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Officer who fatally shot woman during demonstration worked for Miramar Police Department

Lee Coel resigned year before being hired by Punta Gorda Police Department

MIRAMAR, Fla. – A Punta Gorda police officer who fatally shot a 73-year-old woman during a "shoot-don't shoot" role-playing demonstration was once employed by the Miramar Police Department.

The Punta Gorda Police Department on Wednesday identified the officer who shot former librarian Mary Knowlton during Tuesday evening's police-citizen training exercise.

Officer Lee Coel was hired in March 2014, almost a year after he resigned from the Miramar Police Department.

Miramar police spokeswoman Tania Rues provided Local 10 News with Coel's resignation letter, dated April 16, 2013.

File: Lee Coel Resignation Letter

"During my time of employment, I acquired an abundance of knowledge and skills, which I will benefit from for the rest of my life," Coel said. "In addition, over the last 15 months, I was fortunate enough to gain the friendship and respect of my co-workers and supervisors. These individuals have become a part of my family. The respect and kindheartedness that they showed was not taken for granted and will not be forgotten. Unfortunately, at this juncture, for personal reasons, I must resign from the position of certified law enforcement officer, effective immediately."

Knowlton, a well-known community volunteer, was shot after being randomly selected to take part in the role-playing scenario illustrating the split-second decisions an officer must make about firing. It was part of a popular citizens academy attended by 35 people, including her 75-year-old husband.

People Killed by Police in 2016 by Age Group | Graphiq

Her son, Steve Knowlton, said his father was "devastated."

The younger Knowlton said in an interview Wednesday at his parent's home that, on his mother's behalf, he was forgiving the officer who fired.

"There's too much hate in this world, in America, we always feel like we need revenge and it doesn't solve anything," he said. "I obviously can't say it's easy to forgive, but it needs to be done. She's watching me now."

Steve Knowlton tearfully told reporters Wednesday that he used to tease his mother about how much she worked in retirement. She helped with the local Chamber of Commerce, was active in a program for at-risk kids where she made lunch for the students, loved the library and spent hours there volunteering.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating why real ammunition was used by mistake at an event designed to bring police and the public together.

"We were unaware that any live ammunition was available to the officer," Punta Gorda Police Chief Tom Lewis said at a news conference Wednesday. "The officer involved is grief-stricken. We've got officers assigned to him to make sure he's psychologically stable."

Punta Gorda police Lt. Katie Heck said officers in such demonstrations normally use "Simunition guns," which are real-looking weapons that fire a non-lethal projectile with reduced force.

Mary Knowlton moved to Punta Gorda from Minnesota. She and her husband of 55 years split their time between Minnesota and the small southwest Florida town.

Steve Knowlton said his mother would have wanted him to forgive the officer who pulled the trigger.

"I forgive him. My mom was very spiritual. She brought us up right," he said. "He without sin casts the first stone."

Coel remains on administrative leave during the investigation.


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