Killing of Michelle O’Connell case researcher shrouded in mystery nearly a year later
Ellie Washtock’s father: ‘I think if he wasn’t looking into that ... he would still be alive. That’s my gut feeling’
Jan. 31 will mark one year since a researcher independently looking into the high-profile Michelle O’Connell case was found shot to death in a World Golf Village condo.
The suspicious death of Ellie Marie Washtock, 38, was ruled a homicide by the Medical Examiner’s Office, according to the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, and Washtock’s father, Jim, said it’s frustrating knowing that the killer is still out there nearly one year later.
“Very agonizing not knowing what’s going on or what happened for sure or who is involved,” Washtock’s father, who lives in Wisconsin, told News4Jax by phone on Wednesday. "I want them to keep investigating and figure out what the hell happened and who’s responsible.”
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, 2019, in a third-floor condo at Laterra Condominiums inside the gated community. Washtock’s father said he remembers the strange phone call from his grandson after the teen found the condo door ajar and the lock broken off before school.
“I said, ‘What are you and your dad up to?’ He said, ‘Oh, not much.’ I said, ‘What are you home from school for?’ He said, ‘I’m not going to go to school today.’ I said, ‘Well, let me talk to your dad.’ He said, ‘Well, my dad is dead,'” Washtock’s father recounted. ‘And I just lost it.'
He said his grandson told him the condo door was ajar and the lock was broken off. Washtock’s father said he believes Washtock saw red flags the night before the killing.
“What I heard was that he put (the son) in a downstairs apartment, two floors down, because he was afraid of what was going to happen or something was going to happen and he didn’t want him getting hurt,” Washtock’s father said.
He said he believes the private research into the O’Connell case could be linked to Washtock’s death.
“I think if he wasn’t looking into that or if he wasn’t involved with that or whatever, yeah, I think he would still be alive," Washtock’s father said. "That’s my gut feeling.”
Washtock’s birth name was Craig but was legally changed to Ellie. Washtock’s father said Washtock not only leaves behind a son but a daughter, as well.
“I miss the calls. I miss, ‘What’s going on?’ I miss him calling in the middle of winter and him telling me he had to turn the air conditioner up a little bit," he said.
Investigators said the leads have disappeared. No suspects have been named and no arrests have been made in the case. Anyone with information to contact the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office at 386-329-0800 or 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 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.
O’Connell’s mother, Patty O’Connell, told News4Jax in May that she was heartbroken over the death of Washtock, who she knew as Eli, saying she feels strongly Washtock was killed for investigating her daughter’s death.
News4Jax learned that Washtock made one public request of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, on Aug. 22, 2018, 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, 2018, 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.
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