by John W. Taylor
Jeremy Banks and Michelle O’Connell started dating in 2009, after Michelle’s brother, Scott, introduced them. Jeremy worked with Scott as a deputy with the St. Johns Sheriff’s Office in Florida, just south of Jacksonville. Michelle held various odd jobs and had a young daughter from a previous relationship. They were both in their early twenties. Initially, they appeared content with their relationship, but many of Michelle’s friends and family immediately disliked Jeremy. They thought he was controlling and verbally abusive toward Michelle. Though their relationship experienced problems early on, they moved in together about six months later.
On September 2, 2010, Jeremy and Michelle went to a concert with her brother and several friends. Although Michelle planned to end her relationship with Jeremy that night, she still accompanied him to the concert. In a picture taken at the event, Michelle smiles, while Jeremy exhibits an emotion somewhere between disgust and anger. The contrast was unmistakable.
After the concert, two friends came over to Michelle and Jeremy’s home around 10:40 p.m. According to their statements, they remained there for approximately thirty to forty-five minutes. Though the timing is still being debated, shortly after they left, there was a loud “pop.” Fifteen seconds passed and then there was another loud “pop.” Jeremy claimed to be in the garage when he heard the first shot and right outside a locked bedroom door when he heard the second. After kicking the door open, Jeremy called 9-1-1 at 11:20 p.m. The call was routed to the Operations Center for St. Johns County where he was a deputy.
Jeremy sounded panicked. His emotions exhibited urgency, but his words did not. Though some people will start with a pleasantry, even in an emergency situation, his use of the word “please” was unnecessary. It was a slower and less efficient manner of conveying critical information.
Dispatcher: What’s going on?
Jeremy Banks: Please. Send─ my girlfriend, I think she just shot herself. There’s blood everywhere!
Jeremy again utilized “please.” He followed by saying that he “thinks” his girlfriend shot herself, which meant he did not know what happened. He was speculating or making an assumption. Jeremy ended his response by saying, “there is blood everywhere.” This was a passive statement as he did not identify whose blood it was or where it was coming from.
The dispatcher asked for clarification:
Dispatcher: She what?
Jeremy Banks: She shot herself! Please. [un-intelligible] Get someone here please.
Though Jeremy initially stated that he thought his girlfriend shot herself, he now stated that she shot herself, removing “thinks.” This was a significant change. When prompted a second time, he likely slipped and dropped the unnecessary word, “thinks.” The truth leaked out. He knew what happened to Michelle.
Jeremy utilized please two more times. The excessive use of please seemed to indicate Jeremy did not feel the dispatcher believed him or realized the severity of the situation. Why? People who are deceptive can be overly concerned with ensuring themselves that their audience believes what they are saying. The call continued.
Dispatcher: Ma’am? Ma’am, I need you to calm down.
Jeremy Banks: It’s mister! It’s sir!
Due to the caller’s demeanor, the dispatcher likely thought she was talking to a woman. Regardless, Jeremy reacted quite harshly and unexpectedly. Though there should have been a significant sense of urgency on this call, he took the time to correct the dispatcher. He demanded the dispatcher call him either mister or sir. Addressing a slight to his ego was more important to Jeremy than the ostensible emergency situation.
During the initial portion of the call, Jeremy was crying and hysterical. However, when the dispatcher referred to him as ma’am his tone completely changed. Seconds earlier, he was a grieving and distraught boyfriend, but once his manhood was challenged he became angry. He was highly offended and demanded to be spoken to with respect.
Dispatcher: Ma’am, listen to me─
Jeremy Banks: It’s sir! It’s sir. Listen─ hang on, let me tell you the truth. I’m Deputy Banks with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office. I work with y’all. Get someone here now!
Listen is a word used at the beginning of a statement in order to get the person’s attention. Why would Jeremy not think he had the dispatcher’s full attention? He called 9-1-1. He followed with more unnecessary words, “hang on” and “let me tell you the truth.” He went on to identify himself as “Deputy Banks.” He wanted her to address him as Deputy Banks, not Jeremy. He wanted her to show respect.
During his two responses after he felt he was attacked, he dropped the use of please. It returned, along with his emotions, as he continued answering questions.
Dispatcher: Sir, we’re doing that while talking to you. Is she still breathing?
Jeremy Banks: No, there is blood coming out of everywhere. Please. Please.
He answered the dispatcher’s question with no qualifiers. It was an emphatic no. He did not elaborate on how he knew she was not breathing. He also did not state whether or not he had attempted C.P.R. or any other life-saving measures.
Dispatcher: Jeremy, we’re coming as fast as we can, ok? Calm down for me, ok.
Jeremy Banks: Please, you don’t understand, she just shot herself. Please get them here.
Again, Jeremy did not think the dispatcher understood the situation. Did he realize he had only provided minimal information, or was he overly sensitive because he was not being completely forthright?
When deputies from the St. Johns Sheriff’s Office (“SJSO”) arrived at 11:25 p.m., they found Michelle O’Connell with a gunshot wound through her mouth continuing out the back of her throat. There was another bullet burrowed into the carpeting. Twenty-three minutes later, paramedics pronounced Michelle dead. Deputy Jeremy Banks’ service weapon lay next to her left hand. Based on the circumstances, there were only two options, either Michelle committed suicide or Jeremy killed her. Even though the situation involved a St. Johns’ deputy, his duty weapon, and a possible homicide, the decision was made for SJSO to handle the investigation internally.
Though many of the police officers initially on scene appeared to immediately conclude Michelle killed herself, the possibility of homicide existed. Those in authority within SJSO chose to disregard the clear conflict of interest in this case. The detectives on this case were under tremendous internal pressure to conclude suicide. This was the initial assessment by SJSO deputies on scene. Further, they were investigating one of their own. The investigators were not disinterested parties, as law enforcement is supposed to be; they had clear motivation to resolve this case favorably to the department.
As many officials in the department should have known, suicides are rarely accepted by the family. By handling the investigation internally, SJSO nearly guaranteed it would be scrutinized and second-guessed by the victim’s family and friends. Apparently, this was acceptable to SJSO; however, they did not anticipate a wave of criticism from the media and general public that followed.
During the investigation, SJSO investigators failed to: interview the O’Connell and Banks families; canvass the neighborhood for potential witnesses; collect all the evidence; test the evidence; file reports properly; download Jeremy’s cellphone; or reconstruct the crime scene. The extent of SJSO’s investigation appeared to only include securing the crime scene, taking a few photos, and casually interviewing Jeremy in the back of a police car. SJSO concluded suicide as the cause of death within hours, if not minutes, after deputies arrived on scene. One must ponder, does SJSO handle all investigations in this manner, or did they omit basic, fundamental investigative practices because it involved one of their deputies?
Dr. Frederick Hobin conducted the official autopsy. Michelle’s blood alcohol content was .086, slightly above the state’s legal limit for intoxication, but no other drugs were found in her system. Dr. Hobin found no injuries indicative of defensive wounds. He identified a cut above Michelle’s right eye, which he postulated was a result of an ejected shell casing striking her, though anyone who has fired a semi-automatic pistol has likely been hit by an ejected shell casing without a corresponding injury. Based on his medical analysis and the crime scene information provided by SJSO, Dr. Hobin determined two days after the incident that her manner of death was suicide.
With the autopsy completed, the matter of Michelle O’Connell’s death was considered complete, or so SJSO hoped. Michelle’s family and friends, however, believed she was killed. There were too many unanswered questions and no one close to Michelle thought she was suicidal. The O’Connel’s met with SJSO Sheriff David Shoar to discuss Michelle’s death and request a second, independent investigation. Sheriff Shoar flatly refused their request. Months later, after considerable media attention and numerous website postings criticizing SJSO’s handling of the case, Sheriff Shoar reluctantly authorized an independent investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (“FDLE”). Prior to the investigation, Sheriff Shoar assured his employees that FDLE “won’t find anything” that could lead a homicide indictment in Michelle’s death.
FDLE assigned Agent Rusty Rodgers, a thirty year law enforcement veteran, to the case. Although Sheriff Shoar unenthusiastically allowed the independent investigation, Agent Rodgers aggressively pursued all possible avenues in the case. Within weeks, he discovered witnesses, Stacey Boswell and Heather Ladley, who claimed to hear two shots fired on the night of September 2, 2010 around 11:00 p.m. They were standing outside smoking, a few blocks from the Banks’ residence. Not only did they hear the gunshots, but they claimed to have heard arguing and a woman cry for help in between the first and second shot. According to the witnesses, emergency vehicles arrived about ten to fifteen minutes after the last gunshot. Both witnesses later passed polygraphs pertaining to what they heard on the evening in question.
Based on the witness statements, Dr. Hobin changed his autopsy conclusion from suicide to homicide. He later changed his conclusion back to suicide. Dr. Hobin regularly changed his opinion in this case, but he failed to select the most obvious conclusion when faced with conflicting information: undetermined.
Dr. Predag Bulic was the next to review the medical evidence. He initially considered an exhumation, but then stated it would not produce any further forensic evidence. Dr. Bulic backed the original determination of suicide. Dr. Bulic opined that Michelle held the gun upside down in her mouth, and the gun recoiled forward causing a small flashlight attached to the gun to injure her right eye. Unfortunately for Dr. Bulic, testing of this scenario failed to produce a single instance of the gun recoiling forward. Also, the distance from Michelle’s mouth to her eye injury was three inches, but the distance from the gun to the outer edge of the attached light was only two and 3/16 inches. The light could not have caused the injury. It appeared Dr. Bulic massaged the evidence to fit his theory rather than letting the evidence drive his conclusions.
Based on the testimony of the two witnesses, Agent Rodgers and the FDLE investigators believed a homicide may have occurred. FDLE brought in forensic experts to recreate the crime scene. Most of the evidence and information they collected validated their hypothesis of homicide. Notwithstanding the circumstantial evidence collected, on March 12, 2012, Special Prosecutor Brad King released a statement indicating there was not enough evidence to support a homicide indictment. Jeremy Banks would not be charged.
Within a month, Agent Rodgers came under fire for his actions during the O’Connell death investigation. Sheriff Shoar led the charge to pursue Agent Rodgers and discredit his findings. Several complaints were lodged, though Agent Rodgers was eventually cleared of any criminal wrong-doing.
On March 26, 2013, Sheriff Shoar released a 153 page report called a “Review of Michelle O’Connell’s Death Investigation.” The title was quite misleading as a vast majority of the report critiqued Agent Rodgers’ handling of the case and justified SJSO’s conclusion of suicide. Of the 153 pages, only two pages were dedicated to analyzing SJSO’s actions, decisions, and deficiencies during their investigation.
According to the report, Jeremy Banks remained professional and respectful during the investigation. Yet, it failed to mention that Jeremy violently pounded a police vehicle on the night of the incident and admitted to reading his SJSO investigative file prior to an interview. The report provided minimal objective information on Michelle’s death and only helped to draw battle lines between SJSO and anyone who disagreed with their conclusions in this case.
During an interview, Sheriff David Shoar called allegations of SJSO covering up a murder “insane.” No evidence has been uncovered to indicate SJSO intentionally and actively coordinated an effort to conceal the truth from coming out in this case. However, many of the activities SJSO engaged in regarding Michelle’s death investigation were designed to facilitate a conclusion of suicide. Further, SJSO conducted an inept investigation, and it is not clear whether it was deliberate or simply due to incompetence.
SJSO’s posture in this case has been more about maintaining Sheriff Shoar’s reputation than protecting Jeremy Banks. Sheriff Shoar allowed the initial investigation to be handled internally. He is ultimately responsible for the numerous mistakes made by his deputies and detectives. If they happened to come to the right conclusion, then his errors in leadership appear less alarming. However, if Michelle’s death turns out to be a homicide, Sheriff Shoar will lose even more of the public’s trust and further undermine his authority.
Sheriff Shoar fired Michelle’s brother, Scott O’Connell, for threatening to “blow up the police department” when he was angered over the prosecutor’s decision to not charge Jeremy Banks. Interestingly, about the time Michelle’s brother changed his mind, and concluded Michelle killed herself, he got his job back.
The two witnesses who heard gunshots and a woman cry for help on the night of September 2, 2010 in the vicinity of Jeremy’ home stated that they did not come forward earlier because they were concerned about making statements against an SJSO deputy. Their concerns seemed to be well-founded. Sheriff Shoar has created an environment where a citizen would only report nefarious activities by SJSO deputies at their own peril.
This case hinged on whether or not Michelle killed herself. According to some reports, Michelle may have suffered from depression and low self-esteem as a teenager. Michelle also allegedly expressed suicidal thoughts as a child, but never acted on them. In the months prior to her death, a co-worker noticed that Michelle had recently been crying and seemed stressed. Otherwise, there were no indications she was suicidal.
When asked during an interview if Michelle ever expressed suicidal thoughts, Jeremy told a story regarding an argument. According to Jeremy, during a “domestic altercation,” Michelle stated, ‘Jeremy, you just make me wanna [sic] kill myself sometimes.’ This statement made no sense. If Michelle and Jeremy were in the midst of an argument, why would Michelle direct her anger at herself and rather than Jeremy? And only on television and in written dialogue do people use the other person’s name when they are in the middle of a conversation. Jeremy’s story sounded contrived.
SJSO placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of Michelle’s text messages in the hours leading up to her death. According to SJSO, it provided a window into her state of mind. The texts illustrated a “despondent” woman on the verge of suicide. Michelle sent several texts to her sister Christine. One stated, “Promise me one thing… Alexis [her daughter] will be happy and always have a good life.” In another text, Michelle stated, “That no matter what, Alexis will always be safe and loved.” These texts conveyed an ominous tone. The texts could have been indicative of her contemplating taking her own life, but her family believed her texts expressed a fear of Jeremy, not a preamble to suicide.
Michelle had not attempted suicide previously, and she did not leave a note. She had recently received a promotion at work. There was nothing going on in her life that would lead one to believe she would kill herself. Michelle had a four-year old daughter. One person close to Michelle, stated, “This was a woman whose life was dedicated to her daughter.”
Hours before her death, Michelle broke up with Jeremy. She told him that after she moved out her brother would pick up her things. At the time she allegedly killed herself, she was packing her bags to leave. Michelle had finally acted; she was leaving a bad relationship. It was her decision to break up with Jeremy. It was what she wanted. Why would she take her own life after following-through on what she wanted to have happen?
On the day she died, Michelle left her mother a voicemail referencing them getting together soon, and she texted her sister at 9:55 p.m., stating “I’ll be there soon.” These actions do not illustrate a woman who was about to take her own life. Suicide, though not always logical, is an act of desperation. One’s situation is perceived to be so dire that her only choice is to end it all. Nothing indicated this type of situation for Michelle. To the contrary, things were improving.
During his initial interview with SJSO, Jeremy described the events leading up to Michelle’s death. He said, “We argued a little bit, but nothing terrible.” Jeremy also allegedly told Michelle that they were not best friends anymore and she agreed. He said they argued in the car, “…but [when] we got to the house, we were fine.” He described their break-up as almost blissful. Though Jeremy was undoubtedly trying to mitigate the appearance of significant conflict between the two of them, he also downplayed the likelihood of suicide.
Police found the gun next to Michelle’s left-hand. Later testing found considerable gunshot residue on her left hand, but not on her right. Based on the crime scene evidence, Michelle shot herself with her left hand, even though she was right-handed.
Even with considerable non-dominant hand coordination, it feels unnatural to pull a trigger with one’s off-hand. Shooting with one’s off-hand is awkward, even for individuals who have fired a pistol with their non-dominant hand numerous times. Most people would likely never use their non-dominant hand to fire a gun if their dominant hand was available. Some police agencies do not have their officers practice shooting with their non-dominant hand because there have been many instances where police officers still pulled the trigger with their dominant hand, even when it was seriously injured. They found a way to fire the gun. Therefore, why did a woman with minimal firearm experience and no injuries to her dominant hand choose to shoot herself with her non-dominant hand?
Moments after Michelle allegedly shot herself, Jeremy broke into the bedroom and stayed by her side until the police and paramedics arrived. Yet, Jeremy had no blood on him, except for two small dots on his shirt. On the 9-1-1 call, Jeremy stated “there is blood everywhere.” Jeremy also indicated during the emergency call that Michelle was not breathing, which means he must have touched her or engaged her in some manner. According to an SJSO deputy on scene, Jeremy smelled like he just took a shower, but in interviews, Jeremy denied washing his hand or taking a shower prior to the police arriving.
There was also an absence of high impact blood stains on Michelle’s left arm and sleeve, which was inconsistent with her having used her left hand to fire the weapon. Based on the lack of blood spatter on her left arm, either all the forensic evidence indicating Michelle fired the gun with her left hand was wrong, or, alternatively, someone else fired the fatal shot. There was only one candidate for an alternative shooter.
Though not tested initially by SJSO, the gun used to kill Michelle did not have any blood on it. The gun did not have Jeremy’s DNA on it, even though he carried it when he worked. The gun only had trace amounts of Michelle’s DNA on it; however, it was inside Michelle’s mouth when it was fired. It is hard to explain the forensic testing results, unless the gun was cleaned.
When Agent Rodgers canvassed Jeremy’s neighborhood, he approached Jeremy at his home. Jeremy stated, “I just stopped by to get rid of some of her shit from the house.” He then corrected himself by stating, “…I mean, pack up some of her stuff.” Which statement conveyed Jeremy’s true emotions and which one attempted to conceal his feelings?
According to Jeremy, after he heard the first shot he stood outside the bedroom door, knocking, and yelling to Michelle. Yet, she never said anything to him. She was supposedly in the midst of killing herself because of her losing him, but she did not speak to him. No, ‘I love you. I can’t live without you.’ She did not say anything, which seems quite implausible. Second, a gun was fired, his gun, and he did not feel the need to kick in an interior door. Why did the second shot cause him to kick in the door, but not the first one?
If Jeremy was standing outside the bedroom when Michelle shot herself, he would not have told the 9-1-1 operator that he “thinks” his girlfriend shot herself. He would have known for certain what happened.
Those close to Michelle considered her a fighter, yet she had no defensive wounds. Jeremy was almost a foot taller than Michelle and he outweighed her by over a hundred pounds. Plus, under a homicide scenario he would have been pointing a gun at her, which would have significantlyreduced her ability to fight back. She was at his mercy.
SJSO hypothesized that the first shot into the floor was an accidental discharge by a woman inexperienced with firearms. If a suicide occurred, it was a reasonable explanation. If it was a homicide, it could have been fired postmortem. Jeremy could have placed the gun into Michelle’s hand and fired it into the floor. This would have transferred gunshot residue to her hand and her DNA to the gun, but at this time, there is no clear explanation for why two shots were fired.
With officials doing little, in early 2016, the O’Connell family arranged for an exhumation of Michelle’s body in conjunction with a second autopsy to be performed by Dr. Bill Anderson. According to Dr. Anderson, when the gun was fired, Michelle’s tongue positioning would have almost gagged or suffocated her. This was consistent with someone else forcing a gun into her mouth rather than her placing it there. Dr. Anderson also found a fracture in Michelle’s jaw. Coupled with lacerations on her lip and eye, he postulated that Michelle was struck multiple times prior to being shot. As a result, he determined her manner of death was homicide.
With significant confidence and no humility, Sheriff Shoar stated, “We know it’s a suicide.” However, the evidence is far from definitive. The FDLE investigation concluded it was more likely a homicide than a suicide. Prosecutors who reviewed the case have concluded ‘not enough evidence to prosecute.’ The debate rages on.
Through interviews, his comprehensive report, and the facilitation of a poorly run investigation, Sheriff Shoar has provided a considerable amount of exculpatory evidence with regard to a future homicide prosecution of Jeremy Banks. It is not clear whether Sheriff Shoar believes Jeremy or not, but regardless, he has way too much to lose personally to allow a successful prosecution of his deputy.
Bogdanich, Walt, “Florida Gov. Opens New Investigation into O’Connell Death,” Frontline, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/florida-gov-opens-new-investigation-into-oconnell-death/, October 3 2014.
Bogdanich, Walt, Glen Silber, “Two Gunshots on a Summer Night,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/two-gunshots/, November 23 2013.
Doran, Matt, “Who Fired the Gun That Killed Michelle O’Connell?” Crime Watch Daily, http://crimewatchdaily.com/2016/05/23/who-fired-the-gun-that-killed-michelle-oconnell/, May 23, 2016.
Doran, Matt, “Murder or Suicide? The Exhumation of Michelle O’Connell,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matt-doran/murder-or-suicide-the_b_10110682.html, May 24, 2016.
Eastman, Susan Cooper, “Murder, He Wrote: A Man Named Clu Investigates the Death of Michelle O’Connell,” Folio Weekly, http://folioweekly.com/MURDER-HE-WROTE-A-MAN-NAMED-CLU-INVESTIGATES-THE-DEATH-OF-MICHELLE-O-CONNELL,11570?page=1&, November 20, 2014.
McClish, Mark, “Deputy Jeremy Banks 911 Call Death of Michelle O’Connell,” Statement Analysis, http://statement-analysis.blogspot.com/2016/05/deputy-jeremy-banks-911-call-death-of.html, May 23, 2016.
Piggott, Jim, “Sister: ‘So many mistruths’ in Michelle O’Connell case,” News4Jax, http://www.news4jax.com/news/local/sister-so-many-mistruths-in-michelle-oconnell-case, November 19, 2015.
Purdy, Joy, “New autopsy finds Michelle O’Connell’s death a homicide,” News4JAX, http://www.news4jax.com/news/florida/st-johns-county/new-autopsy-finds-michelle-oconnells-death-a-homicide, May 22, 2016.
Robinson, Julian, “Florida cop will not face murder charges after investigation into the death of his girlfriend who was shot with his own gun at his home,” DailyMail.com, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3203695/Florida-cop-not-face-murder-charges-investigation-death-girlfriend-shot-gun-home.html, August 19, 2015.
“Jeremy Banks is Questioned,” NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/watch/dateline/jeremy-banks-is-questioned-230747715932.
“Two Shots Fired, Parts 1-6,” Dateline, NBC News, http://www.nbcnews.com/video/dateline/54987380#54987380, April 19, 2014.
“Review of Michelle O’Connell’s Death Investigation,” St Johns County Sheriff’s Office, March 26, 2013.
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John W. Taylor writes in the true crime genre at www.truecrimewriting.com. He has written short pieces and articles on the death of Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. John wrote and published Umbrella of Suspicion: Investigating the Death of JonBénet Ramsey and Isolated Incident: Investigating the Death of Nancy Cooper in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
John’s interest in the darker side of human nature has compelled him to conduct numerous research and writing projects on various unsolved crimes. He currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.