Punta Gorda Police Chief, Tom Lewis, says Officer Lee Coel accidentally shot and killed Mary Knowlton Tuesday night during a Citizen Police Academy training scenario.
The accidental shooting took place in perhaps the unlikeliest of places, inside a police department.
Knowlton, a retired librarian from Minnesota, attended the event with the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce. She was a member of the tight-knit group helping them as they built a new public library.
“She walked by [the] window and knocked every single day,” John Wright, the President of the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce, said.
The event was exclusive to members of the chamber. A total of 36 people showed up, according to Wright. He said volunteers for the training section of the two hour program were chosen at random.
Two stickers were placed in two of 50 booklets scattered on tables throughout the room. When the chief asked who had a sticker, one woman raised her hand, no one else.
“Mary Knowlton reached behind her to one of the empty seats and there was the sticker inside it,” Wright said. “She stood next to me as she was walking into the scenario, and said, ‘I do not know what I am doing, but this is going to be fun.’"
Wright said those were the last words he heard from her.
Watching as the training simulation started were 36 of Knowlton’s co-workers, her friends, the officers holding the event and her husband Gary. No one knew Knowlton would only have a few more precious seconds to live.
Lewis said Officer Coel accidentally fired a live round during a "shoot / don't shoot" scenario. Police said the scenario is intended to demonstrate the decision-making process when using "simulated lethal force in a live role play."
Knowlton was supposedly playing the intruder. At some point, Coel squeezed back the trigger on the revolver firing three bullets into Knowlton’s chest. The chief said the gun had been used before in previous scenarios, but no one knew it had live ammunition in it instead of blanks.
“When she went down I looked her straight in the eye, and I saw that anguish in her eye,” Wright said. “And when she hit the floor, I hoped… I hoped she wasn't feeling any pain.”
Knowlton was rushed to the hospital where she later died. Her son Steven asked the same question many are: How could this happen?
“My thoughts are, why was she in that situation? Why wasn't somebody else, another cop, playing that role? Why was anybody even aiming a gun at anybody?" Knowlton asked.
Coel has been placed on administrative leave. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will conduct the investigation.
Coel is the same officer accused of using excessive force when dealing with a drunk man back in Oct. 2015. That man, Richard Schumacher, later sued the department. Coel has a history of force complaints, but was still hired by the department.
Coel received backlash online for siccing his K-9 partner, Spirit, on a man who was not complying with a traffic stop. The man wouldn't get down on his knees when asked several times. After several minutes of escalation, the man, Schumacher, refused to get on his face before officer Coel released Spirit on him.
At the time, Lewis said Coel received counseling and new training since the incident, and the department has changed its policies on how K-9s are used. Coel was not suspended because he did not break any department policies at the time.