The scene was as grisly as it gets: Two gunshots fired, a beautiful young woman found lying in a pool of blood with a bullet through her throat. Deputies investigate and the death is ruled a suicide.
Things may not be as they seem -- at least that's what her family says. They laid her to rest with more questions than answers.
But now, a bombshell: Critical clues have been unearthed. And only Crime Watch Daily has new evidence from the grave
St. Augustine is a beautiful coastal hamlet in northern Florida. Violence and horror are words that simply don't belong. But on September 2, 2010, something violent and horrific did happen to a beautiful young woman named Michelle O'Connell. The question is: Did Michelle inflict violence and death upon herself, or was this something much more sinister?
Beautiful Michelle O'Connell, 24, was a fun, energetic force. She grew up the youngest of six kids, and Michelle was a loving and dedicated friend.
Everyone agrees Michelle's number-one purpose in life, her reason for living, was being a mother to her 4-year-old daughter Alexis. Michelle had three jobs and had just been promoted to a full-time position with benefits. Michelle's future was looking bright.
Except, that is, for one dark spot: Her relationship with her live-in boyfriend Jeremy Banks, a deputy at the St. Johns County Sheriff's Department, where Michelle's mother Patty and brother Scott also worked. Michelle and Jeremy were together a year -- and in the beginning, everyone approved.
Michelle loved Jeremy, but her friends and family soon began to see red flags. Michelle told her best friend that she believed Jeremy was controlling, manipulative and verbally abusive. Family and friends suspected things were escalating, especially after her mother and others said they witnessed Jeremy body-slam Michelle to the ground. He said it was a joke, but Patty, her mother, says Michelle felt otherwise.
Jeremy Banks has never been charged with any form of abuse.
According to her family, after months of trying to go, Michelle found the courage to leave. But the tragic events of one September night would make leaving impossible.
On the day of her death, do you believe she was preparing to leave Jeremy?
"She was packing her bags, Alexis's toys are in the back of the Jeep -- Michelle was leaving," said Ciarra Morris, Michelle's best friend.
Allegedly, Jeremy drank too much after a concert he and Michelle attended. Michelle drove them back to the house. Jeremy strangely sat in the backseat. Reportedly, on the way home Michelle informed Jeremy their relationship is over.
Then, according to neighbors, screams and two gunshots were heard.
Police and paramedics responded to Jeremy Banks's 911 call.
Michelle was found in the bedroom, dead from a gunshot through the mouth.
The gun was found near her left hand. That fact struck her mother as odd, since Michelle was right-handed.
Jeremy would soon tell his fellow deputies that he was sitting on his motorcycle in the garage when he heard the shots ring out from the nearby bedroom.
Within hours, Michelle's death was being treated as a suicide.
Despite the initial ruling, the family had faith Michelle's death would be investigated thoroughly and properly. But they would quickly change their tune. Michelle's family would soon suspect some sinister actions on the part of someone they once trusted.
Despite there being two shots fired, police very quickly concluded the 24-year-old mother committed suicide.
But her family is convinced her boyfriend, a sheriff's deputy, was involved. And what's even more troubling is they're convinced critical evidence from the crime scene has gone missing.
When his fellow cops arrive, Jeremy is immediately questioned in the back of a squad car. Within hours, Michelle's death is being handled as a suicide.
That was a shock to Patty O'Connell, who says her daughter had everything to live for. Hours before Michelle turned up dead she left a loving message on Patty's voicemail.
Though Michelle's own brother was a deputy with the same sheriff's department, and her mother held a desk job there, Michelle's family believed from the very beginning the investigation was compromised.
"My brother asked them, 'Please recuse yourself, don't investigate it, bring in an outside agency,' and that wasn't done," said Jennifer Crites, Michelle's sister.
Michelle's family claims important pieces of evidence were either thrown away or quickly deemed unimportant
There's the black glove found on the wet car.
"It hadn't rained that night. There's no water on his sheriff's car or Michelle's car," said Michelle's mother Patty. "I figured he hosed off outside before all the police come in."
And the family says a box of black medical gloves in Jeremy's patrol car was never tested against the one found on his car.
But the family says there were more alarming inconsistencies. Two shots were fired that night, the second being fatal. But the first?
"The shot was fired into her direction into a downward manner, the way the carpet fibers were and the bullet projectile," said Ciarra Morris, Michelle's best friend.
But most perplexing to Patty and the others, the gun was found next to Michelle's left hand. Michelle was right-handed.
No DNA was found on Jeremy's own handgun, the one that Michelle was shot with.
"I'm like wait a minute -- he has no DNA on it, it was wiped clean, but they only had some of Michelle's DNA," said Patty.
Reportedly there wasn't any blood on the gun either.
And according to Michelle's family, one of the biggest mysteries is the missing bloody shirt.
"There was a bloody shirt and what appears to be a gunshot hole through the shirt found photographed on the bed behind Michelle," said Ciarra Morris. "It was actually thrown into a biohazardous waste disposal."
"It's my belief that he took the clothing, wrapped it around his police firearm and used it to stop blood splatter," said Patty. "That piece of evidence is gone."
But St. Johns investigators ruled out these pieces of evidence as pointing to homicide, and declared Michelle had killed herself.
Does the family believe there was an agency cover-up?
"I believe that they intentionally made mistakes to make it so Jeremy could get away with this," said Patty.
But after the autopsy, even the medical examiner ruled it a suicide -- then, bizarrely, later amended the death certificate to say "shot by another person."
The case was closed. But the O'Connells weren't about to give up.
In short time, two new witnesses came forward saying they heard more than just gunshots. There were even neighbors who reported hearing screams.
"They passed an FBI standard polygraph. Nothing showed any red flags of deception, and that's crucial for people to know," said Jennifer Crites, Michelle's sister. "The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office knew about those witnesses and still didn't reach out."
The sheriff's office deemed the witnesses as not credible.
Months later Florida Governor Rick Scott bowed to pressure and the case was reopened by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who brought Banks back in for questioning.
A special prosecutor was appointed, and decided not to indict Jeremy Banks. Case closed, again.
"The victim in this case died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and one of our deputies almost wound up getting charged for a crime not only did he not commit, but never occurred," said St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar.
But with each new investigation, the O'Connell family grew more determined.
And now a new bombshell only Crime Watch Daily has: It would be as if Michelle was speaking to all from the grave.
Sheriff's deputy Jeremy Banks was investigated by his own colleagues. Michelle O'Connell's family, who were never interviewed by the local authorities, says there may have been a cover-up to protect one of their own.
But multiple investigations disagreed, and two separate prosecutors determined there was insufficient evidence to bring any charges against Jeremy Banks.
Years passed, the outcome seemed unchangeable. But this family was not giving up. The O'Connells wanted a second autopsy. But that could only come up with one very hard decision -- and it was taken just months ago.
In January Michelle O'Connell's body was removed from its resting place. Within hours, Dr. William Anderson, former deputy chief medical examiner for Orange County, Florida, along with two dental specialists, conducted an autopsy.
What Anderson found is a bombshell that could well trigger a new inquiry. Now for the first time Crime Watch Daily can exclusively reveal the results.
"In examining the body, we saw the linear fracture which basically cut the mandible into two pieces, and that linear fracture is due to some significant amount of force striking the jaw and causing that fracture," said Dr. Anderson. "This would be blunt-force trauma."
Her jaw had been split in two.
Dr. Anderson says it could not have been caused by the gun recoiling.
"I was able to basically exclude the recoil of a weapon. There's soft tissues -- the base of the mouth, the tongue, the teeth and so forth -- and all of those were intact," said Anderson. "If the gun was recoiling or there was a force to do that, it would damage all those tissues."
How could this fracture possibly have been missed?
Dr. Anderson says it was on the original X-ray.
"The medical examiner did not apparently see the fracture in the X-ray, although it's pretty apparent," said Dr. Anderson.
So what could have caused the fracture to Michelle's jaw?
"The only explanation, in my opinion, is that this individual was struck by either a fist or the stock of the gun or some flat object in the front of the jaw with enough force to break the jaw," said Dr. Anderson.
And there was another discovery: Anderson says Michelle's tongue was in a position atypical for a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
"The tongue was in a, basically a retracted position," said Anderson. "The fact that the tongue is in this unusual position, which requires it to be compressed back against the back of the throat, essentially cutting off air supply. You'd put the gun on the top of the tongue and fire, you wouldn't attempt to choke yourself before you're shooting."
So what does he think happened to Michelle O'Connell that night? He suggests some of the clues may have been apparent, based on the original autopsy photos showing her badly bruised eye and lip.
"My exam suggests strongly that the individual was hit twice in the face, once breaking the jaw, fell to the floor, the gun was inserted into her mouth while she was on the floor and fired, and this explains the position of the body, the flow of the blood, the retraction of the tongue," said Dr. Anderson. "I've never seen a suicide like this where there's evidence of potentially incapacitating trauma that occurred prior to the gunshot wound. So in my estimation, this is a homicide."
Crime Watch Daily reached out to Jeremy Banks for his thoughts about these stunning developments and autopsy results. No answer at home, so we called. He directed us to speak with his attorney.
Banks's attorney Mac McLeod did have something to say about the findings when we talked to him by phone from the Crime Watch Daily offices.
McLeod's response to the new claim of blunt-force trauma and fractured jaw: "How in the Hell could blunt-force trauma sufficient to break a mandible show no signs of exterior wounding whatsoever? I mean it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out how utterly ridiculous this is. The medical examiner indicated that most of it was split as a result of the gunshot wound. That's a normal finding, and that he went ahead and split it the rest of the way during the autopsy.
"This was not authorized, it wasn't witnessed, they didn't offer the opportunity for anybody to see anything," said McLeod. "They bought somebody to tell them that they wanted to hear because they can't take the tragedy that it is, which is a suicide."
We also contacted the St. Johns County Sheriff, who did not return our call.
"I am hopeful that now they have it in black and white, this isn't a witness, this isn't a sister or a mother, this isn't Mr. Banks or one of the O'Connells. This is a doctor who has no reason to make his findings consistent with anyone's emotional beliefs," said O'Connell family attorney Janet Johnson. "The science is the science. I expect that the governor's office will welcome these findings, appoint a new state attorney, and it will go to a grand jury."
Just a few hours after the autopsy, Michelle O'Connell was reburied at San Lorenzo Cemetery, in St. Augustine, according to her family, now finally at peace. What really happened the night of September 2, 2010, might remain a mystery forever.
"They can say 'suicide' as many times as they want, to scream it from the rooftops, but at the end of the day we're going to right their wrong and everybody will know Michelle did not take her own life," said Michelle's sister Jennifer.