Officer named in fatal Punta Gorda citizen police academy shooting

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PUNTA GORDA, Fla.- The Punta Gorda Police Department officer involved in the shooting death of a 73-year-old woman has been identified Wednesday as K-9 Officer Lee Coel.

Coel, who is currently on administrative leave following the shooting, was recently at the center of a controversial arrest in Punta Gorda.

Mary Knowlton

Police say Mary Knowlton was shot by Coel on Tuesday during a Citizen Police Academy role-playing exercise in which Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis said authorities were “unaware” that live ammunition was available.

“We believed that the particular caliber of the weapon used, that there were only blank rounds available to the officer,” Lewis said during a news conference Wednesday afternoon, refusing to elaborate on details into the investigation.

“Mary Knowlton is a phenomenal person in this community. I know her very well. She attends a lot of community events,” Lewis added. “It’s just a horrific time for all of us.

In a statement, Punta Gorda police said Coel is “devastated” by what happened.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been asked to conduct an investigation into the incident, which is common in officer-involved shootings.

The impact of the loss of Knowlton was evident in the voice of City Manager Howard Kunik as he spoke Wednesday morning.

Knowlton, a prominent community figure who was a board member of Friends of the Punta Gorda Library, died in what Lewis called a “horrible accident.”

“We are shocked by this horrific incident and are grieving deeply for Mary’s passing,” Kunik said in a Wednesday press conference.

Kunik read the words aloud from a joint statement he issued with the City Council.

“As your city leaders, we would like to express our gratitude for your continued support during this extremely difficult time,” Kunik said. “We are mourning and missing Mary, as she was a vital member of our community.”

Role-playing scenario turns deadly

Knowlton was one of two Citizen Police Academy students chosen to participate in a “shoot/don’t shoot” role-playing situation, Punta Gorda police said.

Mary Knowlton, 73, holds a fake blue training firearm (Sue Paquin/Charlotte Sun)

The demonstration was supposed to instruct the class about making decisions “using simulated lethal force,” Lewis said.

“All I remember it being really loud and thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that to be that loud,'” said shooting witness John Wright, the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce president. “She didn’t go down straight away so there was an element that thought, ‘OK, she’s playing.’ But she wasn’t and when she turned, I could see in her eyes that this was bad, this was not going to end well. When she hit the ground, that was just when the shock factor hit us all.”

Lee Coel holds a silver revolver in a "shoot/don't shoot" demonstration
Lee Coel holds a silver revolver in a “shoot/don’t shoot” demonstration (Sue Paquin/Charlotte Sun)

She was rushed from the police department, where the class took place, to Lee Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead, the police department said.

The academy is a free eight-session course offered to as many as 35 people who are interested in learning local civics, according to Punta Gorda’s official website. The class meets biweekly on Tuesdays at different government buildings from January to May. Knowlton’s class met at the department at 5:30 p.m., according to Lt. Katie Heck.

Following Knowlton’s death, other local law enforcement agencies emphasized the regulations their officers follow in similar exercises.

“We do not have live ammunition or live weapons anywhere near the building or the room in which we’re having these scenarios or these role players at all,” said Sgt. Douglas Dever of the Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

Participants in the Lee County Sheriff’s Office citizens academy do not engage in any firearm-related activities or simulations, a sheriff’s spokesperson said.

The Cape Coral Police Department said real firearms are no longer used in a portion of the department’s academy, according to Sgt. Dana Coston.

“Citizens Police Academy used to include a ‘range day’ where participants were taught basic firearm safety in the classroom and then were taken to the gun range to actually shoot under the direct supervision of a department firearms instructor,” Coston said. “For this block of instruction, real firearms were used. However, in the last couple of years, as range time has been harder to come by with local ranges having less availability, this was taken out of the curriculum.”

Mourning a ‘saint’

In this haunting image taken minutes before her death, Mary Knowlton interacts with an officer during her Citizens Police Academy class.

Lewis, who was named the Punta Gorda police chief in March after serving in an interim capacity, called the shooting a “horrible accident.”

“Our entire police department and all of our city leaders are absolutely devastated for everyone involved in this unimaginable event,” he said in a press conference Tuesday night. “I am asking that if you pray, you pray for Mary’s husband and family and for all the officers and witnesses that involved this incident. Everyone involved is in an overwhelming state of shock and grief.”

Her son, Steven Knowlton, called it a devastating time for the family in a statement to CBS This Morning.

“My mom was a saint,” he said. “Such a tremendous loss of a wonderful human being and the best mom a kid could ever hope for.

“If you just met her and she walked into a room she, she was iconic and she lit up the room.”

Through tears, Steven Knowlton said despite the heartache, he forgives the officer involved in his mother’s death.

“I know this officer didn’t mean for this to happen. And I’m sure he’s in a living hell right now,” Steven Knowlton said. “We all forgive him. I know my mom, she’s watching me right now and I know if I didn’t forgive him she’d be angry with me.”

Mary Knowlton served as president of the library group before assuming her position on the board.

“It hit us hard and sudden and with full force. It was just a shock and our hearts are very heavy today,” said Bill McDonald, the library’s interim supervisor.

The city has arranged for free grief counseling through Tidewell Hospice, Kunik said. Anyone who wishes to take advantage of it can call Michelle Gordin at 941-979-4300.

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