ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. - A lawsuit has been filed in the controversial death of a St. Johns County woman.
When Michelle O'Connell died of a gunshot wound in 2010, she was dating St. Johns County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jeremy Banks.
Her death was ruled a suicide, but many say he killed her. Now, her brother is suing the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the lead investigator.
From the beginning, Sheriff David Shoar said it was ruled a suicide and that one of his deputies almost ended up getting charged for a crime he didn't commit. O'Connell's brother has been planning to sue FDLE and Rusty Rodgers, but now that the lawsuit has been officially filed, the sheriff said he is grateful.
Shoar said that since Day One the Sheriff's Office has been as transparent as can be in the case of 24-year-old O'Connell.
His department found she took her own life in 2010 and that Banks had no part in it.
"The victim in this case die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and a law-enforcement officer, one of our deputies, almost wound up getting charged for a crime not only that he did not commit but did not ever occurred due to the actions of a rogue FDLE agent," said Shoar.
That FDLE agent is special agent Rusty Rodgers. Shoar and O'Connell's brother said he got the facts wrong, and convinced family members and agents that they were dealing with a homicide.
In the lawsuit, Scott O'Connell, who is also a deputy with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, said Rodgers lied to him and purposely withheld vital, exculpatory evidence and provided false and misleading information to the court.
The suit said Rodgers' tried to manipulate and effectively brainwash Scott O'Connell into believing his homicide theory.
"Rusty Rogers was saying all kinds of things and fabricating all kinds of things to try and achieve his ends, which were to get Jeremy Banks charged," said Mac McLeod, O'Connell's attorney.
The suit said Rodgers repeatedly made false, derogatory statements to O'Connell regarding Shoar, the chief Medical Examiner in the case and other law enforcement officials, the most damaging of which included accusations that the Medical Examiner and sheriff were in cahoots and that the doctor was getting kickbacks and implications that the sheriff's office was attempting to cover up a homicide by one of its own deputies.
"That's a perfect example of the things Rusty Rogers was making up to get people to say anything to serve his interest," McLeod said. "There's no evidence of that whatsoever."
The lawsuit states that when the state attorney's office determined the cause of Michelle O'Connell's death to be suicide rather than homicide, Scott O'Connell had an extreme emotional reaction, which included lashing out in anger at the state attorney.
It says upon walking out of that meeting, Scott O'Connell called Rodgers and vented his anger toward the state attorney, who had been named special prosecutor, and the Sheriff's Office.
Immediately after that phone call, Rodgers called the sheriff to report Scott O'Connell was a possible active shooter. Based on that incident, O'Connell was terminated from his employment with the Sheriff's Office.
"Scott lost his job over this and lost his job at a very critical time in his life, and it pretty terribly affected him emotionally and pretty terribly affected him financially," McLeod said.
The Sheriff's Office announced Thursday evening that O'Connell's brother had officially filed the lawsuit and Shoar released a statement that says:
"Over a year ago, I personally made a complaint to FDLE regarding the egregious behavior of Rusty Rodgers and Dominic Pape during the investigation of the death of Michelle O'Connell. While Rodgers is currently the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation for 'official misconduct,' I am grateful the civil cases are moving forward to ultimately bring justice and closure to all involved."
"You know you could take any little piece and wiggle it around, but at the end of the day we look at the entire pictures and all the evidence, it's a suicide. And it's sad it really and truly is, but I believe as much on this case as I have on any other. And again we have no reason not to," said Shoar.
Shoar admitted that his agency made a lot of mistakes in the investigation and that there are still things that didn't add up, but that he absolutely stands by his findings.
The FDLE has not commented on the suit.
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