St. Johns County Sheriff speaks about controversial death investigation

New York Times report, PBS documentary raise questions

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. - For the first time since a controversial case got some national attention, St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar spoke to Channel 4 one-on-one Tuesday.

Shoar opened up about the case of Michelle O'Connell, a woman whose 2010 death was first ruled a suicide and then questioned. At the time, she was dating Deputy Jeremy Banks.

The New York Times produced a scathing report this past weekend, and a highly anticipated documentary is on PBS' Frontline, both of which raised serious questions about the investigation.

The sheriff didn't really want to talk about the article. He said the reporters have a right to say what they want. But Shoar said he'd talk about the case openly because he was confident that this was not a murder.

"This has been a long and complex case, and we have been transparent from the beginning," Shoar said.

He said he stands by his department's findings that O'Connell took her own life and Banks had no part in it.

"The victim in this case died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and a law enforcement officer, one of our deputies, almost wound up getting charged for a crime not only that he did not commit, but did not ever occur due to the actions of a rogue (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) agent," Shoar said.

UNCUT: Interview with Sheriff David Shoar

Shoar is very critical of the FDLE's investigation, one the sheriff requested a few months after O'Connell died. He said Special Agent Rusty Rodgers was appointed to look into it, got the facts wrong, and convinced family members and agents that they were dealing with a homicide.

"This has been a difficult case," Shoar said. "There were a lot of people, including myself, that had doubts along the way, but we didn't find out until along the way we're basing them on just a bogus information."

The Sheriff's Office has been criticized by many for its handling of the case involving its own deputy. Banks was suspended with pay for more than a year as they investigated. This week, the scrutiny grew nationally when the New York Times published a long-form, and some would say scathing article raising doubts about the already-closed case being called a suicide.

Tuesday morning, one of the newspaper's reporters talked to Channel 4 news partner WJCT's First Coast Connect.

"Well, there are many aspects that were very intriguing, demanded more scrutiny from media, which had not been given much scrutiny," New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich said. "Particularly since the case involves some issues that were of more broadly of interest. How can a police agency investigate one of its own, particularly when it involves domestic violence?"

Shoar admitted his agency made a lot of mistakes and there are things that don't necessarily add up, but he absolutely stands by his findings.

"The gun that didn't have any fingerprints that Mr. Banks had. The extra shot. The cut above her eye. And the neighbors who said they heard something?" Channel 4's Vic Micolucci asked.

"You know, you could take any little piece and wiggle it around, but at the end of the day, we look at the entire pictures and all the evidence: It's a suicide," Shoar said. "And it's sad. It really and truly is. But I believe as much on this case as I have on any other. And again we have no reason not to."

A special prosecutor found no probable cause a crime was committed, and now the FDLE is conducting its own internal investigation into Rodgers' actions. He's been placed on administrative leave.

Banks has filed suit against Rodgers and the FDLE. A spokeswoman for FDLE said she couldn't comment Tuesday because its investigation is still ongoing.

O'Connell's mother and brother used to work at the Sheriff's Office. Her mother no longer does. Her brother was fired after a heated argument, but was rehired and is once again a deputy.

According to the New York Times, that has caused a rift in the family. Channel 4 was unable to contact the family.

The Sheriff's Office has posted hundreds of pages of documents on its website about the case.

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