Punta Gorda, FL — In August 2016, Punta Gorda police officer Lee Coel gunned down 73-year-old Mary Knowlton in front of dozens of stunned onlookers, during a demonstration about police use of deadly force. More than six months passed while law enforcement conducted their investigation and Coel has now been charged, finally.
In a landmark move, Punta Gordo Police Chief Tom Lewis, who adamantly defended his deadly negligent officer, was also charged. Coel has been charged with manslaughter, a first-degree felony, and Lewis charged with culpable negligence, a second-degree misdemeanor, according to State Attorney Steve Russell.
According to WINK News, Coel turned himself in and was arrested. He’s posted $5,000 bond and was released from the Charlotte County Jail at around 3 p.m.
Lewis will not be arrested but was given a summons to appear in court April 5. He said after the shooting that he had no intention of resigning but vowed to make changes to department procedures.
Last August, Mary Knowlton signed up to be a student in the citizen police academy hosted by the Punta Gorda Police Department, intended to show residents of the small town why and how officers do what they do.
After the group of 35 participants toured the police station and spoke with officers — a popular public relations tactic used by departments across the country amid the epidemic of police violence — Knowlton and another person decided to volunteer for a demonstration.
To illustrate how and when officers decide to use lethal force, the officer had the two students role-play a scenario putting citizens in cops’ shoes.
According to Charlotte Sun photographer, Sue Paquin, who was there to cover the event, Knowlton played the role of a victim, while the officer played “bad guy.”
Such a simulation would ordinarily not pose any danger to participants, as weapons would either be fake or empty.
Not this time.
When the officer fired, live ammunition hit Knowlton — several times.
The elderly wife and mother was promptly rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital, but was pronounced dead.
“I’ve been saying for months that this guy was going to kill somebody and now he has killed somebody,” attorney Scott Weinberg said of Coel during a telephone interview with Photography is Not a Crime last year.
“Everybody had been put on notice that he was a loose cannon, that he should not have had a badge and a gun. The city, the state attorney and the police department knew he was not mentally fit to serve the public.”
As the Free Thought Project previously reported, Coel had no business being there that day, much less possessing a badge.
According to WINK, Coel received two excessive force complaints as a rookie officer with Miramar police in 2012. One was for pulling a handcuffed man by the ankles from the back of his police vehicle, and the other was for nearly suffocating a suspect by turning the heat on high and not rolling down the windows, according to media reports.
He was forced to resign from his job.
Punta Gordo Police Chief Tom Lewis knew of Coel’s trouble and accepted him anyway, something 20 other law enforcement agencies refused to do.
After only a short time on the Punta Gorda Police Department, Coel was captured on his own dashcam forcing his K9 to maul an unarmed and surrendering man for riding his bicycle with no lights.
Because the man was in a diminished mental state, he was not complying precisely and as quickly as Coel demanded, so he released his dog. For the next several minutes, the dog tore into the man as he screams in agony.
About one minute into the mauling, in between shouts of “Stop Resisting,” officer Coel tells the dog, “Good boy,” as it tears the man’s flesh from his arm.
The officer continues to yell at the man to stop resisting as if someone can simply lay calmly as a dog tears a hole in them.
Finally, Coel stops the attack; only after the scene begins to resemble a horror movie. As other officers arrive, the man lays on the ground, covered in his own blood and bleeding out.
When other officers see how badly injured he is, they had to call in for a helicopter to medivac him to the nearest hospital.
Coel was never disciplined for the gruesome and torturous act above. However, he was sued by the victim. He was also sued by the family of Knowlton and the taxpayers were held liable for the sum of $2 million in November — although no amount of money could possibly take away the pain of losing your loved one to the barrel of a public servant’s gun.
On Thursday, the department announced that Chief Lewis is now on paid administrative leave.