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Son of woman killed during police role-play forgives officer who shot her

It wasn't supposed to be Mary Knowlton. When it came time for the live role-play portion of the citizen police academy Tuesday night, organized by the local chamber of commerce at the Punta Gorda Police Department, another woman volunteered first...

It wasn't supposed to be Mary Knowlton.

When it came time for the live role-play portion of the citizen police academy Tuesday night, organized by the local chamber of commerce at the Punta Gorda Police Department, another woman volunteered first.

But she wasn't ready, a witness told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, so Knowlton, 73, stepped up instead.

Before Knowlton walked into the theatrically staged scenario, where she would experience firsthand the pressure officers feel when they're deciding whether to use lethal force, she turned to a friend and said: "I'm going to give them hell."

Soon, she was dead.

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Before she was known as the woman who was shot, Mary Knowlton was a civil servant, mother of two and wife of 55 years.

She spent her career as a librarian, advocating for books and children in Minnesota. When she moved to Punta Gorda, Fla., she did the same, working, even in retirement, with at-risk kids, the local library and the Chamber of Commerce. She often baked cookies for new neighbors.

On Sundays, she and her husband, Gary, would sit in the same row each week at church, reported WINK News. Photos show them reading on the beach, side by side. And it was together that they attended the citizen police academy Tuesday night, where an officer fatally shot her while dozens watched.

A "horrible accident," authorities called it.

During an interview at the Knowlton's home Wednesday, family told the Associated Press Gary had not seen his wife since. He was "devastated," they said.

"This killed our family," their son, Steve Knowlton, told WINK News. "I don't know if I'll ever get over this."

What he has been able to do is forgive the man who shot her.

"My mom taught us never to hate," Knowlton, 50, told NBC News. "I can't harbor hate."

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Wednesday night, Punta Gorda police identified the man who pulled the trigger as Officer Lee Coel, 28. He has been with the department since March 2014, where he worked as a K-9 officer and moved frequently throughout the community, providing presentations at "youth and neighborhood events."

Often, those presentations included the same lethal force role-play scenario that Knowlton volunteered for at the two-hour academy course Tuesday night, the statement said. It was during the scenario, where Coel was playing a "bad guy," that Knowlton was mistakenly shot with live ammunition instead of blank rounds.

Photos taken by Sue Paquin, a Charlotte Sun photographer who was covering the academy event and witnessed the shooting, show Police Chief Tom Lewis and another officer preparing Knowlton for the role-play. In one frame, she is reaching for a fake blue training gun.

Another photo shows Coel dressed as a stereotypical armed robber -- black pants, a black ski mask, a gray sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. In his hands is not a colored training weapon, like the one Knowlton had, but a small, silver gun.

At a press conference Wednesday, Lewis told reporters it was a real revolver.

"There are certain details that I can't release, but what I can tell you is that we were unaware that any live ammunition for this particular weapon existed," Lewis said. "We believe the particular caliber of the weapon used, that there were only blank rounds available to the officer."

"How does that happen?" a reporter later asked. "How do you go unaware?"

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"It's a great question," Lewis said. "And the investigation is going to detail how all those details were missed."

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting an independent investigation.

At the press conference, Lewis would only confirm that there are safety protocols in place for that particular weapon, but refrained from offering specifics, like who is responsible for checking the revolver chambers and by how many people it is inspected. Lewis said his staff had used that revolver many times - without injury - in the numerous role-play scenarios they had conducted in the last two years.

Not all officers had access to the revolver, but Lewis would not say specifically who could have loaded the gun with real bullets. In past demonstrations, like the one an NBC2 reporter took part in last December, the revolver used was filled with fake bullets containing soap, the TV station reported.

After Tuesday's tragic shooting, the chief said his department will "absolutely not" use real weapons at future demonstrations.

 

Alongside dozens of people, the chief watched Tuesday's shooting unfold.

"It's just a horrific time for all of us," Lewis said.

He described Knowlton as a "phenomenal person" in the community.

Coel, Lewis said, was "very grief-stricken."

Officer Coel had made headlines in recent months, after video of his K-9, Spirit, was posted on YouTube, showing the dog attacking a shirtless man on a bicycle for nearly two minutes during an arrest last October. An outside expert determined Coel's use of force was justified, but the Punta Gorda Police Department did change its K-9 policies after the incident. The bicyclist in the case is preparing a civil lawsuit against Coel, the man's lawyer said.

Coel previously worked at the Miramar Police Department, near Miami, but was given the option to resign after two excessive force complaints were brought against him, documents show. He was later cleared of those accusations, he wrote in his application to the Punta Gorda Police Department. He did, however, commit two policy violations, he wrote. The News-Press reported that he left for failing to complete an agency field training program, according to the FDLE.

Coel is being monitored by officers for his psychological health, Lewis said, and is receiving assistance from the Police Benevolence Association. He could not be reached for comment Wednesday by reporters at the News-Press.

After Knowlton fell to the ground after being shot, witnesses said Coel was seen kneeling beside her, giving the woman chest compressions, reported the Herald-Tribune. At first, those watching the demonstration just thought Knowlton was embracing her role as a shooting victim, the local chamber of commerce president John Wright told the newspaper. She paused for 10 to 15 seconds, Wright said, and collapsed on the ground.

Witnesses thought perhaps she was having a cardiac episode. But then they saw the blood.

"I know this officer didn't mean for this to happen. And I'm sure he's in a living hell right now," Steven Knowlton told WINK News. "We all forgive him."

Tuesday's citizen police academy event was supposed to be a "fun night," Steve Knowlton told the AP. His parents had experienced two recent break-ins in their neighborhood, NBC News reported, which was partly responsible for their attendance. But Knowlton, aware of the recent deadly attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, also wanted to show support for police.

"She always fought to lift me up, to lift everybody up," Steve Knowlton told WINK News. "I want her to be remembered as that person, not the person that got shot."

 

 

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