The shooting death of the girlfriend of a Florida deputy sheriff has haunted and divided the community of St. Augustine, Florida, for going on a decade. Shortly after the woman, 24-year-old Michelle O'Connell, was killed by a bullet from her boyfriend's service weapon, authorities ruled the case a suicide, without examining crucial forensic evidence.
Now, one of the people captivated and troubled by her story — a local resident who became something of an amateur sleuth on the case — is dead. And last week, authorities ruled the latest death a homicide, igniting speculation that the shooting could somehow be connected to O'Connell's death in 2010.
A spokeswoman for the Putnam County Sheriff's Office said this week that there was "no reason to believe" that the two deaths were "necessarily related."
Just the same, the spokeswoman, Allison Waters-Merritt, added, "We leave all options out, until they are 100% ruled out."
The resident, Ellie Washtock, 38, had requested records in the case and had been in touch with O'Connell's family in the months before being fatally shot in January of this year.
Washtock was not the only one who had searched for answers in O'Connell's case, which drew the scrutiny of state investigators. A 2013 examination by The New York Times and the PBS program Frontline raised questions about forensic evidence and found shortcomings in the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office's handling of the case, which involved one of its own deputies, Jeremy Banks. O'Connell, a single mother, had been in the process of breaking up with Banks when she was found fatally shot, with his service weapon by her side.
Both the sheriff's and the medical examiner's offices for Putnam County declined to release records related to Washtock's death, citing a continuing investigation.
It is unclear how Washtock, who had at various times identified as male and female, identified at the time of death. Although court records indicate a name change to Ellie in 2009, some who knew Washtock more recently knew Washtock as Eli. The Times is using Washtock's surname.
Washtock, who had two children and a background in auto mechanics, moved to Florida from Wisconsin several years ago, according to Nick Uttech, a childhood friend.
"He pretty well kept to himself," particularly after moving to Florida, said Uttech, who added that he had not been aware of his friend's interest in the O'Connell case.
Washtock reached out to O'Connell's family last year after learning about her case on television, said O'Connell's mother, Patty O'Connell. The two went on to email dozens of times, she said, and met in person on occasion, including as recently as December.
Washtock had a binder several inches thick full of documents related to O'Connell's death, and had also offered to hire private experts to work on the case, Patty O'Connell recalled.
In one email exchange from September, Washtock wrote that "I am still anxiously waiting for additional findings from the private investigators," according to a copy provided by Patty O'Connell.
"You and your family are in my prayers," Washtock wrote, signing off as Eli.
On January 31, Washtock was found dead at home in a condominium complex. Washtock's teenage son called 911 around 8am, according to the Putnam County Sheriff's Office.
At first, deputies with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office responded, but after learning from someone at the scene that Washtock had been researching the O'Connell case, the office recused itself, said Chuck Mulligan, a spokesman for the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.
Deputies from neighbouring Putnam County received a call to take over around noon, said Waters-Merritt, the Putnam County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman. She said that the medical examiner recently determined that Washtock was killed by a gunshot wound, but she declined to discuss any other details about the case.
Patty O'Connell said the homicide ruling had left her "shaking" and had called back the feelings of distrust she felt about the investigation into her daughter's death.
"I absolutely believe it is connected to Michelle's case," Patty O'Connell said of Washtock's killing. "I know in my heart that he had all the right information."
O'Connell died of a gunshot wound to the mouth in September 2010. The local sheriff quickly concluded that she had killed herself with the service weapon of her boyfriend, Banks, who remains employed as a deputy sheriff in St. Johns County.
A lawyer for Banks did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
A subsequent investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, an independent state investigative agency, challenged the suicide ruling by finding, among other things, two neighbours who said they had heard a woman crying for help before hearing gunshots.
The examination by The Times and Frontline also raised questions about issues of forensic evidence, including whether a cut above O'Connell's right eye was a defensive wound, a possible sign of a struggle before the fatal shot. Crime scene photos showed the gun by O'Connell's left hand, though she was right-handed. No blood was found on the gun, nor did it have any DNA or fingerprints from Banks, who had worn his gun belt on his previous shift.
The case has been reviewed by at least one state attorney, three special prosecutors and four medical examiners, and has long been debated in the local press and in the surrounding community. Patty O'Connell even gave approval to exhume her daughter's remains in 2016, which revealed that her daughter had suffered a cracked jaw, consistent with blunt-force trauma.
The case is still classified as a suicide, according to the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.
After beginning to work with Washtock, Patty O'Connell said, she found another reason to hope — one that was taken away when Washtock was found dead.
"Lord, this is not right," she said. "I already know who killed Michelle — I know that in my heart. I want to know who killed Eli, because they have to answer for this."
Written by: Sarah Mervosh
Photographs by: George Etheredge
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES