Son of Elderly Woman Killed During Police Role-play Forgives Officer Who Shot her

Mary Knwolton with police
Mary Knowlton with police

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.

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 Knowltons’ home Wednesday, family members told the Associated Press that 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.”

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 news 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?”

“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.

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SOURCE: Katie Mettler 
The Washington Post