Family has Michelle O'Connell exhumed

Remains provide new evidence in controversial case, private investigator says

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – The remains of a St. Johns County woman, whose death from a gunshot wound in 2010 has been the source of controversy for years, were exhumed Monday at her family's request.

Michelle O’Connell's death has been ruled a suicide by multiple agencies, but her family has long maintained that they believe the 24-year-old was killed. The gun that killed O'Connell was the service weapon of her boyfriend, St. Johns County deputy Jeremy Banks, and her family has long voiced suspicions of Banks and how the department handled the case.

To continue their efforts to uncover what they believe to be the truth about her death, O'Connell's relatives had her remains exhumed from her St. Augustine grave Monday.

A private investigator representing the family said the remains, which were inspected by a forensic pathologist and two forensic dentists, have provided new evidence that will definitely impact the case.

“I don’t want to get into that right now, but I can tell you there was new stuff that was found that I can tell you will be very interesting,” private investigator Clu Wright said.

Wright has been looking into O'Connell's case for years. He said the findings from their examination of the remains will be turned over to the State Attorney's Office.

“There is some information that is going to come out that you'll probably be very surprised was not let out at the first autopsy,” Wright said. “I can’t really go into great detail right now. We’re going to wait on reports from both the forensic pathologist and the forensic odontologists.  When they come out, we’re definitely going to share that with the State Attorney’s Office.”

O'Connell's case has been the center of ongoing controversy and was even the subject of a PBS documentary.

St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar has acknowledged that mistakes were made by investigators the night of O'Connell's death but has maintained that it is a suicide case.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement was called in to investigate, and its lead investigator, Agent Rusty Rodgers, remains on paid suspension amid allegations that he violated procedures because of preconceived beliefs, and tried to convince O'Connell's family that she was killed.

Three medical examiners and two independent prosecutors have also ruled the death a suicide.

David Ford, a criminology expert at the University of North Florida, offered his expert take on what evidence might have been found when O'Connell's remains were dug up.

“When a body is buried in a cemetery, it is possible to go back to conduct a full autopsy and look at toxicology and a number of other issues,” said Ford, the criminology and criminal justice chair at UNF. “You'd have to have a good reason to want to do this. It would have to be a good suspicion as to what they're looking for, but in an exhumation of a body that has been properly buried, it is possible to find things even many years later.”

The State Attorney's Office has not yet responded to a request for comment on the latest developments in the case.

About the Author:

Specializes in Clay County issues, general assignment reporting and stories off the beaten path and anchors weekend evening newscasts.