Michelle O'Connell's family says her cop boyfriend was abusive
Credit: Source: Facebook

When 24-year-old Michelle O’Connell of St. Augustine, Florida died of a fatal gunshot wound in 2010, police and investigators from multiple law enforcement agencies said it was a suicide. Her family, however, disagreed.

A recent private autopsy may confirm the family’s suspicions: that the young mother’s death was murder, allegedly at the hands of her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a St. Johns County Sheriff’s Deputy.

The private autopsy, performed pro-bono by Orlando-based forensic pathologist Dr. Bill Anderson, reveals evidence of a fractured lower jaw bone that incapacitated O’Connell before the fatal shot – something the family claims was never revealed in prior examinations of her body. Anderson says the injury is not a result of a gunshot blast and shows instead that O’Connell was beaten before being shot.

“The findings are most consistent of blunt force trauma causing incapacitation of Ms. O’Connell, and subsequent gunshot wound inflicted by another. The manner of death should be considered Homicide,” Anderson wrote.

“All those people making assumptions this was a suicide were unaware of the existence of the fractured mandible,” Anderson, who has worked in medical examiners offices nationwide, recently told investigative newsmagazine show Crime Watch Daily.

“That’s a different injury pattern and creates a whole different scenario in the case.”

Family Skeptical From Beginning

Responding to a 911 call by Banks, sheriff’s deputies found O’Connell dead of a gunshot to the mouth, lying on a bedroom floor in Banks’s home on the night of September 2, 2010. Within hours, deputies informed O’Connell’s family that she had committed suicide.

Their quick assessment struck the family as suspicious, not only because they thought it was premature – an autopsy wouldn’t be conducted for another two days – but also because it didn’t seem like something O’Connell would do. She had recently received a promotion at her job at a day care center, enjoyed a Paramore concert with her brother hours before her death and, most importantly, they say, was a doting mother to her four-year-old daughter, Alexis.

“Michelle loved Alexis,” O’Connell’s mother, Patty O’Connell, said in an interview that aired in an episode of PBS’s Frontline in 2013. “She never would have left her.”

“Michelle was planning her future,” friend Ciara Morris added on the show. “Michelle was not planning suicide.”

Dueling Manner-of-Death Determinations

An initial autopsy by St. Johns County Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Fredrick Hobin two days after O’Connell’s death backed the suicide theory: Hobin ruled that a self-inflicted fatal shot severed O’Connell’s spinal cord.

But in response to claims from O’Connell’s family, two of whom worked for the sheriff’s office, that O’Connell’s death was murder and not suicide, and that Banks’s fellow officers hadn’t adequately investigated the case, St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar requested a review of his own office’s investigation, to be conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

That review turned up new evidence, including two witnesses who said that on the night of O’Connell’s death, they heard screams for help and two gunshots ring out. As a result, Hobin changed his ruling from suicide to homicide and drew up an amended death certificate.

But that amended death certificate was never officially filed with the state. And in October 2011, St. Johns County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Padraq Bulic reviewed Hobin’s reports and concurred with his original ruling: that it was a suicide.

Had Evidence from Recent Private Autopsy Been Considered Before?

Banks, O’Connell’s boyfriend, was placed on administrative leave from his job in May 2011, but he returned about a year later. He maintains that O’Connell committed suicide. In an interview conducted 12 days after O’Connell’s death, Banks admitted to police that he was violent with O’Connell and “put her on the ground” that night. But he said O’Connell told him, “Sometimes you make me want to kill myself.”

Shoar debunked the recent autopsy that pointed to homicide in a strongly-worked media release, writing, “Why did these certain family members not request a judge to order a proper and officially sanctioned exhumation? We suspect the answer is that they would not have met the threshold for a judge to order one… Molesting Michelle from her place of rest using some freelance type approach is beyond unconventional, it was reprehensible.”

In his statement, Shoar also asserted that the latest autopsy revealed “nothing new and all was reviewed during the initial autopsy.”

But the initial autopsy report reveals only that the “third cervical vertebra is shattered” and makes no mention of the broken jawbone. “Except as associated with the gunshot wound, there are no fractures or notable deformities,” it reads.

O’Connell’s family is pinning their hopes on the possibility that new forensic information will prove what they say she told them multiple times – that Banks was abusive – and clear the way for an official manner-of-death ruling as homicide.

“They kept saying, ‘You don’t have anything. You have nothing,'” Patty O’Connell told Crime Watch Daily. “I believe, with Dr. Anderson, we have a lot. We have proof. We have new evidence, totally new, never been brought to light.”