Clu Wright is a man of constant motion.
He talks in such a rush of such accelerated commotion, it’s hard to take in all of his words. His hands chop and dice the air like a Ronco Veg-O-Matic. His legs jiggle and bob. Asked to repeat a sentence, he launches into a variation on the theme. Asked again, he does it again. When I comment on how hyper he is, he tells me he’s slowed down as he’s aged. He used to be hyper, he says. He’s not making a joke.
The 51-year-old, with a silver moustache and goatee and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, retired as Clay County Fire Marshal in 2012, but he’s still active. He’s a part-time paramedic for Putnam County. He ran (unsuccessfully) for the Clay County Commission this year as a true Republican conservative who’d do away with development impact fees for schools. And he became a licensed private investigator and launched a company, Clu Wright’s Investigations.
On an early October morning, he offered to make the 54-mile drive from Keystone Heights to Jacksonville to meet with me. He was here in about 20 minutes. He had something very important to communicate. He’d spent five months reviewing the ostensible suicide of 24-year-old St. Augustine woman Michelle O’Connell, and he’d produced a 92-page report about it. He wanted to share it with the world.
O’Connell — as you may know, because this case has generated considerable controversy and media attention — died Sept. 2, 2010, from a single gunshot wound to the head in the master bedroom of the home she shared with her then-23-year-old boyfriend, St. Johns County Sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks. She was packing to leave him. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, three medical examiners, a state attorney, a special prosecutor and Jeremy Banks himself have all said that O’Connell killed herself with Banks’ gun.
Wright thinks that’s bullshit. Only, as a good, Bible-believing Christian, he wouldn’t use that kind of language.
Here are Wright’s conclusions, in four short sentences: 1) Jeremy Banks murdered Michelle O’Connell. 2) The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office knows it. 3) The evidence proves it. 4) No one’s going to do anything about it.
He’s not alone in doubting the official story. A year ago, in November 2013, The New York Times published the results of a nine-month investigation into O’Connell’s death, “Two Gunshots on a Summer Night,” by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Walt Bogdanich and Glenn Silber, which cast serious doubt on the suicide narrative and the SJSO’s willingness and ability to investigate one of its own — and in the process angered Sheriff David Shoar, who continues to stand by his deputy. (The story also upset the St. Augustine Record, which fretted about whether The Ancient City was “a victim of big media parachuting into a small town and just getting the pulse wrong.”)
Wright saw the accompanying PBS Frontline documentary, A Death in St. Augustine, and felt compelled to get involved.
“I knew something wasn’t right, so I pulled everything I could think of to get on it,” he says.
And when he reviewed photographs of the death scene taken by evidence technicians, he saw something he thought was big, something important, something he says the cops had missed, something state crime investigators had missed, something that he believes could crack the case wide open.
He saw a T-shirt.