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Former Punta Gorda officer to appeal his termination

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PUNTA GORDA, Fla. A former Punta Gorda police officer involved in the citizens academy shooting is challenging his termination, according to a letter sent March 16 to City Manager Howard Kunik.

Officer Lee Coel was charged with first-degree felony manslaughter and is accused of shooting and killing retired librarian Mary Knowlton, 73, during a training exercise. Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis was charged with culpable negligence, a second-degree misdemeanor, and placed on paid administrative leave.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement report determined Coel didn’t intend to kill Knowlton.

“The issue then becomes based on what the state has charged, that the conduct has got to be willful, wanton and reckless,” said Coel’s lawyer, Fort Lauderdale-based attorney Alvin Entin. I think the FDLE report and the other documents I’ve read clearly indicate that nobody is suggesting that Mr. Coel did anything willful or wanton.”

Entin referred to the shooting an “honest mistake.”

“Somebody died, and if the conduct was reckless, it’s the appropriate charge, but the conduct has to be reckless,” Entin said. “Not all accidents that occur are necessarily reckless.”

The bullets Coel loaded into his gun had the same look, feel and weight as blanks, Entin said. The FDLE determined that the inability of Coel and others in the department to distinguish the bullets from blanks led to Knowlton’s death.

Coel, who was playing a suspect in the training exercise, used his personal weapon, a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, instead of his department-issued handgun, the FDLE report said. The blanks and lethal bullets are “similar in shape and size,” but neither resembled the bullets used in Coel’s service weapon, according to the FDLE.

Coel was placed on paid administrative leave following the shooting and was fired on March 9. He was given 10 business days to request an appeal hearing and did so in the letter to Kunik. It’s unclear when the hearing will take place.

A letter that Punta Gorda Human Resources Manager Philip Wickstrom sent to Coel explaining the decision to fire him said Coel failed “to take appropriate and reasonable steps to ensure the safety of Mary Knowlton” and “to ensure that no live ammunition was used during the exercise.”

“I’m concerned when an officer gets terminated based on a simple charge, which is nothing more than a charge and there’s been no finding by any court that he did anything wrong,” Entin said.

The shooting wasn’t the first controversial incident in Coel’s law enforcement career, but Entin insists that shouldn’t be a factor when he stands trial in the Knowlton case.

“I don’t think the jury will hear a word about it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s relevant, it’s not material and it has nothing to do with whether or not he acted recklessly on that day.”