Suit Against Agent Who Reinvestigated a Florida Mother’s Death Is Dismissed

Michelle O’Connell’s daughter, Alexis, in 2017. She was 4 when her mother was fatally shot in St. Augustine, Fla., in 2010.

In a stinging rebuke to one of Florida’s most influential sheriffs, a federal judge found that a state law enforcement official had probable cause to believe that one of the sheriff’s deputies had fatally shot his girlfriend as she was preparing to leave him.

The sheriff, David B. Shoar of St. Johns County, had waged a yearslong campaign to convince the public that Rusty Rodgers, an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, had violated the rights of the deputy, Jeremy Banks, during the state’s reinvestigation of the shooting, originally ruled a suicide by the sheriff more than seven years ago.

The judge, Brian J. Davis, on Friday dismissed a lengthy civil case filed by Deputy Banks, with strong support from the sheriff, accusing Agent Rodgers of, among other things, coaching witnesses and filing false and misleading information to a state court in support of his request to search the deputy’s property.

In the order tossing out the lawsuit, the judge concluded, “Even in the light most favorable to the Deputy Banks, the record, considered in its entirety, reflects a thoughtful examination of difficult facts and circumstances.”

While concluding that Agent Rodgers had acted legally, the judge did not rule on whether the death was a suicide or a homicide — merely that the state agent had had probable cause, based on what he knew at the time, to believe that Deputy Banks might have been responsible.

The case has long stirred strong emotions in St. Augustine, where the 2010 shooting of Deputy Banks’s girlfriend, Michelle O’Connell, pitted one law enforcement agency against another and led to the appointments of three special prosecutors.

Deputy Banks remains on the force after prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to charge him. He denies harming Ms. O’Connell.

The circumstances of the shooting and the sheriff’s response raised broader questions about how well the police can investigate allegations of domestic violence within their own ranks. Ms. O’Connell, a single mother of a 4-year-old girl, was fatally shot with Deputy Banks’s service weapon. No suicide note was found.

Agent Rodgers, a former agent of the year, was asked to re-examine the shooting after Ms. O’Connell’s family complained that the sheriff had not properly investigated her death. The state agent subsequently determined that the sheriff had botched the case with missteps that included failing to collect important evidence at the crime scene. Agent Rodgers also uncovered evidence that appeared to contradict Deputy Banks’s account of how Ms. O’Connell had died.

Credit...Charlotte Kesl for The New York Times

The shooting and the sheriff’s attempts to discredit Agent Rodgers were the subject of two New York Times investigations as well as a documentary by the PBS program “Frontline.”

The Times, after reviewing thousands of pages of investigative files and legal documents, reported in June that Sheriff Shoar’s attacks on Agent Rodgers were based largely on unsupported allegations and innuendo.

The judge’s order on Friday tracked closely with what The Times had found. The court ruled that many of Deputy Banks’s claims were argumentative and unsupported in the more than 3,000 pages of documents in the case record.

According to Deputy Banks’s account, he and Ms. O’Connell were home alone late one night in September 2010 when she began packing her things to leave. Although they had argued that evening while driving back to the house they shared, he said, they did not argue once they were home.

Yet Agent Rodgers found two neighbors who said they had heard a woman screaming for help before the sound of gunshots. The sheriff’s officers had not bothered to interview neighbors, or Ms. O’Connell’s family, before declaring the death a suicide.

Sheriff Shoar repeatedly claimed that Ms. O’Connell had been suicidal, but Judge Davis noted that “the vast majority, if not all of Ms. O’Connell’s family members and friends reported she was in good mental health, not likely to commit suicide, and was looking forward to the future.”

Sheriff Shoar has not retreated from his conclusion of suicide, citing the findings of two state medical examiners. A third pathologist, Dr. William R. Anderson, later hired by the family, concluded that Ms. O’Connell had died from a gunshot “inflicted by another.” After exhuming the body, Dr. Anderson — himself a former state medical examiner — discovered that Ms. O’Connell had a cracked jaw, a fact that had not been noted by the first two medical examiners.

At the time, Sheriff Shoar issued a statement calling the exhumation “reprehensible” and accusing Ms. O’Connell’s mother of “molesting” the body by removing it from its “place of rest.”

A lawyer for Agent Rodgers, William J. Sheppard, said on Monday that the judge’s order was “as expected, because Agent Rodgers did nothing but his job in an efficient and honorable way, as he has done for the past 30-plus years.”

In an email, Deputy Banks’s lawyer, Mac McLeod, expressed disappointment in the judgment and said they would consider an appeal. “We respect the efforts of the court and certainly will analyze the order in great detail as we move forward,” he said.

Sheriff Shoar did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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