On yesterday at about 10:30 a.m., the backhoe at San Lorenzo Cemetery in St Augustine was not busy digging a new grave. Instead, it returned to a grave dug five years ago for the remains of 24-year-old Michelle O’Connell who died by gunshot inside the home of her boyfriend, St Johns County Sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks.
Controversy has surrounded every aspect of this death; dividing those who believe Sheriff David Shoar when he says this is a tragic case of suicide, and those who reject that explanation saying that it was murder at the hands of a jealous, abusive, freshly-jilted boyfriend.
Sheriff Shoar admits that mistakes were made. Personnel records confirm that some members of the responding shift were reassigned and at least one demoted for their mishandling of the crime scene.
The bone of contention being whether the deputies responding to the scene were too quick to call the incident a suicide, and if the careless handling of evidence, some of which was admittedly destroyed and some of which was never collected, was the result of poor judgement or a scheme to conceal the truth surrounding O’Connell’s murder.
A review of the Death Certificate shows that the manner of death, originally unknown, was later changed to support the Sheriff’s theory of suicide. The local State Attorney, R. J. Larizza, bowed out immediately, citing his close relationship with the sheriff and his office, forcing an out-of-town prosecutor to determine the facts.
There has never been a grand jury convened and no criminal charges have ever been filed by law enforcement or the State Attorney; causing one of possibly the most nagging in the list of unanswered questions, why has none of this evidence ever been considered by anyone outside of the criminal justice system’s employment or control?
We have been in communication with Michelle O’Connell’s mother Patty, other family friends and family members, and will be learning more in an interview tomorrow with Clu Wright, the private investigator who has been helping the O’Connell family after he completed his own independent investigation into Michelle’s death about a year ago.
The private investigator, at the family’s request, is working directly with the forensic pathologist and the two forensic odonatologists whose findings will be known in the coming two-to-three weeks. Wright was present at the exhumation, during the medical examination, then at the reburial.
“The remains were inspected by a forensic pathologist and two forensic dentists,” Wright told reporters today. “The examination has provided new evidence that will definitely impact the case.” The remains and casket of Michelle O’Connell were reburied after the examination concluded yesterday, sometime between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m.
The family has received no financial support from any domestic violence group, crime victims group, or state agency to help them with the estimated $15,000 cost of this exhumation. So far, $4,161 has been raised through a “gofundme” crowdfunding web page. The account will remain online until those costs are recovered.
More details to report in tomorrow’s Historic City News.