A researcher independently looking into the Michelle O’Connell case, who was found shot dead in January in a World Golf Village condo, was killed, according to the Medical Examiner's Office.
The suspicious death of Ellie Marie Washtock, 38, has been ruled a homicide, the Putnam County Sheriff's Office announced Monday.
Washtock, who investigators said identified as a man and a woman, was found dead by a 15-year-old son about 7:30 a.m. Jan. 31 in a third-floor condo at Laterra Condominiums inside the gated community.
O'Connell's mother, Patty O’Connell, told News4Jax on Monday that she is heartbroken over the death of Washtock, who she knew as Eli, saying she feels strongly Washtock was killed for investigating her daughter's death.
Washtock’s family, who also refers to Washtock as Eli, did not wish to speak on camera, but said it's hoping investigators can track down whoever killed Washtock. The following statement was released on behalf of the family:
"Eli was a loving father, son, brother and uncle. We want to thank the dedication of the Putnam County Sheriff's Office. We appreciate your respect as we grieve our loss and look forward to justice prevailing."
Though months have gone by, neighbors such as Adam Hankers are still shocked a violent crime could happen in the area.
"I think it's bizarre. It’s a very quiet neighborhood. Everyone is happy here. It's friendly. It's gated. It's very safe," Hankers said. “It was really weird the fact that someone could even get in the community to perform this act. It’s a little scary."
Hankers hopes Washtock's family gets answers.
"Closure is so important," he said. "I can't even imagine if that was me."
No arrests have been made in the case. The Sheriff’s Office is asking anyone with information to contact CrimeStoppers of Northeast Florida at 1-888-277-8477.
Maj. Steve Rose with the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office previously described Washtock 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 also learned that Washtock 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 Washtock'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 the shooting scene, according to an FDLE spokesperson.
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.