Police say a St. Augustine, Florida, woman killed herself with her boyfriend’s gun six years ago — but her relatives say they have proof she was murdered. Subscribe to PEOPLE now or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday, for more on this case.
When 24-year-old Michelle O’Connell died of a gunshot wound in St. Augustine, Florida, in September 2010, one thing was certain: The shot that killed her was fired from a service weapon belonging to her boyfriend, St. Johns County sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks.
Within hours of her death on Sept. 2, 2010, the case became surrounded by a controversy that persists six years later. Though investigations by the local sheriff’s office and three state attorneys have concluded O’Connell’s death was a suicide, those who knew her best claim they have proof of something more sinister.
They allege it was Banks who killed her as she prepared to end their relationship and escape his abuse — though investigators have dismissed this speculation, saying it lacks probable cause.
Banks, through his attorney, has also denied involvement. He has previously denied allegations he abused Michelle, and a sheriff’s internal investigation in 2010 “was unable to prove or disprove the allegations,” according to documents obtained by PEOPLE.
His attorney tells PEOPLE of the abuse allegations, “That information is patently false [and] has been demonstrated to be false.” Banks has also described fraught interactions with Michelle, according to the 2010 documents, including an argument about a month before she died in which she screamed and cried and said, “Sometimes [Banks made] her want to kill herself.”
That hasn’t deterred O’Connell’s friends and family. On their behalf, attorney Janet Johnson has requested the Florida Medical Examiners Commission convene a grand jury to review the case.
“They [friends and family] know better than anyone else whether she had it in her to commit suicide and no one talked with them,” Johnson tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “If they [investigators] didn’t know him [Banks], if he wasn’t a cop, if it were any other situation, they absolutely would have done that.”
Banks discovered O’Connell in their home that September day and was the one who first called 911 about her shooting injury. According to officials, she died of a gunshot wound to the back of her throat.
But O’Connell’s family is critical of the quick determination that she killed herself.
‘Michelle’s Bags Were Packed’
Just hours after her death, then-sheriff’s deputy Debra Maynard was sent to notify family members that the young mother had taken her own life — something she says haunts her to this day.
“Michelle’s bags were packed and on the couch,” Maynard, who was among the first responders on the scene, tells PEOPLE. “Typically, when a woman is getting ready to leave is the most volatile time. We know this, and statistics support it.”
Maynard’s suspicion is echoed by family and friends, who describe O’Connell as a doting mother to her 4-year-old daughter, Alexis — and a victim of Banks’ abuse.
“Everything revolved around Alexis,” childhood friend Ciara Morris tells PEOPLE. “Whether it was her job, where she worked, where she lived, where we hung out, it was always about what was best for Alexis. She would not have left Lexi without a parent.”
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Loved ones also say Michelle had no history of depression and was excited about recent changes in her life, including a promotion at the child care center where she worked.
Interviews and text messages on her cell phone reveal Michelle was busy making plans right up until the night she died. Earlier that day, she scheduled CPR classes required for her new position at work, signed up for benefits and planned breakfast with mother, Patty O’Connell, the next morning.
What’s more, multiple people say Michelle told them that, after attending a concert with Banks and brother Sean O’Connell, she intended to break up with Banks and move out of their home on the night of her death.
“She told me she was leaving him,” says friend Mindy Fox, adding that the two were saving money to rent an apartment together.
“We had plans for going out after the concert,” Fox says. “She told me she was going to go home, pack her stuff, make sure Lexi was okay and then she and I were going to go have a girls’ night out. We were texting throughout the evening, making sure that plans were still on.”
A History of Violence?
Michelle’s mom claims she witnessed Banks abuse her daughter.
“I actually saw him body slam her on the floor in my house,” Patty O’Connell tells PEOPLE. “That was the day I knew he wasn’t good for her.”
In a later interview with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about the altercation, Banks admitted to using a police tactic to bring Michelle to the floor during an argument when, he said, she attempted to slap him.
Alexis also accused Banks of abuse, according to notes from a July 2011 forensic interview with child welfare authorities. In those documents, a child protection worker wrote, “Alexis provided history of witnessing Jeremy Banks jumping on her mother and hitting her mother with a belt at their home. She reported her mother said, ‘Stop, stop,’ but Mr. Banks did not stop.”
Results of a second, private autopsy performed on Michelle’s exhumed remains earlier this year, at her family’s request, may support the abuse allegations. Orlando forensic pathologist Dr. William Anderson found that her lower jawbone was broken — a finding not mentioned in the earlier autopsy reports.
“The most reasonable explanation is that a hit in the jaw with a fist created the mandible fracture,” Anderson tells PEOPLE, noting that such blunt force trauma likely incapacitated Michelle prior to the fatal gunshot.
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In a statement to the media, St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar said, “The information presented is nothing new and all was reviewed during the initial autopsy.”
He described the ongoing attention as the work of “a few family members who will go to any lengths to maintain their moment in the spotlight.”
Friends and family believe that investigations by the sheriff’s office and state attorneys may have yielded a different conclusion if investigators had allowed them to tell their side of this story. Yet the O’Connell family, Fox and Morris all say their efforts to give statements were rebuffed.
“None of them ever wanted to speak to our side of our family,” Patty says. “What kind of investigation can you do without asking questions of both sides?”
Though Michelle’s case remains closed, they hope for a change.
“This is like a nightmare. But nightmares do end,” Patty says. “I think eventually this nightmare is going to end. I hope I live through it, that I’m alive to see the end of this and see justice for Alexis and her mommy.
“We knew she was trying to get away. If anybody wanted to live, it was Michelle.”