NY Times investigates death of St. Johns County deputy's girlfriend

Family believes suicide victim's boyfriend - a deputy - was involved in her death

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Jeremy Banks and Michelle O'Connell

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - A New York Times and PBS' Frontline investigation into the 2010 shooting death of a St. Augustine woman with a St. Johns County deputy's gun reported on procedural problems in the Sheriff's Office, accusations of fabricated evidence and the victim's family still  unconvinced of the official cause of death: suicide.

The Times' report on the death of 24-year-old Michelle O'Connell and any possible involvement by her boyfriend, Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Banks, was in Sunday's newspaper and the Frontline broadcast will air Tuesday night on WJCT.

While three medical examiners agreed that O'Connell's death was a suicide, some family members continue to believe Banks had some involvement in her death.

The Sheriff's Office admitted mistakes in its investigation and a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent was accused of fabricating evidence to convince family members it was a homicide.

The Times' reported that detectives were so certain O'Connell's death was a suicide that they never tested the forensic evidence collected at the scene. Nor did they interview her family and friends, who told reporters that she was ecstatic over a new full-time job with benefits, including health insurance for her daughter.

When the family continued to press the sheriff for more answers, David Shoar asked the FDLE to examine the case. State investigators found two neighbors who said they had heard a woman screaming for help that night, followed by gunshots.

While a special prosecutor appointed by Gov. Rick Scott decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, the FDLE asked for a special inquest into the death. 

Shoar, who very publicly supported his deputy during the investigation and has pushed back against the FDLE, told The Times in a written statement, "This case has been and always will be a suicide."

Earlier this month, Deputy Banks, who is back on the job, sued the agent, Rusty Rodgers, and the FDLE.

Banks' lawyers claim at one point, Rodgers briefly placed Banks under arrest without probable cause of legal authority, but then told Banks he was free to go.

Banks' lawyers say Rodgers "engaged in egregious and repeated misconduct... fabricating evidence and communicating falsehoods to witnesses."

The lawsuit also accuses Rodgers of falsifying information to obtain a search warrant of Banks' home, and trying to influence the medical examiner to change his ruling from suicide to homicide.

COURT DOCUMENT: Deputy Jeremy Banks' complaint against FDLE

Banks' attorney, Mac McLeod, said his client is ready for this to be over, but he also wants an understanding as to why Rodgers tried to get Banks convicted of a crime that no one committed.

"You can have your theories about the case. What you can't do is make up facts purposely in order to get someone prosecuted for a crime they didn't do," McLeod said.

FDLE suspended Rodgers, and its internal investigation is ongoing.

As for the lawsuit, McLeod said, "They'll find that not only was my client absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing of this, but also the behavior and conduct exhibited of this agent went far beyond the bounds of lawfulness."

McLeod said O'Connell's brother, Scott O'Connell, also plans to file a suit against Rodgers and the FDLE. McLeod said he's ready to bring his client the justice he deserves.

"If this can happen to a police officer, a deputy sheriff, imagine what could happen to someone without the resources and knowledge to contest this," McLeod said. "It's a very scary thing."

McLeod said Rodgers and the FDLE will have a couple of weeks to file a response to the lawsuit before the trial can begin.

Meanwhile, McLeod said Banks is happy to be back at work. His dad died in the line of duty, so serving as a deputy is his life ambition.

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