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 today, for more on this case.
An affinity for sunflowers, days at the beach and outings for pizza and ice cream — these are just a few of the memories of her late mother, Michelle, that 10-year-old Alexis O’Connell treasures most.
“We looked for seashells, built sandcastles and played in the water,” Alexis tells PEOPLE. “I wish I had her spirit.”
At 4 years old, the blue-eyed, brown-haired girl who looks remarkably like her mom endured something few children do: the loss of her mother to a fatal intraoral gunshot wound.
While Michelle’s family disputes the official conclusions drawn about her death, what’s undisputed is the bullet that killed her was fired from a service weapon belonging to her boyfriend, St. Johns County sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks.
Authorities have repeatedly dismissed allegations that Michelle was murdered. They cite a lack of probable cause for such claims, and the sheriff’s investigation as well as three separate state attorneys have concluded that Michelle killed herself. (Banks, through his attorney, has denied all involvement.)
Her family disagrees. Key to the their belief that Michelle never would have taken her own life is her love for Alexis and the moves she was making to better their lives: scheduling CPR classes required for a new position at the child care center where she worked, signing up for benefits and saving money for a new apartment.
“When she became a mother, she blossomed,” Michelle’s mother, Patty O’Connell, tells PEOPLE. “It was all about Alexis. She didn’t even want to go out with her friends.”
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“She was so into being a mother. Her sole priority was Alexis,” adds childhood friend Ciara Morris, who noted that both Michelle’s and Alexis’s biological fathers were absent from their lives. “That was always a touchy subject for Michelle in high school, and it’s another reason I believe she would never have left Lexi without a parent.”
As Michelle’s family continues to advocate for what they say is their only chance at justice — another review of the case — Patty is raising Alexis, who has Michelle’s “deep, hard laugh.” The two still struggle to adapt to life without Michelle.
“I have days where I just miss her, miss her, miss her,” Patty says. “I find that I miss her a lot more when Alexis is home. We go to the movies and she sits next to me. But when it’s dark, I see Michelle.”
To cope, Alexis holds tight to memories of her mother, often via pictures and poems like the one she wrote while in the second grade, and which she shared with PEOPLE (lightly edited for spelling):
My mom loved turtles.
Me and my mom loved to eat ice cream and pizza.
We love to go to Sea World.
We love to go fishing.
We love to go to the beach.
She loved sunflowers.
We love to clean.
She worked 3 jobs.
She loved me.
She worked even at night.
Our favorite game was Mousetrap.
When I was in school she got me a dog.
“I miss her, and I wish she would come back,” Alexis says. “She’s an angel now.”