Death In St. Augustine: 'Investigator Becomes The Investigated'

Jun 27, 2017

Michelle O'Connell

It’s been a long-running drama in St. Augustine that has divided the community. 

In September of 2010, Michelle O’Connell was found dead from a single gunshot wound. She was, at the time, the girlfriend of St. Johns County Deputy Jeremy Banks.

The death was quickly ruled a suicide but that was sharply disputed by family members, who allege she was killed by Banks, who denies any involvement in O'Connell's death.

Recently, new information has emerged in the case.

A second independent autopsy conducted on O'Connell's exhumed remains — performed at her mother Patty's request — found O'Connell had a broken lower jaw bone "consistent with blunt force trauma." This finding was missed in an earlier autopsy. 

Now, the New York Times is weighing in, again. Three-time Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Walt Bogdanich has been covering this story for several years for both the Times and the PBS program “Frontline.”

  • LISTENWalt Bogdanich on 'First Coast Connect'

This month, he's posted a follow-up looking into St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar's response to an independent investigation into O'Connell's death. Bogdanich wrote that Shoar conducted "a scathingly personal years-long attack on (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) Agent Rusty Rodgers — a campaign that put the out-size powers of a small-town sheriff on full display and ultimately swept up nearly everyone in its path."

After her death was initially ruled a suicide, Rodgers was assigned to re-examine the case after persistent questions and complaints raised by O'Connell's family. His major finding: Two neighbors of O'Connell, who passed a polygraph test, said they heard screams for help before hearing two gunshots coming from her residence.

Bogdanich now reports that Shoar aggressively pushed back against Rodgers' examination, waging a campaign to portray Rodgers as "an ethically corrupt investigator" with an agenda.  

"Over the last three years, Sheriff Shoar has been putting out his version of events and specifically attacking the conduct and investigative chops of Rusty Rodgers," Bogdanich said. "And I thought it was important to go back and look at those allegations and see whether they stood up. 

"What I found after looking at thousands of pages of records is that what Sheriff Shoar was saying (about Rodgers) was basically innuendo and rumor. I thought it was important for me to come back and fill out the picture because it wasn't being presented accurately by the sheriff."

After being investigated for allegations of wrongdoing in his probe of O'Connell's death, Rodgers was cleared of any crimes and remains on the job with FDLE. He is facing a civil lawsuit from Deputy Jeremy Banks, who also remains on his job.

Shoar told WJCT:

"We will not conduct any conversation with Walt Bogdanich concerning this case. When he arrived at our agency four years ago, his mind was made up concerning this case; he treated ... me of our staff unprofessionally and we learned from our first contact with him, due to his carelessness, that his primary source of information was FDLE Agent Rusty Rogers."

  • READ | The full unedited letter sent from Sheriff David Shoar.
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On Shoar's statement, Bogdanich replied: "Contrary to what the sheriff is saying now, he praised me in the early weeks of my reporting.  He said this in an email to me: 'Feel free to ask me any hard questions and thank you for being such a gentleman. I hope I can respond in kind.' "

And he says he'll continue to ask questions about the case.  "How thorough was the investigation? People want to know what happened."

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Melissa Ross can be reached at mross@wjct.org and on Twitter @melissainjax