Michelle O'Connell story draws national attention | News

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Michelle O'Connell story draws national attention
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St. Augustine, Fla. -- Chrissy O'Connell says the wave of national media attention over her sister's death has been hard -- but rewarding.

"The
pictures were graphic and it was hard to look at," she says of the front page story in Sunday's New York Times. "But the truth was out
there, and I'm just grateful for news agencies that want to get the real
story out there."

The story, which First Coast News broke last August, moved to the national stage this week, with a joint investigation by the New York Times and the PBS show Frontline.

The
family has been trying to tell its story since September 2010, when Michelle O'Connell was found dead of a gunshot wound. The weapon used was a service revolver belonging St. Johns County Sheriff's Deputy Jeremy Banks -- Michelle's estranged boyfriend, and the only other person in the house with her that night. The Sheriff's Office quickly ruled Michelle's death a suicide. And Banks has always denied any involvement in her death.

But the fact Banks was a deputy has clouded the investigation
from the start. So did the fact that the sheriff didn't turn the
investigation over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for four months.

Sheriff David Shoar, who has posted some of the case's investigative documents on the county website, concedes mistakes were made. 

"The truth is a lot of people could have done things differently
including myself. ... In fact, in our report, we
critiqued ourselves. We didn't do a jam up investigation that night. We came up short in some areas."

But Shoar primarily faults FDLE for what he calls "atrocious" conduct in investigating the case. He reviewed their work himself, issuing a scathing 153 page critique that ultimately led to the suspension of the case's lead investigator. The agency's chief also stepped down.

The Frontline story, which airs on PBS tonight at 10 p.m. and which FCN previewed, comes to a different conclusion. The hour-long show examines the work of local medical examiners, police and prosecutors -- and brings some of their work product to experts at the John Jay College of Law Enforcement in New York.

In one exchange, investigative reporter Walt Bogdanich querys criminology professor Peter Deforest. 

"Is this an impressive document in your view?" he asks.
"No," says Deforest.
"How would you describe it?" Bogdanich asks.
"Amateurish," Deforest replies.

Sheriff Shoar declined to be interviewed by the NYT -- a decision he knew would draw some criticism. "I know the article is going to say 'no comment,' but for a lot of
different reasons I'm not going to sit with the New York Times."

Shoar added, "The truth of the matter is the family found an advocate early on in this case with that reporter. The problem with being an advocate, is you go from reporting the narrative to creating the narrative."

Bogdanich countered that Shoar had "no basis" for that claim. "I tried for 8 months to get an interview with the sheriff," he told FCN in an email. "I did everything possible to convince him to talk. He twice agreed to the interview and we both agreed on a date -- only for him to cancel, the last time five minutes before the interview was to begin."

But if Sheriff Shoar's voice is absent from the story, family members feel they've found theirs.

"When we first told our story to First Coast News, it was a
very freeing thing," says Jennifer Crites, Michelle O'Connell's sister. "It was the first  time our side was going to be
told. ... And now with the New York Times and Frontline reports, it kinds of validates and vindicates our family."

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