Conflict over St. Augustine suicide ruling
|Geoffrey Dobson (left) and Michael Gold (right) talk while having coffee and breakfast with Henry Whetstone and retired Col. Bill Pruitt at Athena Restaurant in downtown St. Augustine on Thursday. Dobson, former St. Augustine Beach city attorney, says "when things involve families and such, they become topics of non-discussion." Daron Dean St. Augustine Record |
Conflict over St. Augustine suicide ruling unlikely to end soon
By Matt Soergel Sat, Dec 7, 2013 @ 7:38 pm
By 8 a.m. Thursday at downtown’s Athena Cafe, the Coffee Club was well into another session of free-ranging discussion and good-natured ribbing.
“All the great decisions of the world are made here,” deadpanned Herbie Wiles. “And nobody listens.”
On that morning, at the request of a visiting reporter, they shifted to a topic that had brought their hometown some national — even international — attention: A massive investigation by The New York Times and accompanying PBS “Frontline” episode.
The pieces took a critical look at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office ruling that the 2010 death of Michelle O’Connell, the 24-year-old girlfriend of a deputy, was a suicide, not a murder.
The Coffee Club, which has been meeting for at least half a century in various configurations and various breakfast joints, is usually a free-wheeling bunch. This time, they were careful.
“I don’t know what’s fact or fiction,” said Wiles, an insurance man who was a county commissioner from 1966 to 1978.
Besides, said Geoff Dobson, former St. Augustine Beach city attorney, in such a close-knit city, “when things involve families and such, they become topics of non-discussion.”
But count Henry Whetstone, founder of the chocolate company that bears his last name, among those in the county who think that the end of this hasn’t been heard: There will be more media attention, perhaps even a grand jury investigation, he said.
“There’s always two sides to it,” he said.
Those two sides are likely to keep talking in a city where the unsolved murder of wealthy socialite Athalia Ponsell Lindsley, macheted to death on her porch in 1974, still is a matter for debate.
Meanwhile, in the face of the national media coverage of O’Connell’s death, Sheriff David Shoar hasn’t budged from his insistence that O’Connell’s death was suicide.
“We’re not afraid of criticism,” Shoar said Friday. “Look, we’re an open book ... nobody can say we haven’t been transparent.”
He has a supporter in Bill Pruitt, a retired Army colonel who at 93 is the senior member of the Coffee Club.
“He’s a fine guy,” he said flatly.
Wiles, though, said Shoar isn’t universally popular: “Of all the elected officials, the sheriff — there’s very little middle ground. You either like him or you don’t.”
But when it comes to death at the center of this controversy, there’s one thing all can agree on, Wiles said. “It’s sad. It ain’t a happy time to have this going on.”
ABOUT THE CASE
The Facebook page of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office was a busy place in the days after Nov. 24’s front-page, lengthy Times article and the TV show two days later.
There were a few statements of support. They were far outnumbered, though, by outraged comments, from locals and out-of-state commentators alike.
Shoar says he understands the anger.
“Certainly the way [the article] was written, it should have created a lot of questions,” he said Friday.
O’Connell was found dead in September 2010 at the home she shared with Deputy Jeremy Banks, a sheriff’s deputy. She had a gunshot wound to the mouth; another bullet lodged in the carpet next to her. Banks said she shot herself with his semiautomatic service pistol while he was in a different room.
The death was quickly ruled a suicide, though O’Connell’s family was immediately suspicious of Banks. The deputy and Banks were in the middle of a breakup when she died.
In early 2011, Shoar asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the case. Earlier this year, though, he blasted the FDLE’s lead investigator and its top local administrator, saying Rusty Rodgers’ investigation was tainted and contained falsified information.
The FDLE agreed to look into Shoar’s complaints and is now investigating its own investigation.
In the meantime, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor, State Attorney Brad King, to review the investigation. King later closed the case, saying that evidence wasn’t there to support the prosecution of Banks for homicide.
On Friday, Shoar repeated what he had admitted earlier: His department had made mistakes in the investigation.
But he also stood by his opinion that the death was a suicide, something he also expressed in a 152-page report he has posted online.
“Everybody that has looked at this case has come to the same conclusion, with the exception of the New York Times guy and Rusty Rodgers — that it was a suicide,” he said.
Meanwhile, Banks, who had been placed on administrative leave, was returned to duty more than a year after O’Connell’s death. In November, he sued the FDLE and investigator Rodgers, saying they’d wrongly accused him.
CRITICISM OF THE SHERIFF’S OFFICE
Count St. Augustine resident Clara Waldhari among those upset about the investigation into O’Connell’s death.
“How it happened is just the most remarkable and stunningly perverse thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
It left her suspicious of the county’s law enforcement agency.
“The sheriff’s office is pretty big. It’s a whole community there, and just by virtue of what the profession is, it’s pretty insular,” she said. “They let us know what they want us to know, when they want us to know it.”
Ben Rich, a blunt-spoken former county commissioner who while in office had clashes with Shoar, called the issue a “stain” on the county — one that has spread, via the Internet, around the world.
“I really don’t know how much more the people of St. Johns County are going to put up with before they run this guy out of town, tarred and feathered, on a rail,” he said.
Rich, who spent a lifetime in law enforcement, was among the locals featured in the Times article. He said the sheriff’s investigation was bungled, badly. He expects a state or federal grand jury to investigate at some point.
Karen Sturgis, a St. Johns County resident, read The New York Times article and watched the “Frontline” report. They left her worried, though she said that, without knowing everything about the case, “an individual citizen” can’t really come to a judgment.
Still, she said, each side could benefit from more inquiry into the case.
“If it’s not suicide, then it would be homicide. That’s a pretty serious thing,” Sturgis said. “Would it not call for an outside investigation?”
Waldhari echoed that. “Come on. Somebody do the right thing,” she said. “It’s past time. Whatever the courts decide, we’ll have to live with it.”
Deputy Debra Maynard was one of the first officers to respond to the shooting. She said she thinks there’s far more to the story than the official finding of suicide.
“My mind hasn’t changed. There are just way too many things that don’t click,” she said. “There’s something rotten here. I’ve been on the receiving end of it.”
Maynard said she has been unemployed for about two years, ever since the Sheriff’s office fired her. Shoar said it was for “untruthfulness.” Maynard said it was because she wouldn’t lie for him.
She alleged that people still in the department fear speaking out about the case. “There’s a lot of good old boys in town. They know everybody or they’re related to each other, and they can tell people not to talk. Absolutely.”
Michael Gold, editor of the online Historic City News, is a St. Augustine native who in the 1970s was a St. Johns deputy.
He said some locals are worried that this will be a black eye for St. Augustine, but he doesn’t think there’s a vast hue and cry in this area about the issue.
Shoar is outgoing, friendly and generally popular, Gold said. He’s a well-known figure too.
“When you employ 600 people, and all of them have families, you have a pretty powerful network of supporters built in,” Gold said.
Shoar has been elected sheriff three times, the last two times without opposition. At 52, he has three years left in his term (on Friday, he said he had not made a decision about running again).
Bob and Dorothy Hesson, leaving Thursday’s morning Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, said they know and respect Shoar. His department, they said, is a factor in the quality of life that has made St. Johns County one of the fastest-growing counties in Florida.
They moved there, separately, in the mid-’70s, met each other and have stayed. Where else, they said on a quiet morning in the picturesque town, could they have such a life?
“There’s pride in the city,” he said. “That didn’t just happen. And that’s through the whole county.”
“It really is a community,” she said.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082