Lee Coel, Mary Knowlton accidental death
Courtesy Florida Department of Law Enforcement
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By Lee Williams

Former Punta Gorda, Florida Police Officer Lee Coel aimed his Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver at 73-year-old retired librarian Mary Knowlton and pulled the trigger four times.

What were supposed to be blanks, weren’t. Coel had loaded wadcutters into his personal weapon. He could not tell the difference between blanks and live rounds.

Two rounds struck Knowlton – one hit her elbow and the other perforated her aorta. She fell to the ground mortally wounded while her husband of 55 years, Gary Knowlton, watched from just a few feet away. Mary later died at the hospital.

Knowlton and 30 other Chamber of Commerce members had been invited by Punta Gorda Police to attend a one-day citizens police academy. Knowlton and Coel were role playing. She was acting as a police officer while Coel played a bad guy.

The August, 2016 killing stunned the nation – especially firearm instructors – none of whom believed that a modern law enforcement agency would be so reckless as to use a real weapon in a training scenario to shoot what they thought were blanks at someone.

“Why did they use a real gun?” the trainers collectively asked. Coel’s actions, which the department officially sanctioned, violated all of the basic rules of firearm safety.

Lee Coel, Mary Knowlton
Mary Knowlton doubles over moments after she was shot by former Punta Gorda police officer Lee Coel. (Courtesy Florida Department of Law Enforcement)

Coel wasn’t fired until a year after he killed Knowlton. In 2017, while his case was moving slowly through the legal system, Coel sued the city for denying him a disability pension. He claimed he suffered PTSD as a result of the killing and was later awarded more than $12,000 in compensation.

In October 2019, as part of a no-jail plea deal, Coel pleaded no-contest to second degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years of probation. He could have been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Knowlton’s husband Gary, who has since died, later accepted a $2 million payment from the city’s insurance fund, but the city did not admit any guilt or responsibility when they issued the payment.

Coel wants his probation ended early

After serving just one-quarter of his sentence, Coel now wants his probation terminated. There will be a hearing July 25 before Lee County Circuit Court Judge Margaret Steinbeck, to determine whether Coel’s probation will end early. Steinbeck is the same judge who sentenced Coel to probation rather than prison.

According to court documents, Coel has obtained a law degree since the killing, but any state bar association will likely deny him membership because of his status as a probationer.

Punta Gorda Officer Lee Coel
Former Punta Gorda Officer Lee Coel (Courtesy Punta Gorda Police Department)

“Not a day passes where Mr. Coel does not think about the effect his actions had on others, including the Knowlton family, the City of Punta Gorda, and the lives of those who know and love him,” Coel’s motion states. “Mr. Coel respectfully requests this Court grant his Motion for Early Termination. Granting the instant Motion will give Mr. Coel the best opportunity to be accepted into his chosen profession, allowing him to better himself, his community, and the legal profession, using his past to better the future.”

Mary Knowlton’s family objects

In 2019, Knowlton’s family strongly opposed Coel’s no-jail plea deal. Today, they strongly oppose ending his probation early, especially since he has served just one-quarter of his sentence.

Lee Coel has never directly apologized to the family, nor has he paid any form of restitution. At no point did anyone from the State Attorney’s office contact Gary or his sons to instruct them concerning their rights and responsibilities as victims,” a family spokesperson said in a statement. “Both sons were close to their mother and suffered severe mental anguish and incurred substantial medical expenses. On Monday, Lee Coel may be released from probation. Odds are he will seek to seal as much of the record as is possible, then later have it expunged. Meanwhile he shifts positions from possessing the power of an officer of the law to the power of an officer of the court.


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    • Okay, I’ll say it.

      Swap out “Officer So-And-So” for “Any One Of Us”. We commit manslaughter out of sheer stupidity, and we’re rightfully held accountable for every bullet that leaves the barrel of our gun when we pull the trigger.

      Why are the rules different for them? Why are some pigs more equal (reference to Animal Farm, not an epithet for LEOs)?

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  1. Wait but I thought police were the only ones trained and adequately knowledgeable enough to have firearms … or something? (Dripping in sarcasm).

    • Yeah and they jumped up and down and wetted themselves because of permitless carry. Some did, not all. How many citizens went to jail over and accidental discharge but not someone who knows more than the rest of us ?

    • Press needs to stop glorifying these killers by spreading their names all over the media and instead just keep posting the pictures of them all shot to pieces.

      Might convince the wannabes that the whole thing isn’t as heroic and romantic as they thought.

      Its one thing to think about going out in a blaze of anarchistic glory, quite another to see a crumpled killer full of holes lying in a pool of blood and piss.

      • Agreed. “This nameless pile of flesh and feces had a grudge. If you are also mental and have some desire to live, call this number and we will get you into a ward to quiet the voices”

  2. This is the reason force on force training with real people don’t use real guns. ‘Csuse idiots.

    • Do revolver blanks not have an obvious crimp like everything in military use? No way you can miss a full wadcutter being flat and smooth.

      • What earthly reason would there be for using blanks anyway? Fired at close range, as in a training exercise, blanks can cause serious injury or death. Not to mention the enhanced risk that can come from a mix up just like this one. Complete fail here.

      • Simunitions are a training round that sometimes look a lot like lethal ammo. Some departments use them some don’t for obvious reasons. I guarantee that I could show several training rounds mixed in with various lethal rounds, and less than 1% of those posting comments could ID which are which.
        My department often used unloaded duty weapons for DT and Weapons Retention Drills, but we never, never, never loaded them with ANYTHING and shot them at each other! There are Blue Guns and other training devices that are better suited to that kind of stress training.
        I disagree with a lot of comments here. He did not commit a crime. He was carrying out department training using department protocols. What he did was unfortunate, and some might say stupid, but stupid isn’t a crime. He was not reckless and he had no criminal intent, so where is the crime? If we concede that being stupid IS a crime, then anyone who voted for either the R-Guy or the D-Guy in the 2020 election, 156 Million voters in total, are too stupid to be running around loose on the streets.

  3. Good lord. There’s a lot of special kind of stupid involved here.

    So, he points and discharges an actual firearm at a volunteer in a demonstration that was officially sanctioned by his department. And the chief (in a related article) said something like “I didn’t know live ammo existed for this type of weapon, I thought we only had blanks available.”

    Not only should this guy have gone to prison, he should have had company!

  4. Cops standing around a Uvalde listening to innocent people be killed, now this.

    now cops save the 77 minutes and just do it their selves.

    live ammo present in a one on one training session using real guns. Then no red gun training firearm. Can’t tell the difference between a wad cutter and a blank round.

    Are ya sure you want to call 911 to have police respond?

  5. You should receive your first check within a week or so. Or you can start to have them wire directly into your bank account. (Your first checks will be about $500 to $1,500 a week. Then it goes up from there.
    Depends on how much time you spent on it….. http://Www.BizPay1.com

    • But only the po-leece should be armed kids:Uvalde,Texas po-leece department. Lee Coal…”hold my beer”.

  6. A few years ago, the Nebraska State Patrol killed one of their own in a force on force training exercise with what were supposed to be unloaded weapons. They broke for lunch in the middle of the exercise and everybody loaded up. The next guy up after lunch forgot to unload again and nobody checked. He shot his training partner dead. They now use plastic guns in training.

  7. This should have been time for him and the person who planned the event. No doubt in my mind.

  8. Disarm the police. Issued them nightsticks and the train to use them. Only when some of them proved themselves to be worthy enough, can they be issued a firearm.
    The cops shoot the guilty and the innocent all the time. And they miss frequently.

    And they don’t have to help anyone if the don’t want to.

  9. “Coel has obtained a law degree since the killing, but any state bar association will likely deny him membership because of his status as a probationer.”

    I personally know two ex-felons who went to law school, passed the bar, and were admitted to practice in New York after passing their Character and Fitness review. Neither person was pardoned. One was completely unapologetic. Of course, neither of them killed anyone.

    • there’s a chicago outlaw, fabian, who represented his colleagues after passing the bar while doing time.

    • there is a 100% illegal alien FELON border jumper on the california bar right now and he makes good money getting other ‘Jill biden tacos’ off and get them refugee status

  10. Only if he agrees to wear a sign on his forehead

    Here’s your sign. (With all due apologies to Bill Engvall).

  11. The fact of the matter is that most police aren’t very bright. That’s just the plain facts of the matter and is well documented. Much of the time, police works is boring, mundane and dull and intelligent people would quickly grow tired of it and would also struggle with the police mentality, military style command structure.

    The cop got lucky not getting jail time. What a galactic d–che bag. He and Alec Baldwin would get along fine.

  12. There’s just nothing good about this story at all. Fuckin’ sad.

    But, no, I cannot get behind him getting off probation early. If the roles were reversed that woman would, or would have, die(d) behind bars.

    • My issue about this situation is why was the cop the only one charged? This was a department sanctioned event. Where there no RSO’s? No supervisors observing and checking?

      I witnessed an accidental discharge stateside in service. The man that fired the live round was reprimanded. But an NCO and an officer that signed off on the exercise were hung out to dry for their part in the stupid. And nobody was hurt. Just one roof with fresh ventilation.

      • The military is a different animal than civvie police.

        You raise an interesting point though. I’m not sure there’s criminal law that would cover what you’re suggesting (though that might vary by jurisdiction) but I’d think they could certainly be sued, right?

        This whole fiasco is just depressing.

  13. no, fuck this guy. It’s one thing to make a mistake when you have a split second to make a life-changing decision. That wasn’t this.

    I’m sure he didn’t “mean” to kill anyone but when you screw up THIS badly, you need to be punished for the betterment of society. Guy is very lucky he didn’t end up in prison.

  14. Fools and their firearms. If the P:olice are so stupid just what do we expect from the wannabe Rambos? But then again the huisband of the ‘victim’ has put a price of £2 million on another persons death so as not to pursue the matter. What does that make him?? I was a smallarms Instructor and Armourer in the UK Royal Air Force for a number of years and I can see how thinese things may happen BUT for a supposed professio0nal not being able to distinguishn the difference betwee BLANK and a potentially lethal round id s beyond belief. I acxceptb that this was an accident but surely to god this exercise had a qualified ARMOURER to check weapons and ammo didn’t it? I blank fireing exercise that WAS one of my responsibilities and we sometinmes used [wood]BULLETED BLANK for our BREN LMGs with a wood cutter attachment on the barrel. These round WERE, or could be injurous up too, as I remember 10/20 metres. WE NEVER discharged any blank of any description directly at a ‘target’ under 25 metres or so just in case. Even a stray sliver of CARTRIDGE BRASS can do damage. But then again with so many firearms in circulation I suppose it’s inevitable that there will be a large number of unskilled amateurs and accidental discharges The ARMED SERVUICES do not spend the length of time they do on firearm SAFETY TRAINING in the UK at least a yearly refresher course which has to be passed and believe me you stay in the classromm until you do . NO EXCEPTIONS,
    The UK Police Firearms Officer have a monthly refresher as I’m told and once again even a partial FAIL is not acceptable

    • Because we all believe you were a Royal Air Force Armorer and have even a rudimentary knowledge of firearms. Why don’t you tell us more about your family history of feather merchants or whatever that drivel was. I mean that was nonsense too but at least it broke the monotony of pretending you understand firearms.

      • Tragically the UK is going after their special forces who were in Afghanistan accusing them of murdering the enemy. The rules they applied “the green card” were that you could not shoot enemy even if he entered your camp unless he was aiming a weapon at you. If they turned and ran you must not shoot. This is of course sickening interference by political science grads back home.
        They intend to prosecute members and imprison them, never mind strip pensions. The UK has gone “namby-pamby”. Perhaps some special forces men will escape the country and find refuge, I hope so.

  15. This is just simply something that goes right past stupid. Where, I don’t really think there’s a word for it.

  16. So this cop didn’t even know the first rule of handling firearms? You know the first one that states NEVER point a gun at something you do not want to destroy/kill. Whether it’s empty or loaded, makes no difference.
    Officer FUBARed. If it were you or me, we’d be in prison for 15 yrs.

  17. Don’t care if he gets a law degree or a blessing from the pope. He should have gone to jail and he should still be there. His only excuse is incompetence.

  18. I wonder how the Thin Blue Line copsucker types will attempt justify this one? Because you know they will

  19. Blanks are very dangerous to shoot at a person. There’s no bullet, but the blast still discharges the debris that results from the combustion of the blank load. A police training shouldn’t involve the shooting of blanks at civilians! Especially when the shockingly incompetent cop can’t tell a blank from a wadcutter.

    • Once I fired a vintage soft wooden 6.5×55 Swedish military “blank” at my basement floor. I figured hey these are designed to be shredded by being fired into a blank firing adapter that has a steel cone to deflect and shred wood fragments.
      Put ears on, glasses, oh look at that I have flecks of concrete in my skin. I am not smart. I have learned.
      I did this after I knew about that Hollywood guy who put a revolver to his head and the blank pushed a chunk of skull into his brain.
      I learned good though.

  20. I know a scum sucking whore of an attorney named Geoffrey Silverman of Portland Oregon who continues to argue that his DUII convicted, marijuana bootlegging client isn’t dangerous because he only loads his 12 gauge shotgun with buckshot. (Just FYI, 000 buckshot retains enough velocity at 300+ yards to penetrate a human skull). Of course a shotgun is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get. I was the expert consultant in a case where a Portland police officer accidentally loaded his designated “Less Lethal” shotgun with buckshot rather than less lethal beanbag rounds, then shot a subject at such close range that even beanbag rounds are likely to be lethal.

    The punchline is that this creep is married to Columbia County Oregon Deputy District Attorney Kim Silverman.

  21. If you can’t tell the difference between blanks and live rounds then you don’t need to be using a gun like this.

      • He’s the supreme moron that wants these cops to have the final say in who owns a firearm.

        You cannot make this shit up.

  22. I worked with those guys in Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte after Hurricane Charley. I think that was 2004. It was a mess, but not as much looting, etc. as Katrina. Anyway, I don’t remember this guy, but those I worked with were professional. This thing though. I’ve done force on force with simunitions, but first everyone was physically searched three times to insure there was no live ammunition on the range. Once by an instructor. Once by either shooter to your right and left. You did the same to them. It’s a dangerous world and there are few guarantees.

  23. Glad I haven’t accidentally shot someone.
    Early probation? well wouldn’t that be nice , but
    and today, along with the urine sample we’re going to do a full cavity search.

  24. He did’nt get his wish.

    Former officer Lee Coel will stay on probation, for now, after shooting Mary Knowlton during a police demonstration in Punta Gorda.

    The Judge decided to push the ruling into the future because she wasn’t sure if it was in her power or jurisdiction to terminate Coel’s probation.

    What makes it tricky for the Judge is that Coel hasn’t paid his restitution and Knowlton’s family wants it. That’s because 10-year probation for her death will never be enough.

    Rest of article veered off on a tangent . This was the only important part.

  25. Tbqh TTAG should run pics of revolver blanks and revolver wad cutters, have a voting mechanism so people can say which one is which, and see how many people get it right or wrong.

    Not to excuse what happened, people running that sort of training absolutely need to know what they’re doing before starting. Thing is, I don’t think they’re as easy to tell apart as the average TTAG commenter thinks it is.

  26. In the first picture, Mary Knowlton is holding Glock 17T. The blue frame shows that it is chambered to only accept simunition rounds. They knew simunitions existed and had the equipment. Besides marking rounds, there are a range of blanks from near silent to requiring hearing protection. It’s absolute negligence that all parties were not using them.

    • Exactly.
      There is no need to use real guns in training. Dummy or “blue” or”red” guns incapable of accepting live rounds is step one. Then make sure everyone understands how to use the blanks correctly.

  27. Hey sheet happens. It’s part of life. He should never have been adjucated in the legal system as it was an accident.

  28. Couple things: “The August, 2016 killing stunned the nation” – But, I hadn’t heard of this story until now. Also, my gut reaction was that only probation, regardless of the length, seems much too light for involuntary manslaughter, but I wouldn’t expect any less for a cop. You might think we’d hold police to a higher standard. Instead, they’re seemingly given a lot of exceptions.

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