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New autopsy finds Michelle O'Connell's death a homicide

Family disputes cause of 2010 death of St. Johns County deputy's girlfriend

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – A third autopsy of a 24-year-old woman killed with her boyfriend’s gun nearly six years ago brings new hope to Michelle O'Connell's family, which has fought for years to prove her death was not a suicide.

Patty O'Connell believes her daughter's boyfriend, St. Johns County Deputy Jeremy Banks, killed Michelle.

The O’Connell family had the woman’s body exhumed in January and re-examined by Dr. Bill Anderson, a well-known forensic pathologist based in Orlando. Anderson has worked in medical examiner's offices across the country.

Anderson told Crime Watch Daily his autopsy found that Michelle O’Connell’s death was a homicide. He said he found blunt-force trauma fractured her mandible -- her jawbone -- incapacitating her before she was shot.

“So all those people making assumptions this was a suicide were unaware of the existence of the fractured mandible.  That's a different injury pattern and creates a whole different scenario in the case,” Anderson said.

“They kept saying, ‘You don’t have anything. You don’t have anything. You have nothing.’ You know, I believe with Dr. Anderson, we have a lot; we have proof,” Patty O’Connell said. “We have new evidence. Totally new; never been brought to light.”

Anderson and two forensic dentists were asked to look at the O'Connell case by private investigator Clu Wright.

“They were kind of hesitant at first to do this, but they agreed to do this, and they agreed to do this for free,” Wright said.

Wright has also donated his services to help the O'Connell family find even more of what he calls ignored evidence, including crime-scene photos showing a bloody shirt and a gun holster -- both inside the house -- along with a black medical glove found on her boyfriend's car. Wright said all those items could also help reopen the case.

“I think if them pieces of evidence were gathered that night and tested, we would not have been sitting here today, and that case would have been solved that night,” Wright said.

The findings give renewed hope for O'Connell's mother, who says her determination to find out what really happened is fueled by her granddaughter, who was just 4-years-old when Michelle died.

“I hope that we will get justice,” Patty O’Connell said. “We have a chance now to get our point across and get justice for Michelle. “If you believe you're right, never give up.”

The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office has acknowledged mistakes were made the night Michelle O'Connell was found dead, but has stood by the outcome of the investigation that found the cause of death was suicide. Because O'Connell's family and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent still questioned the findings, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to review the case. Orange County State Attorney Jeff Ashton found not enough evidence to prosecute the case.

Lauren Schenone, Scott's deputy press secretary, released the following statement to News4Jax:

Governor Scott sympathizes with Ms. O’Connell’s family for the loss of their daughter.

Previously, Governor Scott took action and directed FDLE to investigate this case. He also assigned two special prosecutors Brad King of Florida’s 5th circuit and Jeff Ashton of Florida’s 9th circuit to conduct thorough investigations. Mr. King completed his investigation in November 2012 and Mr. Ashton completed his investigation in July 2015.

Under Florida law, it is for the State Attorney to decide whether an investigation is appropriate under the circumstances

News4Jax informed the Sheriff’s Office of the new autopsy. Sheriff David Shoar released the following statement:

On January 12th, 2016 media reports circulated that the body of Michelle O’Connell was removed from her place of rest by certain members of her family.  At the time, no one was certain exactly why this was done but the speculation was that a paid expert witness would be hired by these family members to produce a report that of course would support their belief about the case. 

Today (Sunday) we learn that this speculation was accurate. The report of the paid expert was delivered by a resident of Clay County who has a “private investigators” license with no connection to any official entity including law enforcement.  It is critically important to note that no person officially associated with a prosecutor’s office or law enforcement agency was in any way involved including when she was removed from her place of rest.  Why did these certain family members not request a judge to order a proper and officially sanctioned exhumation?  We suspect the answer is that they would not have met the threshold for a judge to order one. 

Most importantly, there have been three separate officially sanctioned medical examiners review this case as well as two officially sanctioned special prosecutors (Jeff Ashton and Brad King) appointed by the Governor, all have determined there is NO evidence present to indicate anything other than that Michelle died by her own hand.  The last special prosecutor went so far as to write that he was, “thankful it was NOT a homicide because had it been, it could never have been prosecuted due to the actions of the state agent who at one time was involved in this case.” 

The information presented today is nothing new and all was reviewed during the initial autopsy. Molesting Michelle from her place of rest using some freelance type approach is beyond unconventional, it was reprehensible.

The primary advisers to the few family members who will go to any lengths to maintain their moment in the spotlight consist of the private investigator, a former St. Johns County Deputy Sheriff who was fired for ethical misconduct and who is now a candidate for political office.  Interestingly, this same individual has been hinting at some recent political events that there was some “big news” coming regarding the O’Connell case.  Coincidently, the last time Michelle’s sister was interviewed on local television she actually told the reporter that this case is about, “politics”.  Though the reporter never followed up on her comment, as the political season evolves it has become very clear what she meant. And finally a career “drug” investigator and current state agent who was recently reprimanded for conducting a “substandard” investigation into the death of Michelle O’Connell.
A great question for the public and media to ask would be, why hasn’t the family filed suit against the person they think was culpable in Michelle’s death?  The answer is probably the same as why they did not seek an official exhumation, because there is no Probable Cause to indicate Michelle died by anything other than her own hand.  Of vital importance that most folks do not understand is that the person that certain members of the family think is culpable in Michelle’s death, is one of only two people (along with Michelle’s brother Scott) who HAS filed a civil suit in relation to this case (against FDLE and Agent Rodgers). 

People who are culpable or have committed crimes do not file civil suits because when they do, they can longer shield themselves behind the Fifth Amendment and a civil suit puts everything under a microscope.   Fortunately, the civil suit filed by Michelle’s brother Scott and Jeremy Banks is well under way and hopefully there should be closure within the next year.  I have always taken the position that if a jury ever gets to hear what Scott and Jeremy had to endure because of the conduct of a few people with personal agendas, it would shock their consciences and they would rule in favor of both Scott and Jeremy, I still maintain that position. 

The record clearly shows that we have always held employees accountable at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office when they violate our policies or engage in criminal conduct.  In the past, I have had to discipline and even arrest employees for misconduct.  If, however, an employee is unfairly and maliciously targeted by external forces they will have no stronger advocate than myself.  This case is an example of the latter and not the former."     

About the Author:

Joy Purdy co-anchors the 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. newscasts with Tarik Minor and the 11 p.m. weeknight newscasts with Kent Justice.