Family, friends grapple with Punta Gorda Citizens Academy shooting

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PUNTA GORDA, Fla. — Struggling with the memory of seeing his wife of 55 years fatally shot in front of him, Gary Knowlton said he believes there was no “ill intent,” but a “series of errors” that led to his wife’s death.

maryknowlton“I just can’t believe she’s gone … but I have to learn to live with that,” Knowlton said, holding back tears while speaking of his wife, 73-year-old Mary Knowlton. “I was standing 10 feet away from her when the guy shot her.”

Gary Knowlton said his wife volunteered to participate in the “shoot/don’t shoot” demonstration gone wrong that ultimately claimed her life Tuesday during a Punta Gorda Citizens Police Academy class.

“I didn’t sleep the whole first night and cried a lot,” he said.

He said he’s trying to follow his late wife’s example of forgiveness as he grieves.

“I’ve learned that I can’t control that stuff and I know there was no ill intent, just mistakes.”

Despite the heartache, Gary Knowlton said, “if I hold a grudge against them, it’s only gonna hurt me cause in the long run I’ll just sit there and suffer with my torment.”

Few details as investigation continues

tomlewisWhatever the fallout from the Citizens Police Academy shooting that killed 73-year-old Mary Knowlton, police chief Tom Lewis said it should come down on him.

Lewis made it clear during a Thursday morning press conference that he accepts blame for Tuesday’s death of a beloved community figure. Knowlton was taking part in a gun demonstration to learn more about police tactics even though it was K-9 Officer Lee Coel who pulled the trigger, police said.

“As your chief of police, I accept full responsibility for the actions of my department, my officers, and the bottom line is I am 100 percent accountable,” Lewis said.

Lewis read from a prepared statement and declined to take questions. He’s unlikely to publicly address the matter again until the completion of a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, which is expected to take two to four weeks, he said.

The police department identified Coel as the shooter Wednesday. He’s on administrative leave and was already under fire in the wake of a controversial arrest in Punta Gorda that’s sparked a civil lawsuit.

Police said Coel shot Knowlton during a role-playing exercise in which 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 Wednesday.

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

Coel participated in at least three Citizen Police Academy classes before the shooting incident, Punta Gorda police said.

What went wrong?

Part of FDLE’s investigation will seek to determine why live ammunition was present in a weapon meant for demonstration purposes only.

“This is obviously the absolutely worst thing that could happen for everyone involved, and is something that we would never want to happen again. Once we can identify why and how this happened, I can assure you we will address those issues,” said Lt. Katie Heck, Punta Gorda police spokesperson.

Still, some are saying the police department’s neglect in dealing specifically with the officer involved, despite his checkered past, resulted in the tragic death.

“The police chief, the City Council, everybody was on notice when that K-9 video was released. Everybody knew this man was dangerous, and they let him keep his badge and his gun,” attorney Scott Weinberg said.

Weinberg is the attorney behind the civil lawsuit against Coel in a violent arrest caught on camera in October 2015.

“They dropped the ball on this one,” Weinberg said. “They knew Officer Coel was a problem from the second they hired him, after the video was released, they knew that he was over aggressive, he didn’t have the right temperament to be a police officer, and now he killed somebody.”

Chief Lewis issued a statement in response to Weinberg’s accusations:

“I am saddened that this opportunistic civil attorney is making public statements that are solely meant to serve his personal interests. As we continue to determine all of the facts of what exactly happened, I plan to continue to lead and stand by the men and women of the Punta Gorda Police Department through this unimaginable tragedy.”

Knowlton’s son said he doesn’t believe Coel intended to fire live ammunition and said he forgives him, but at least one gun expert has raised doubts that real bullets could have made their way into the classroom setting without some sort of malice.

“It was 100 percent preventable and intentional acts had to be done in order to bring about what occurred,” said Alecs Dean, the owner of International Firearm Safety Inc., a gun training company in Fort Myers.

Knowlton generous with time, heart

Knowlton, who served as president and later a board member of the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library, was a frequent attendee of community events and well-known among city leaders.

She was also active at the Bread of Life Mission, a religion-based homeless shelter at 6454 Scott St., where she embraced strangers at the lowest moments of their lives.

“I didn’t speak. I spent eight years in the woods and people scared me so I sat in a corner over there behind that building and I didn’t talk to anybody. Miss Mary was the first person to come over and say, ‘Like it or not, you’re getting a hug,'” shelter manager Francis Coutts said.

Those close to Knowlton loved her as well. Neighbors said she went out of her way to shower them with love. Rusty Pray called Knowlton “a lovely lady.”

“Mary and her husband Gary actually threw a welcome party for us at their home, so she made my wife Sandy and I very welcome,” he said. “She was a lovely, lovely lady.”

Nancy Staub, program director at the Florida Gulf Coast University Office of Continuing Education in Punta Gorda, where Knowlton was enrolled in several classes, had no idea she would see her friend for the last time just hours before the shooting.

“As she walked out the door I said ‘Hey! I’ll see you next Tuesday!’ And she turned around as she always did and said ‘Yep!'” Staub recalled holding back tears. “And out the door she went and it closed behind her.”

Heartbroken by the news of her death, Staub set up a memorial for Knowlton outside the building.

“My heart just hurt and then I realized there was an upside. I did get to see Mary on Tuesday, I did get to talk to her, I did get to touch her arm and have our private joke. And that will always stay with me.”

The Friends of Punta Gorda library organization is now looking to create a lasting memorial for Knowlton, for her years of service to the library and the city, by devoting time to finding the best way to honor her.

“With it being such a tragedy, I think they should name the new library after her,” Jeanette Chambers said.

The group is collecting donations, hoping Knowlton will be remembered for her legacy with the library rather than her tragic death.

“We stand strong here in Punta Gorda,” Ryan Eckenberger said. “We stay together and I think it would be a great gesture to the family and the community to have her remembrance here.”

Mary Knowlton’s funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16 at the First United Methodist Church in Fort Myers.

Grief counseling is available free of charge through Tidewell Hospice, city officials said. A session will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 17 in the community room at Laishley Park Municipal Marina, 120 Laishley Court, Lewis said. Free counseling is also available by calling 941-979-4300 and asking for Michelle Gordin.

Highs then lows in officer’s past

The man who pulled the trigger was a once-eager officer who performed well as a rookie. Other officers said he was a “proactive officer and the most productive statistically, making several narcotics and DUI arrests,” according to his personnel files.

He began his career in 2012 at the Miramar Police Department on the east coast, but in less than a year he resigned after the department concluded that he violated policy. Coel turned off the air conditioner and rolled up windows of his patrol car while a man was handcuffed in his back seat, according to internal affair documents.

Video shows Coel then removing the man from the car by yanking him by the ankles.

Coel wrote on an application that he had always dreamed of becoming a K-9 handler. He joined the Punta Gorda police force in March 2014 and his dream came true. But months later, he would yet again become embroiled in conflict.

A man said he was nearly killed when Coel ordered his K-9 officer to take him down during a traffic stop. Richard Shumacher was riding a bike when Coel pulled him over and ordered him to get down on the ground. An independent expert hired by PGPD determined Coel’s use of force was justified due to Schumacher’s repeated non-compliance and possible threatening gestures.

Chief Lewis expressed his support for Coel’s actions, but the department quickly modified its K-9 policy in the wake of the encounter.

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