Private eye: New evidence raises questions in O'Connell's death

Death ruled suicide, but some family members insist she was murdered

By Scott Johnson - Reporter , Francine Frazier - Senior web editor

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - New developments are coming to light in one of the most controversial cases in St. Johns County history.

Tuesday, family members of Michelle O'Connell are holding a news conference to share what they say is new information in her case.

Tuesday is the fourth anniversary of O'Connell's death, which was ruled a suicide. But some members of her family insist she was murdered by her boyfriend, St. Johns County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jeremy Banks.

The family's attorney, Benjamin Crump, said a new witness has come forward in O'Connell's death but would not give any more details.

Private investigator Clu Wright told News4Jax he has serious questions about evidence that he said was tossed aside in the initial investigation.

He said earlier this year, after requests from some associates in St. Johns County, he began looking into O'Connell's death and spent months compiling a 92-page report.

"When I started pulling public records requests and started getting a lot of stuff from Florida Department of Law Enforcement, I came across some crime scene pictures and during those crime scene pictures I found a shirt that was laying on the bed, just above Michelle O'Connell's head," Wright said.

O'Connell was found on the floor by a futon bed, and the shirt, Wright said, was just above her head and appears to have blood and gunshot residue on it and a possible bullet hole.

"Now, can I tell for sure if it's a bullet hole (from the picture)? No I can't," Wright said. "But I did take it over to the medical examiner in St. Johns County as new evidence."

He said that piece of evidence was discarded in the original investigation, but it could be significant, particularly when combined with an interview FDLE conducted with Banks. Wright said one excerpt of that interview, which is included in his report, strongly suggests the way O'Connell's body was found had been tampered with.

Here's the excerpt: "Agent Rodgers asks J. Banks if he agrees that the location of the gun could not have fallen in the position found and forensic experts have stated the gun was staged or placed. Agent Rodgers goes on to say, "Do you agree?" J. Banks replied (uh huh). Agent Rodgers asked J. Banks, "Do you see the logic in that?" (Banks responds, "Yes") and "Do you agree with that, though?" Banks responds again (Yes, by shaking his head).

"I think it's a mismanagement of the case," Wright said. "I think it's an injustice, because when you go in to investigate a case, no matter what type of investigation you do, it's a systematic process. And you have to rule out any criminal intent to that case."

Wright is also looking at other issues, like pictures showing a black medical glove on the hood of Banks' patrol car. Wright said that car also had a box of black medical gloves in the back, and detectives never tested to see if they were the same type of gloves.

"It's not about my review and analysis into this case. It's about the evidence," Wright said. "It's about the evidence getting submitted and getting looked at."

Questions had already been raised during the initial investigation about Banks' actions the night O'Connell died. In another picture, Banks' gun holster can be seen in the kitchen.

Wright said he will be in St. Johns County on Tuesday for the announcement on the case by the family's lawyers, but he's not sure what that announcement will be.

"You probably could have somebody that's guilty also that's out there roaming the streets, because if this evidence wasn't looked at and the whole circumstance wasn't looked at as far as the evidence that was collected, how can you come to a conclusion and say it was suicide?" Wright asked.

At Tuesday's news conference, O'Connell's family also plans to have a petition calling for Gov. Rick Scott to re-open an inquest into her death. The petition has more than 173,000 signatures.

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