is charged with manslaughter. He was placed on administrative leave after the incident but was later fired.