The Punta Gorda policeman who tragically shot and killed a retired librarian when he fired real bullets — instead of blanks — at her during a citizens academy is a former Miramar officer with a troubled record, forced to resign from his job at the end of his rookie year.
Three years before the shooting that led to the death of 73-year-old Mary Knowlton on Tuesday, Lee Coel was accused twice of using excessive force and relieved of his duties before investigators found he violated department policies and was allowed to resign.
This year, he was sued in Punta Gorda after he ordered his K-9 to attack a bicyclist who was stopped for riding without a light at night, inflicting severe injuries that required surgery.
The officer’s background provides yet another twist to the death of the woman who was shot during a role-playing session in which she was a crime victim and he took the part of the “bad guy,” police said. The purpose: to help citizens learn the quick decisions that police must confront on the streets.
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“This is a horrific event for all of us,” said Punta Gorda Chief Tom Lewis during a somber news conference Wednesday. “We were unaware that there was live ammunition in the gun.”
What’s unclear is why Coel, a graduate of Broward College police academy, carried a loaded revolver during the event at the Punta Gorda citizens police academy.
Lewis said that officers typically use weapons with blanks during the teaching sessions, but could not explain why live rounds were in the chamber.
Coel, 28, has been placed on administrative leave while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates the shooting that took place at the public safety building about 7 p.m. on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to [interfere] with the FDLE investigation,” Lewis said.
The chief said Coel is “grief stricken” by the events and was with relatives on Wednesday, while state investigators continued to interview citizens and officers who witnessed the tragedy.
This is a horrific event for all of us. We were unaware that there was live ammunition in the gun.
Punta Gorda Chief Tom Lewis
At least 34 other civilians attended the class — including Knowlton’s husband, Gary — when she and another class member joined in the session with Coel.
The sessions are held on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, according to the city’s website, and are limited to 35 people at a time.
At first, class members thought she was just acting when she collapsed, but soon realized she was bleeding. The victim’s son, Steve Knowlton, tearfully told reporters “they pulled her over and realized she was shot up pretty good.”
She was rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
The shooting of the career librarian stunned the quiet community of 17,000, where Knowlton moved several years ago with her husband.
For Knowlton, who served on the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library Board, the citizens academy was a way to learn the intricacies of police work in a safe setting.
Friends described her as an outgoing woman who actively supported an organization for foster children and often baked and cooked for them, according to the News Press in Fort Myers. A former homecoming queen in Minnesota, she and her husband had been married more than 50 years.
“She was passionate [but] she was never mean-spirited, never catty,” Katie Mazzi, a close friend, told the paper. “She was honestly one of the kindest, most decent human beings I ever met.”
On Wednesday morning, city leaders issued a statement calling her “a beloved member of the Punta Gorda community,” adding that her death left a profound impact “on the other participants who were present during this tragedy.”
Lewis did not provide details of the shooting, nor could he explain the safety precautions that were in place during the “shoot/don’t shoot” exercise.
In a news release, police said Coel, who was hired by the department in March, 2014, had been actively taking part in the role-playing scenarios with residents.
In his application to Punta Gorda two years ago, Coel said he had spent 14 months as a Miramar police officer, assigned to high-crime areas. During a nine-month stretch, he said he was responsible for 100 arrests.
Along the way, he encountered problems. He was stripped of his badge and gun in April 2013 after two excessive force complaints were filed against him, he said. A week later, he said, he was given the opportunity to resign.
Coel said in his application to Punta Gorda that he was cleared of the excessive force complaints although investigators determined he violated two department policies. Records from the Miramar police were not immediately available Wednesday.
A year and a half after he joined Punta Gorda, Coel ran into a problem when he encountered a shoeless, shirtless man on a bicycle at night with no lights.
He ordered Richard Schumacher to stop, but the man kept riding until he finally reached a driveway. By then, Coel said the defendant had failed to obey numerous warnings to stop.
A dashcam video showed Schumacher cursed at him and flailed his arms. Coel’s report said the man appeared to come at him, but that is not clear in the video, which is posted on YouTube.
Finally, Coel triggered the automatic release in the patrol car that allowed Spirit, his K-9, to lunge toward Schumacher.
For nearly two minutes, the dog tore into the defendant, 26, gnawing into his right side under his arm as the man screamed in agony. He was taken to the hospital, where he spent nearly two weeks undergoing surgery and treatment.
Ultimately, he was given a warning for riding a bike without lights and was charged with driving under the influence on a bicycle, fleeing and attempting to elude a police officer, a probation violation, and obstructing an officer without violence.
Scott Weinberg, an attorney who represents Schumacher, said Coel went far beyond what was necessary in turning his K-9 loose on an unarmed suspect.
“He was riding without lights on his bike,” he said. “What he did to my client is criminal. The dog ate part of his armpit muscle. He should have been fired immediately.”
The police department hired an outside expert to review the incident, and determined the use of force was justified because of Schumacher’s repeatedly not obeying the officer’s commands.
However, as a result of the incident, police changed their policies in using K-9s, raising the threshold so that suspects must now show “aggressive resistance” before turning a dog loose.
Experts struggled to understand how the fatal shooting of Mary Knowlton could happen. Ray Soccoro, director of the School of Justice at Miami Dade College, said the simulated exercises should only be carried out with rubber guns.
“Safety has to be paramount,” said the one-time Miami police commander and training officer.
For Steve Knowlton, memories are all that remain of a woman who was the center of his life. “This has killed our family,” he told WINK news. “I don’t know if I can ever get over this.”