Michelle O’Connell, a single mom who worked at a daycare center, was found dead in 2010 of a gunshot wound to the head in her boyfriend’s St. Augustine, Florida home. But did she really commit suicide – or was it murder?
That question will be explored by “20/20” on August 23, 2019 at 10 p.m. EDT on ABC. Michelle’s boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, found her and called 911. “Please get someone to my house!” Banks told the 911 operator. “Please. Send — my girlfriend, I think she just shot herself. There’s blood everywhere!”
What prompted questions that divided the Florida community: As Banks was a sheriff’s deputy, the case raised immediate concerns about conflicts of interest that have lingered to this day. His agency was first to the scene and quick to call it suicide. Banks has consistently denied wrongdoing and has never been arrested nor charged in the case.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Michelle O’Connell Was Raising Her 4-year-old Daughter
O’Connell had a lot to live for; namely, she was the single mother to a daughter, Alexis, 4. Her death was ruled her death a suicide, but family members didn’t think Michelle would leave behind her little girl.
“The word suicide was thrown around right off the bat without any investigation,” her sister Chrissy O’Connell told “20/20.” There is now a Facebook page called Justice for Michelle O’Connell.
“I was told that Michelle killed herself, and I knew that — I said, ‘That’s not Michelle’ because Michelle loved Alexis and she never would have left her!” Patty O’Connell, her mother, told Frontline.
An exhaustive New York Times profile on the case called Michelle a “doting mother.”
According to the Times, though, after outcry provoked an independent investigation, it led “the medical examiner to revise his opinion from suicide to homicide, a conclusion shared by the crime reconstruction expert hired by state investigators.” However, the governor’s special investigator found that there “was insufficient evidence to prosecute,” the Times added.
2. O’Connell Had Just Landed Her Dream Job
According to ABC News, another thing going right for Michelle O’Connell was her employment status. She had landed what the network calls a dream job at a daycare center.
In 2017, Jacksonville.com wrote, “The case has since been reviewed by multiple medical examiners and remains classified as a suicide. At least two special prosecutors have also reviewed the case and said there is not enough evidence to bring charges against Banks.”
In 2019, Daily Beast reported that Banks, who remained a deputy, has an attorney who told the publication the death “ruined his life” because neighbors “walk up and down the street at 2:00 at night and will scream at him, ‘murderer.’”
According to the New York Times, though, O’Connell’s family felt rebuffed by authorities early on and “detectives were so certain in their judgment that they never tested the forensic evidence collected after the shooting. Nor did they interview her family and friends, who would have told them that she was ecstatic over a new full-time job with benefits, including health insurance for her daughter.”
3. O’Connell’s Mom Has Never Given Up Hope in Finding Justice
Michelle’s mom, Patty O’Connell, frequently writes on the Justice for Michelle O’Connell Facebook page. “Thank you to the visitors to my daughter’s grave. Our family appreciates your kindness…Many people are so loving and that truly means so much,” she wrote in one comment.
She has written about her quest for justice, saying, “I am praising God for Justice for All Victims…and for Justice all victims of political coverup…Keep you eyes on Him keep marching for Justice…”
Over the years, major news organizations have raised questions about the forensic evidence in the case. They include the New York Times, which reported that there are questions “about issues of forensic evidence, including whether a cut above Ms. O’Connell’s right eye was a defensive wound, a possible sign of a struggle before the fatal shot. Crime scene photos showed the gun by Ms. O’Connell’s left hand, though she was right-handed. No blood was found on the gun, nor did it have any DNA or fingerprints from Mr. Banks, who had worn his gun belt on his previous shift.”
In 2016, Patty allowed her daughter’s body to be exhumed, and it was discovered that Michelle had a cracked jaw, the Times reports.
4. Michelle Died From a Bullet in Banks’ Service Weapon
The family’s claims of political coverup stem from the fact that Michelle’s boyfriend was a sheriff’s deputy with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. That office was involved in the initial death investigation, according to CBS News, but eventually the Florida governor, Rick Scott, ordered an independent investigation. It found that “the evidence didn’t support the claim that her death was a homicide,” CBS reported.
In addition, Frontline reported, she died from a bullet fired by Banks’ service weapon.
That investigation sparked a legal battle however; Banks filed suit against Rusty Rodgers of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, according to Frontline.
A federal judge, however, dismissed Banks’ case, ruling that Rodgers “had probable cause to investigate whether Banks shot O’Connell as she was preparing to leave him,” Frontline reported. The judge didn’t determine whether Michelle died of homicide or suicide.
Banks denied harming O’Connell but told authorities “towards the end, we were arguing all the time,” Frontline reported. The New York Times reported that she died from a gunshot wound to the mouth. However, there were two shots fired. A “second bullet had burrowed into the carpet by her right arm,” The Times reported, adding that there was evidence Banks had been drinking that night.
Banks’ stepfather was a deputy sheriff in another county, and he immediately began receiving support from colleagues, The Times reported, adding that Banks’ story at the scene was that O’Connell “had broken up with him and was packing to move out when she shot herself with his service weapon.”
According to criminal law writer Emiliano Morrone’s blog, Jeremy Banks and O’Connell began dating in 2009 after her brother, also a sheriff’s deputy, introduced them.
5. Neighbors Heard a Woman Crying for Help, Reports Say
According to Frontline, one thing that raised a lot of questions about the death: Neighbors said they heard a woman crying for help followed by agunshots. The sheriff’s office did not interview neighbors.
A Change.org petition claims of the neighbors, “They passed FBI issued polygraph tests.”
The Morrone blog says that Michelle and Jeremy had gone to a concert on the night of her death, and she was planning to end the relationship. Jeremy claimed he was in the garage and then outside the bedroom door when two gunshots emanated from a locked bedroom door, the blog reported.
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