ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- The death of the girlfriend of a St Johns County Sheriff's deputy in 2010 was a murder, not a suicide, according to an attorney for the family of Michelle O'Connell.
The family's attorney, Janet Johnson, tells First Coast News that an independent pathologist examined O'Connell's remains after her body was exhumed earlier this year.
Johnson says this new information from the third autopsy will be sent to the State Medical Review Board.
O’Connell is the St. Johns County mother who was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head in 2010. Her family has always maintained her death was a homicide and blamed her then-boyfriend, Sheriff’s Deputy Jeremy Banks.
Banks has always maintained his innocence.
First Coast News first reported O’Connell’s story in 2012, but it was later picked up by several national news outlets, including Dateline and a joint investigation by The New York Times and Frontline.
O’Connell’s mother Patty O’Connell confirmed to First Coast News that Michelle's body was exhumed in January by private investigator Clue Wright. Wright previously investigated the handling of the case, which had already resulted in internal investigations by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and admissions by Sheriff David Shoar that mistakes were made. The case also yielded the suspension of FDLE veteran investigator Rusty Rodgers, who remains on leave pending that agency’s probe.
Patty O’Connell said the decision to exhume her daughter was “hard,” but notes she wanted to do it from the beginning, in hopes that further investigation would help the family find “justice.”
Last summer, a third special prosecutor’s investigation found there is no probable cause to suspect O'Connell was murdered.
After the results were released this weekend, Sheriff Shoar released a lengthy statement on the Sheriff's Office Facebook, saying, among other things, that molesting O'Connell's body "from her place of rest and using some freelance type approach is beyond unconventional, it was reprehensible."
In response, Johnson released a statement on behalf of O'Connell's family:
Today is the first step in realizing Justice for Michelle O'Connell. While we were hopeful for the process, it was disappointing that Sheriff Shoar has created controversy over what is an independent investigation, and his statement politicizes the death of a young woman whose family still grieves over the loss of their daughter, sister, and mother. The family is seeking answers and justice to which all citizens are entitled, in which Sheriff Shoar's office is sworn to uphold. Publicly ridiculing the actions of honored law enforcement officers and verified experts with years of experience is counterproductive.
These experts donated their time and resources to seek the truth of what happened the night of September 2nd, 2010.
Dr. William Anderson, a Pathologist with the Orange County Medical Examiner's Office for thirteen years, wrote a report that speaks volumes to the mistakes made in the previous investigation and most importantly finally sheds light on Michelle's exact cause of death.
The O'Connell family is thankful that he completed this report without compensation. The next step in this process is for a review of the new finding by the Medical Examiners Board of the State of Florida.
The entire O'Connell family has faith in the criminal justice system.