Punta Gorda Shooting Leaves Family Reeling

NBC News - As Lucas Seiler reports, the son of police volunteer Mary Knowlton says he doesn't know how he'll cope with the loss of his mother after she was killed by a police officer in a training demonstration.

By Lucas Seiler

A woman who was killed in an accidental shooting on the evening of Tuesday, August 9 2016 at the Punta Gorda Citizen Police Academy is being remembered fondly by her community.

Mary Knowlton's life served as an inspiration to many people she met through her work as a librarian and volunteer in the community.

She served as president of the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library, helping to get funding for books.

A life-long librarian, she always knew just the right book to inspire young readers.

Young readers like Maddox Chancey.

Maddox and his parents, Matt and Cassie, moved to Punta Gorda eight years ago. Knowlton was one of the first people they met.

"Gary and Mary both were super friendly and very welcoming to Maddox, and they just welcomed us to the neighborhood very well."

They said when new neighbors moved in, Knowlton "would have a get together at her house and everybody would go over there."

She loved Maddox.

"Mary would come out and chat with us and ask Maddox how his day was."

And Maddox loved her, too, saying he liked it when she brought him books.

"Maddox likes to run throughout the yards, and he would go over and smell Mary's flowers."

Knowlton knew just what books Maddox would love.

"The one book she brought by... Ferdinand, was about a bull that liked to smell the flowers.. exactly what he liked to do at her house."

Knowlton's passion for giving to others and for books inspired the Chanceys.

"Maddox and I built a My Free Library more suited for kids."

It's called Mickey's Free Library, and they leave it around the community for people to borrow books, read and return - and even to leave new books.

"It was really because she influenced us with those books."

Mickey's Free Library is being repaired at the Chancey's home right now because someone vandalized it, but they're planning to get it fixed and place it in the community to spread Knowlton's love for reading.

Son grapples with loss

Mary Knowlton's son let us inside his parents' Punta Gorda home. He told us his parents wanted to support the police after the tragedy in Dallas. That is why they attended the event.

"She affected a lot of lives, especially mine," said Steve Knowlton, Mary's son.

Mary Knowlton was passionate about her small community and her children. She was the backbone of the Knowlton family. 

"It's really just killed our family. I don't know if I'll ever get over this," said Knowlton. 

Knowlton held back tears as he talked about the most inspiration woman he ever knew. 

"She really supported the police. That's why they went there last night just to show their support because of all the tragedies that have happened with the police," said Knowlton. 

Not only did Mary want to support local police, but she also wanted to experience what law enforcement deals with. That's why she participated in Tuesday night's shoot - don't shoot training.

Mary's husband, Gary, was there when his wife was shot. 

"He's [my father] just in shock. He was right there when it happened and at first they thought she went down like acting. Then they pulled her over and realized she was shot pretty good," said Knowlton.   

Next door to the Knowlton home, neighbors described Mary as a saint -- even naming the Knowlton home after her, "The Friendly Neighborhood Home."

"I feel like I've known her my whole life. It really hurts. It really hurts," said Joseph Russo, neighbor. 

Just a few miles away is the small library where Mary once served as president of the Friends of the Punta Gorda Library -- helping to secure funding for children's programs and even bringing in famous authors for book signings.

"She just had all sorts of ideas and topics on the agenda that she wanted to add. Just always a wonderful contributor," said Bill McDonald with the Punta Gorda Library. 

"I know this officer didn't mean for this to happen. My mom, she's watching me right now, and I know if I didn't forgive him, she'd be angry with me," said Knowlton. 

Standing just feet away from tragedy

On Wednesday, Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce President John Wright described the unthinkable moments. 

"When the gunshots went off, I don't think any of us realized what we had actually witnessed," Wright said. "It was only when I looked over at the police chief that I realized this is not a game anymore."

Wright watched the gunfire, and his friend fall to the ground.

"It was a loud bang or three shots," said Wright. 

Knowlton was a force in her community. She was one of 40 Chamber members gathered Tuesday night at the Punta Gorda Police Department to learn how police officers do their jobs. 

"She had such a passion and warmth about her. It touched everybody," said Wright. 

Knowlton was one of two people chosen for a role play in a shoot-don't shoot scenario.  Wright talked with her just moments before. 

"I said, 'go give them hell.' And that was the last thing I said to her," said Wright.  

The news of her death quickly spread around the tight-knit community. People were heartbroken and stunned. 

Chamber members leaned on each other Wednesday morning during a breakfast as they remembered their dear friend.