Lawsuit Dismissed Against Florida Agent in Michelle O’Connell Investigation
In 2010, Michelle O’Connell, a 24-year-old mother of one, was found dead in the home of her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a sheriff’s deputy in St. Augustine, Florida. At first, the death was ruled a suicide, but when new evidence emerged raising questions about the cause of death, a state law enforcement official began reinvestigating the shooting.
The sheriff, David Shoar of St. John’s County, went on the offensive against the official, Rusty Rodgers of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and Banks filed a lawsuit. In public and in the lawsuit, they argued that the Rodgers investigation violated Banks’s civil rights.
But late last week, in the latest twist in the seven-year saga around O’Connell’s death, a federal judge dismissed that case, ruling that Rodgers had probable cause to investigate whether Banks shot O’Connell as she was preparing to leave him.
The death of O’Connell rocked the seaside town of St. Augustine, and raised broader questions about how police departments investigate allegations of domestic violence involving their own officers. The circumstances surrounding her death, and the investigations that followed it were the focus of a 2013 investigation by FRONTLINE and The New York Times, A Death in St. Augustine.
On Friday, federal judge Brian J. Davis ruled that Rodgers had acted legally in his investigation. “Neither the arguments nor questions of fact considered in their totality persuade the Court that there has been a reckless disregard for the truth,” Davis wrote in his decision. “Rather, the Court finds that a reasonable officer from the facts known at the time of Deputy Banks’ detention would have probable cause for homicide.”
Davis did not rule on whether the death was a suicide or homicide, but instead focused on the manner in which Rodgers conducted his investigation. In his complaint, Banks alleged that Rodgers had unlawfully detained and arrested him, provided false and misleading information to a state court to obtain search warrants, made offensive statements about him to O’Connell’s family and coached witnesses.
In the immediate aftermath of O’Connell’s death, Shoar’s office concluded that she killed herself with Banks’s service weapon. But the investigation raised red flags, and O’Connell’s family became suspicious. Family members and friends told FRONTLINE she was planning her future with her then four-year-old daughter, Alexis, and wasn’t suicidal. No suicide note was ever found.
“I was told that Michelle killed herself, and I knew that — I said, ‘That’s not Michelle’ because Michelle loved Alexis and she never would have left her!” Patty O’Connell, her mother, told FRONTLINE.
The family also said that as her relationship progressed with Banks, he became increasingly controlling. Banks has denied ever harming O’Connell, but in an interview 12 days after her death with Detective Jessica Hines, a colleague, he acknowledged that, “towards the end, we were arguing all the time.” Banks remains on the force.
After four months of pressure from members of the O’Connell family — who were never interviewed by the sheriff’s department before declaring the death a suicide — Shoar asked for a new investigation to be done by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The statewide agency is often called in when there’s a potential conflict of interest.
Rodgers was the investigator and determined that the sheriff had inadequately handled the case, based on findings like the accounts from two neighbors who said they heard a woman crying for help followed by a blast of gunshots. The sheriff’s office did not interview neighbors and no charges were ever brought against Banks.
Throughout the investigation, Shoar remained steadfast that O’Connell’s cause of death was a suicide, and continued to support Banks. During an annual meeting in 2013, he rallied behind Banks, telling his staff, “We had people that responded that night to that scene, and you know, they were right that night and they’re still right. This guy right here came so damn close to being charged with homicide, based on nothing, absolutely nothing!”
Shoar tried to discredit the two neighbors — alleging, among other things, that they were regular marijuana smokers and couldn’t recall if they had been smoking the night of her death. He also hired two former law enforcement officers, including an acquaintance, to review Rodgers’s findings. They both agreed the investigation was flawed, and Rodgers was put on paid leave.
The St. Johns County Sherriff’s Office declined to comment on the judge’s decision, saying they were not involved with the lawsuit. An attorney for Banks, Mac McLeod, said he and his client are currently deciding whether or not to appeal.
“Obviously, we are disappointed in the decision,” McLeod said.