from the editor

Something Is Rotten in St. Johns County

New developments in the O’Connell case cry out for the FBI

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When Michelle O’Connell’s body was found on September 2, 2010, there was ample reason to suspect her boyfriend, St. Johns County Sheriff’s deputy Jeremy Banks. The 24-year-old single mother had, after all, been killed in Banks’ St. Augustine home and with his service weapon. What’s more, Banks had allegedly been drinking that night, and O’Connell was reportedly preparing to break off their relationship. No matter. The deputy’s brothers-in-arms duly arrived, summoned by Banks himself to what he claimed was the scene of O’Connell’s suicide. After a perfunctory investigation, Sheriff David Shoar rubber-stamped the boyfriend’s version of events.

It was a breathtakingly brazen assertion of omerta, and it didn’t sit well with many in the community—or state authorities. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement opened its own investigation and challenged Shoar’s conclusion, suggesting O’Connell’s death was not suicide but homicide. The mystery has also been scrutinized by national media over the years, with reporting in The New York Times, PBS Frontline and ABC’s 20/20.

Yet the cause of death remains, officially, suicide. And Banks remains on Shoar’s force, even as the sheriff suffers more scandals. In November, SJSO finance director, Raye Brutnell, was arrested and charged with fraud and embezzlement. Shoar learned from his mistake; this time he referred the investigation to his counterpart in Polk County, thus avoiding both the apparent conflict of interest and state scrutiny.

Still, scrutiny in the O’Connell case continued. The 2010 death was being actively investigated by a private detective as recently as Jan. 31, 2019, when said sleuth, Ellie Marie Washtock, 38, was found dead in their St. Augustine home, victim of a single gunshot wound. Washtock was in regular contact with O’Connell’s mother, Patty O’Connell, and had requested records relating to the O’Connell case in August 2018.

To forestall state and possibly federal intervention, Sheriff Shoar again invited a neutral but presumably friendly counterpart (this time the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office) to handle the investigation, which is now starting to bear fruit. On May 6, the Putnam County Medical Examiner’s Office announced what many already suspected: that Washtock’s death was a homicide.

This is a promising sign that we will not see another rush to cover-up. Putnam County assures that this is an ongoing investigation—a homicide investigation—but we don’t believe that a neighboring sheriff’s office is the appropriate authority. What St. Johns County needs now is a law enforcement agency with the means and the mandate to put the pieces together and deliver justice for both Michelle O’Connell and Ellie Washtock—before more blood is shed. We know now that a murderer is at large. Since the FDLE recused itself from the Washtock investigation early on, it might be time for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to intervene.

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