The son of a Punta Gorda librarian killed during a citizen's Police Academy in Punta Gorda is speaking out after the city released investigative documents detailing the deadly shooting.
Former Punta Gorda Police officer Lee Coel shot Mary Knowlton last August with a gun that was supposed to be loaded with blanks. He's now facing felony manslaughter and has been fired. Police Chief Tom Lewis is facing culpable negligence and remains on administrative leave.
Meanwhile, the State Attorney's Office is now at odds with the city claiming it may have jeopardized the case by releasing some of those documents.
Mary Knowlton's son, Steven Knowlton, tells four in your corner there's one call etched in his mind for life.
"I got a call from my dad and said mom's been shot. She's dead and I just yelled, 'how did she end up on the other end of the gun?"
Knowlton says he's surprised Coel was picked to play the role during the class exercise.
"He had been in trouble in the past. He's been careless. Other officers have stated that he has been careless with his gun," Knowlton said. "It's just astonishing how many facts have come out as far as the carelessness of everything that was handled."
The City of Punta Gorda released hundreds of investigative documents Wednesday detailing the deadly shooting. Knowlton tells Four In Your Corner he and his family found out after seeing a haunting image of his mother immediately after being shot that aired on another news station.
"We were totally left in the dark," he said. "That's a picture that will stay in my mind forever. I thought that was pretty heartless."
Knowlton says the State Attorney's Office told him the documents given to the city were meant to be used to conduct an internal investigation not share the information with the public until after, fearing the release of the documents may taint the outcome of the case.
"I'm not sure what the motive was but we were told by the State Attorney and our lawyer that it wasn't done correctly and the city shouldn't have put on this report right away."
Four In Your Corner reached out to Bulldog Strategy Group, the public relations firm hired by the City of Punta Gorda that disseminated the case and substantial parts of the report. A spokesperson told Four In Your Corner proper procedures were followed and that they were cleared to release the documents in response to multiple records requests for the FDLE investigative information, adding that they spent three days checking the records to make any necessary redaction including statements from Chief Lewis, Officer Coel, or any pictures of the autopsy.
When asked if any victim advocates reached out to the family to let them know the new information would be released, the spokesperson told Four In Your Corner the company reached out to Knowlton's church pastor to explain they would be responding to the public records requests later in the day and asked to speak with Mr. Knowlton.
Four In Your Corner spoke to a criminal defense attorney to get perspective on Knowlton's concerns. Stuart Pepper is not affiliated with the case.
Pepper says the city didn't do anything wrong by releasing the documents because they're public record meaning they're available to anyone. He says it's up to lawyers to sift out members of the jury who can't render a fair verdict.
"It's public record. It's best for the community to know what's going on at all stages," he said.
This is the statement sent from the public relations firm hired by the City of Punta Gorda:
"We're a government entity, which means we have an obligation to respond to records requests in a timely manner. We had received multiple records requests for the FDLE investigative information. Based on the State Attorney's letter from March 3, it was clear to us the records were confidential until the defense counsel received the records through discovery, which happened this past Sunday, as confirmed by the case status posted on the Charlotte County Clerk of Courts website. Once we confirmed the information was public, we spent three days checking the records for any public records exemptions, as noted on our website, and making appropriate redactions. Once we had confirmed the information had been redacted, we made the requested information public. We did not release statements from Lewis or Coel, nor did we release any autopsy photographs. Those records are exempt."