Officer identified in accidental shooting death at citizen academy

Image 1 of 5

Police have identified the officer who seems to have accidentally shot a former librarian during a citizens academy exercise in Punta Gorda Tuesday evening.

The Punta Gorda Police Department said Officer Lee Coel was the one who pulled the trigger during a shoot/don't shoot scenario. He was hired by the Punta Gorda Police Department on March 17, 2014. Coel was placed on administrative leave during the investigation. 

It happened at the Punta Gorda Police Department headquarters. According to Police Chief Tom Lewis, Mary Knowlton, a 73-year-old citizens police academy student was selected to participate in the role-playing scenario.

The demonstration involved an officer who was supposed to instruct the class about making decisions “using simulated lethal force." During the demonstration, Knowlton was "mistakenly struck with a live round."

She was rushed to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Lewis called the shooting a horrible accident. 

Officer Lee Coel's History

It's not the first time Coel has been investigated. In October 2015, he was investigated - and cleared - for using excessive force. During that incident, he stopped a man riding a bicycle without a light. Coel said the man resisted arrest, so he released his K9 on the man.

That man's lawyer said video of the incident showed his client was not resisting, and his client spent 11 days in the hospital with injuries from that incident. Even though the department cleared Coel, it said he used "poor decision making" during the incident, and the department changed policies surrounding the use of K9s.

Coel was not disciplined for that incident and the Punta Gorda Police Department faces a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the department said in a release about the accidental shooting death of Knowlton, Officer Coel often worked in the community providing department presentations and tours - specifically role-playing in shoot/don't shoot scenarios, as well as a police presence at youth and neighborhood events.

"Like the rest of our community, Officer Coel is devastated by what happened and is receiving assistance from our department and the Police Benevolent Association at this time," the department said.

Mary's Final Moments

The man sitting next to Knowlton said Wednesday, he couldn't believe she was gone. John Wright, president of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce, said he was likely the last person to talk to her before she was shot. 

WATCH: Details emerge in citizen academy shooting

Wright said Knowlton did not hesitate when she was volunteered for the shoot/don't shoot role-playing exercise. 

"She was standing by me. She sort of gave me that little wink and smile as Mary was famous for," Wright recalled. "She goofily said, 'I'm a left-handed person. I don't know how to handle this mock gun that she was playing with,' and then she said, 'I'm going to go in for fun. I'm going to have a good time here doing this.'"

Knowlton prepared to face an officer with a gun that should have been loaded with blanks, but when Officer Coel puled the trigger, reality immediately sank in.

"All we heard was three very loud explosions, and louder than we anticipated," Wright described. 

"We are shocked by this horrific accident and are grieving deeply over Mary's passing," Mayor Rachel Keesling wrote in a note also signed by city council members. "We are mourning and missing Mary, as she was a vital member of our community."

City leaders added, counseling was being made available to the officers and other academy participants, while the police department promised a thorough investigation.

Friends and family of Knowlton began memorializing her life and work Wednesday after learning of her death.

Knowlton was on the board of the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library, according to the organization’s web page. She lives in Punta Gorda, but had been a librarian at Scott County Public Library in Savage, Minnesota. Knowlton studied library science at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota, and elementary education at George Mason University in Virginia.

Carolyn Hartwigsen, of Edina, Minnesota, told The Associated Press she was a longtime friend of Knowlton. She said Knowlton had a love of books and tried to instill that in young readers.

"So much is on the internet now. But, books are so important to have in children's hands. That was important to her," Hartwigsen said Wednesday morning.

Hartwigsen said Mary and her husband would come back to Minnesota periodically to visit.

"She was the salt of the earth, a beautiful soul and the kindest women you would know," she said.

The couple had two sons, Hartwigsen said.

The Punta Gorda Police Department said its chief would hold a news conference Thursday, August 11 at 11 a.m. to provide an update on the investigation. 

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.