Essential background on Athalia Ponsell Lindsley's "Suicide" (Wikipedia):
... Between 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on January 23, 1974, Lindsley was attacked on the front steps of her home at 124 Marine St. by a white middle-aged male wearing a white dress shirt and dark dress pants. According to the medical examiner Dr. Arthur Schwartz, who performed the autopsy, she was struck nine times by the machete on her hand, arm and in the head. One of her fingers was severed and she was nearly decapitated.
Toward the end of the attack, Locke McCormick, 18, of 122 Marine St., heard the sounds of a commotion and went outside to look. He is alleged to have yelled to his mother that "Mr. Stanford is hitting Mrs. Ponsell." Alan Griffin Stanford Jr was the 46-year-old next door neighbor of Lindsley, He lived at 126 Marine St. After the perpetrator left, the McCormicks went next door and saw Lindsley lying in a pool of blood on her porch and called 911.
There had been an ongoing feud between Lindsley and County Manager Stanford for a variety of reasons, one of which was the six stray dogs she took in who were said to bark incessantly. Recorded in a transcript of an October 1973 county meeting, Lindsley made a complaint on record about Stanford's salary hike to $20,000. One of the commissioners replied;
Stanford was indicted and brought to trial which lasted for two hours with an acquittal. Critics accused the police of botching the investigation and tainting evidence. ....
On November 3, 1974, Ponsell Lindsley's friend and neighbor Frances Bemis went out for her evening walk and never returned, she was found the next day in a vacant lot on the corner of Bridge and Marine streets with her skull bashed in. Having been a professional newspaper writer, amongst other professions, she may have been gathering material for a book on Lindsley's murder; she had alluded to having certain information. Her murder, like Lindsley's, was never solved. ...
“All the great decisions of the world are made here,” deadpanned Herbie Wiles. “And nobody listens.”
On that morning, at the request of a visiting reporter, they shifted to a topic that had brought their hometown some national — even international — attention: A massive investigation by The New York Times and accompanying PBS “Frontline” episode.
The pieces took a critical look at the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office ruling that the 2010 death of Michelle O’Connell, the 24-year-old girlfriend of a deputy, was a suicide, not a murder.
The Coffee Club, which has been meeting for at least half a century in various configurations and various breakfast joints, is usually a free-wheeling bunch. This time, they were careful.
“I don’t know what’s fact or fiction,” said Wiles, an insurance man who was a county commissioner from 1966 to 1978.
Besides, said Geoff Dobson, former St. Augustine Beach city attorney, in such a close-knit city,
But count Henry Whetstone, founder of the chocolate company that bears his last name, among those in the county who think that the end of this hasn’t been heard: There will be more media attention, perhaps even a grand jury investigation, he said.
“There’s always two sides to it,” he said.
Those two sides are likely to keep talking in a city where the unsolved murder of wealthy socialite Athalia Ponsell Lindsley, macheted to death on her porch in 1974, still is a matter for debate.
Meanwhile, in the face of the national media coverage of O’Connell’s death, Sheriff David Shoar hasn’t budged from his insistence that O’Connell’s death was suicide.
“We’re not afraid of criticism,” Shoar said Friday. “Look, we’re an open book ... nobody can say we haven’t been transparent.”
He has a supporter in Bill Pruitt, a retired Army colonel who at 93 is the senior member of the Coffee Club.
“He’s a fine guy,” he said flatly.
Wiles, though, said Shoar isn’t universally popular:
But when it comes to death at the center of this controversy, there’s one thing all can agree on, Wiles said. “It’s sad. It ain’t a happy time to have this going on.”
Athalia Ponsell Lindsley
The Facebook page of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office was a busy place in the days after Nov. 24’s front-page, lengthy Times article and the TV show two days later.
There were a few statements of support. They were far outnumbered, though, by outraged comments, from locals and out-of-state commentators alike.
Shoar says he understands the anger.
O’Connell was found dead in September 2010 at the home she shared with Deputy Jeremy Banks, a sheriff’s deputy. She had a gunshot wound to the mouth; another bullet lodged in the carpet next to her. Banks said she shot herself with his semiautomatic service pistol while he was in a different room.
The death was quickly ruled a suicide, though O’Connell’s family was immediately suspicious of Banks. The deputy and Banks were in the middle of a breakup when she died.
In early 2011, Shoar asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the case. Earlier this year, though, he blasted the FDLE’s lead investigator and its top local administrator, saying Rusty Rodgers’ investigation was tainted and contained falsified information.
The FDLE agreed to look into Shoar’s complaints and is now investigating its own investigation.
In the meantime, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor, State Attorney Brad King, to review the investigation. King later closed the case, saying that evidence wasn’t there to support the prosecution of Banks for homicide.
On Friday, Shoar repeated what he had admitted earlier: His department had made mistakes in the investigation.
But he also stood by his opinion that the death was a suicide, something he also expressed in a 152-page report he has posted online.
Meanwhile, Banks, who had been placed on administrative leave, was returned to duty more than a year after O’Connell’s death. In November, he sued the FDLE and investigator Rodgers, saying they’d wrongly accused him.
Count St. Augustine resident Clara Waldhari among those upset about the investigation into O’Connell’s death.
It left her suspicious of the county’s law enforcement agency.
Ben Rich, a blunt-spoken former county commissioner who while in office had clashes with Shoar, called the issue a “stain” on the county — one that has spread, via the Internet, around the world.
Rich, who spent a lifetime in law enforcement, was among the locals featured in the Times article. He said the sheriff’s investigation was bungled, badly. He expects a state or federal grand jury to investigate at some point.
Karen Sturgis, a St. Johns County resident, read The New York Times article and watched the “Frontline” report. They left her worried, though she said that, without knowing everything about the case, “an individual citizen” can’t really come to a judgment.
Still, she said, each side could benefit from more inquiry into the case.
Waldhari echoed that. “Come on. Somebody do the right thing,” she said. “It’s past time. Whatever the courts decide, we’ll have to live with it.”
Deputy Debra Maynard was one of the first officers to respond to the shooting. She said she thinks there’s far more to the story than the official finding of suicide.
Maynard said she has been unemployed for about two years, ever since the Sheriff’s office fired her. Shoar said it was for “untruthfulness.” Maynard said it was because she wouldn’t lie for him.
She alleged that people still in the department fear speaking out about the case.
Michael Gold, editor of the online Historic City News, is a St. Augustine native who in the 1970s was a St. Johns deputy. He said some locals are worried that this will be a black eye for St. Augustine, but he doesn’t think there’s a vast hue and cry in this area about the issue.
Shoar is outgoing, friendly and generally popular, Gold said. He’s a well-known figure too.
Shoar has been elected sheriff three times, the last two times without opposition. At 52, he has three years left in his term (on Friday, he said he had not made a decision about running again).
Bob and Dorothy Hesson, leaving Thursday’s morning Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, said they know and respect Shoar. His department, they said, is a factor in the quality of life that has made St. Johns County one of the fastest-growing counties in Florida. They moved there, separately, in the mid-’70s, met each other and have stayed. Where else, they said on a quiet morning in the picturesque town, could they have such a life?
“There’s pride in the city,” he said. “That didn’t just happen. And that’s through the whole county.”
“It really is a community,” she said.