After 3-year-investigation, FDLE agent back on job
St. Johns County sheriff complained about agent's handling of investigation
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. –
After a three-year investigation into the 2010 death of a woman that was ruled a suicide, the suspension of the FDLE agent who conducted an independent investigation into the case has ended.
Michelle O'Connell's death was ruled a suicide by multiple agencies, but her family has long maintained that they believe the 24-year-old was killed. She was shot with a St. Johns County deputy's gun. O'Connell was living with St. Johns County Deputy Jeremy Banks, and her family has long voiced suspicions of Banks and how the department handled the case.
Agent Rusty Rodgers, FDLE's lead investigator into O'Connell's death, was placed on paid suspension amid allegations that he violated procedures because of preconceived beliefs, and that he tried to convince O'Connell's family that she was killed.
He returned to work March 10.
O'Connell's case has been the center of ongoing controversy and was even the subject of a PBS documentary.
According to the FDLE investigation, which was made public Tuesday, Rodgers demonstrated "sub-standard" performance during his investigation and was ordered to receive remedial training and increased supervision.
The state's internal affairs investigation into Rodgers found that "on some occasions, Rodgers did not follow established FDLE procedures.” Others involved in the investigation said Rodgers omitted or exaggerated information and lost objectivity.
One accusation against Rodgers was that he took Banks' phone without a warrant. He said that because Banks' phone had been tapped, he really didn't need a specific warrant for the phone.
One of Rodgers' supervisors said Rodgers believed the death was a suicide, and Rodgers himself said he "never said to anyone Banks killed Michelle O'Connell, but toward the end of the investigation, it did not go down like he (Banks) said it did."
The investigation also contained the final text messages O'Connell sent from her phone the night she died. In her last documented text to her sister, who was watching O'Connell's daughter at the time, she wrote: "Lexi will be happy and always have a good life."
Deputies said during a presentation given to the medical examiner's office, Rodgers detailed text messages between O'Connell and her sister, where O'Connell indicated she was on her way to pick up her daughter from her sister's house at 10:58 p.m. the night she died.
But the text couldn’t be found, and the only documentation of that text exchange was a handwritten note in Rodgers' case file. The FDLE says found Rodgers did not properly document the information or the conversation he had with O’Connell’s sister.
The report also found Rodgers misrepresented and misquoted statements Banks made during a 911 call on the night of O’Connell’s death and used those statements in an application for a search warrant.
It also found Rodgers only documented parts of an interview done with another St. Johns County deputy.
When asked about those instances, Rodgers said it was unintentional.
St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar, who acknowledged that mistakes were made by his investigators the night of O'Connell's death, had complained to the state about Rodgers' behavior during his investigation.
"I am pleased that FDLE has resolved this case concerning Rodgers' conduct, identified issues concerning his performance and that they have implemented an action plan to address their concerns," Shoar said.
Rodgers will also not be assigned to any St. Johns County criminal investigations in the future. A federal civil rights case that Banks has filed against Rodgers is still pending.
Earlier this year, O'Connell's family had her body exhumed and the remains inspected by a forensic pathologist and two forensic dentists. Private investigator Clu Wright, who has been looking into the case for years, said her body yielded evidence that will definitely impact the case.
Wright said the findings from their examination of the remains will be turned over to the State Attorney's Office.
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