Outside agency asked to investigate death in World Golf Village community

By Ashley Harding – Reporter, Allyson Henning – Reporter, Colette DuChanois – Web producer, Scott Johnson – Reporter, Corley Peel – Reporter

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – A self-styled investigator in the Michelle O’Connell case was found shot dead Thursday morning in St. Johns County’s World Golf Village community, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office said.

Maj. Steve Rose, with the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, said a person was found dead inside a third-floor unit at the Laterra Condos, which is about a mile into a gated community, by his young son, who called the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office about 7:30 a.m.

Deputies said the person had an apparent gunshot wound. Rose said the person’s death was considered suspicious, but did not elaborate as to why.

“Because of the nature of the investigation, I cannot divulge that,” Rose told reporters. “But there is not a threat to the community.”

Rose said it was too early to tell whether the death was a homicide or suicide, and an autopsy still needs to be conducted.

According to Rose, investigators later learned the victim, whom they had initially identified as a man, went by both a male and female name. Rose said the victim had two children, including the son.

Though the person’s name and age were not immediately released, investigators said the person was a private citizen who decided to take up their own investigation into the death of O’Connell, which is one of the most controversial cases in St. Johns County history.

O’Connell, 24, died in September 2010 of a gunshot wound inflicted by the service weapon belonging to her boyfriend, Deputy Jeremy Banks. Her death was ruled a suicide, but her family has long contended that she did not take her own life.

Due to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office’s involvement in the O’Connell case and for transparency purposes, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office took over the investigation Thursday afternoon into the person’s death as an independent agency.

Rose said the person had no affiliation with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office.

01-31 Sky 4 over WGV

Throughout the morning, St. Johns County public service assistants could be seen going in and out of the front gate, and the mobile command unit arrived just before noon in the parking lot outside the condos. Sky 4 aerial video also showed detectives outside.

After obtaining a search warrant early Thursday evening, deputies went inside the condo to gather evidence. Rose said the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office had asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct forensics, but it declined, so the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office is assisting in processing the crime scene.

The death investigation continues.

Michelle O’Connell case

Michelle O’Connell’s death has been the topic of controversy for years in St. Johns County. The case has drawn national interest, including a documentary made by the PBS show “Frontline” about the case.

The criminal investigation by the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and Medical Examiner’s Office into O’Connell’s death is over. Each has called her death a suicide, as have two other medical examiners and a special prosecutor.

A second independent review was done by 9th District State Attorney Jeff Ashton. He also concluded the death was a suicide, and said there was no probable cause to support a homicide prosecution.

Michelle O'Connell_27848470
Michelle O’Connell

The lead agent for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Rusty Rodgers, provided what the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office says was fabricated evidence to the St. Johns County medical examiner, and he did change his ruling to homicide, only to revert back to his original ruling of suicide.

The family asked for a second and third autopsy, which came to the same conclusion.

A special prosecutor was appointed, and he concluded suicide. That is the definitive report on the case.

O’Connell’s brother, a deputy with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, said he initially thought she was killed by her boyfriend, Deputy Jeremy Banks, but now believes it was a suicide, and he has sued Rodgers and the FDLE.

Banks has also sued Rodgers and FDLE.

O’Connell’s sisters and mother said they still believe she was killed by Banks. They have retained attorney Benjamin Crump, and through him asked the governor for a coroner’s inquest. That was denied.

The family had O’Connell’s body exhumed, and an independent forensic pathologist said her death was a homicide.

The FDLE internal investigation into Rodgers’ actions found he did substandard work, that Rodgers omitted information, exaggerated information and lost objectivity. He was ordered to take remedial training and was returned to duty.

There have also been private investigators who looked into O’Connell’s death, including one whom News4Jax spoke with many times.