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FDLE sits out death investigation linked to O'Connell case

'Impartiality is paramount in a death investigation,' agency spokesperson says

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – Questions remain about the death of an individual, described as someone independently researching the Michelle O’Connell case, who was found shot Thursday inside a condo in St. Johns County’s World Golf Village community.

The unnamed individual was found dead of an apparent gunshot wound about 7:30 a.m. Thursday at a home at Laterra Condos inside the gated community, Maj. Steve Rose with the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office told reporters at a Thursday news briefing.

Rose said investigators considered the death suspicious, but he did not discuss the reasons why. Based on a preliminary investigation, he said it was too early to tell whether the person died of a self-inflicted wound or whether someone else may have been involved.

"I'm shocked that something like this, especially in a secured area like this, would happen," said Andrew Applegate, who lives in the World Golf Village community. "The security guys are very diligent in how they conduct their operations here to keep us safe."

The individual’s name and age were not immediately released.

The Putnam County Sheriff's Office said early Friday evening that the medical examiner had not yet positively identified the individual and was waiting on other markers, such as dental records, that will help identify the person.

But Thursday, Rose described the shooting victim as a private citizen and parent of two who was researching the O’Connell case, which has been a source of controversy for years in St. Johns County because of the circumstances surrounding her death.

News4Jax learned that the individual made one public request of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, on Aug. 22, for scene photos of the night O’Connell died. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office released one disk, which was picked up on Aug. 30, and charged the individual $7.50 for it. 

Even though Thursday’s death occurred in St. Johns County, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office was asked to take over the investigation to avoid a potential conflict of interest because of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office’s involvement in the O’Connell case.

For similar reasons, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement declined to help preserve and process Thursday’s scene, according to a statement provided by an FDLE spokesperson:

“Impartiality is paramount in a death investigation.  Given the circumstances of this case, it was appropriate for FDLE to refer Putnam County Sheriff’s Office to another agency for crime scene assistance. This was done out of an abundance of caution to ensure unnecessary distraction and impartiality. FDLE’s lab system will provide forensic assistance.”

O’Connell, 24, died in September 2010 of a gunshot wound inflicted by the service weapon belonging to her boyfriend, St. Johns County Deputy Jeremy Banks. Her death was ultimately ruled suicide, but members of her family have long held onto the belief that she did not take her own life.

The polarizing case has since attracted national attention, resulting in a PBS “Frontline” documentary and an ABC News’ “20/20” report detailing competing investigations into O’Connell’s death, in addition to an in-depth report published by The New York Times.

A criminal investigation performed by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and Medical Examiner’s Office into O’Connell’s death ruled it a suicide. Two other medical examiners and a special prosecutor appointed by then-Gov. Rick Scott arrived at the same conclusion.

Contrary to those findings, FDLE’s lead agent on the case provided what the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office described as fabricated evidence suggesting probable cause that O’Connell’s death was homicide. As a result, the medical examiner changed his ruling to homicide, only to go back on that.

O’Connell’s sisters and mother said they still believe she was killed by Banks. Through an attorney, they asked Gov. Scott for a coroner’s inquest, but the request was turned down. The family also had O’Connell’s body exhumed and an independent forensic pathologist said her death was a homicide.

O’Connell’s brother, a former deputy with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, initially said he believed she was killed by Banks, but he has since changed his mind. Now he believes her death was a suicide. He and Banks both sued FDLE and its lead agent on the case, Rusty Rodgers.

An FDLE internal investigation into Rodgers’ performance found he did substandard work and lost his objectivity in the case -- omitting details and exaggerating information. He was ordered to take remedial training and was later returned to duty