Punta Gorda, FL — She only intended to support police — whose collective, national reputation has been sullied by countless questionable killings — so, Mary Knowlton attended the Citizens Academy to try and understand the dangers of policing firsthand.
Instead, the 73-year-old retired librarian discovered too late why the pervasive fear of law enforcement in the United States is not only perfectly justified, it’s sound advice — Punta Gorda Police Officer Lee Coel fatally shot Knowlton during a demonstration for which she volunteered — because the inexcusably inept cop had loaded live instead of blank rounds in his firearm.
Coel and Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis have both been charged over the August 9, 2016, shooting — the former has pled not guilty to felony first-degree manslaughter, the latter, with second-degree misdemeanor culpable negligence.
Now, local network WINK has obtained video of the tragic shooting — which shows moments of confusion and shock in the aftermath of Coel’s demonstration gone horrifically awry.
Designed to be a training scenario for dozens of civilians attending the Academy’s session, Coel sported a face mask and hooded sweatshirt to give the appearance of a thug — Knowlton ironically volunteered to play the role of victim.
Emerging from the crowd of 35 civilian pupils, Knowlton takes her position as instructed for Coel’s demonstration. When Knowlton raises the blue simulation gun, loaded with “soap bullets,” the officer fires — and she immediately crumples to the ground.
Moments tick by without any movement from the crowd of shocked onlookers, Coel, nor any of the other officers present for the supposedly safe “shoot, don’t shoot” demonstration — until Coel abruptly grasps something amiss and rushes to Knowlton, additional officers quickly follow.
Gary Knowlton, the victim’s husband — and most of the civilian attendees, according to a report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — thought his wife had simply acted the part of the thug’s shooting victim.
“I was maybe 10 feet away from her and watched this patrolman who was the bad guy aim right at her and shoot,” the widow explained, according to the FDLE report, which was released in March. “She went down and we thought that was part of the show.”
As video continues, a swarm of Punta Gorda police attend to Knowlton and summon paramedics to the scene.
“He turned her over and she looked horrible, blood all over the place, and I thought, ‘Oh my God,’” Knowlton continued. “There was maybe five people who were trying to help her, pushing her stomach and stuff like that.”
FDLE investigated and found Coel did not intend to shoot or kill Knowlton — but several seemingly pertinent details revealed in a report still raise numerous suspicions as to how the now-terminated officer came to have live rounds of ammunition in his weapon — and how he managed to retain a position on the force, at all.
Punta Gorda police Lt. Katie Heck said in the FDLE report she “probably” gave Coel a box of lethal ammunition, instead of the “similar in shape and size” blank rounds as would be needed for the exercise — though neither round resembled those found in his service weapon — likely because the cop used his personal .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver.
Prior to killing Knowlton, Coel received sharp rebuke from a local attorney for allowing his K-9 partner to brutalize a man — for riding his bicycle without appropriate lights.
Whatever the reason live rounds pierced the elderly librarian’s flesh, the irony in this tragedy is not lost on the innumerable scores of friends and relatives, whose loved ones have been killed by the same police the State expects its citizens to trust.
Knowlton believed in police — albeit, more likely the specter of Mr. Protect-and-Serve, Officer Friendly — but paid the ultimate price in the unlikeliest of circumstances, while seeking to prove acerbic criticism of law enforcement officers wrong.
“My mom was a saint,” Knowlton’s son, Steven, told CBS This Morning in a statement shortly after her untimely death. “Such a tremendous loss of a wonderful human being and the best mom a kid could ever hope for.”