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"Overwhelming shock" after woman accidentally shot during police exercise

Fatal police-citizen training
Accidental shooting at police-citizen training kills Florida woman 02:42

PUNTA GORDA, Fla. - - A woman was fatally shot by an officer while participating in a "shoot-don't shoot" exercise during a two-hour citizens academy hosted by the Punta Gorda Police Department in southwest Florida.

Police Chief Tom Lewis said the shooting happened Tuesday night as two of the 35 participants were randomly selected to take part in a live role-playing scenario "in which they make decisions on using simulated lethal force."

Lewis said Mary Knowlton, a librarian, was "mistakenly struck with a live round."

​Mary Knowlton with unidentified man in undated photo
Mary Knowlton with unidentified man in undated photo WINK-TV

Lewis, who said he knew the victim personally because they live in a small community that she was active in, said everyone "is in a state of overwhelming shock and grief."

Knowlton was taken to a hospital in nearby Fort Myers, where she was pronounced dead.

The officer involved in the shooting was identified as Officer Lee Coel.

Lewis said Coel "is grief stricken. We've got officers assigned to him to make sure he's psychologically stable."

THe two-year veteran of the Punta Gorda Police Department is, "frequently seen throughout our community providing department presentations and tours and specifically role-playing in these shoot/don't shoot scenarios as well as a police presence at youth and neighborhood events," according to a press release.

The citizen's academy is a free, eight-session course designed to provide insight into city government, according to the city's website.

Lewis said he was unaware that live rounds had even been made available to the officer involved.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating, Lewis said. He declined to identify the officer involved in the shooting, but said he's been placed on administrative leave.

Lewis said Wednesday the officer was using a revolver at the time of the accident instead of a police-standard handgun, but declined to detail what kind of revolver it was exactly.

​Outside of Punta Gorda, Florida Police Department on night of August 9, 2016
Outside of Punta Gorda, Florida Police Department on night of August 9, 2016 WINK-TV

A profile on a Facebook page that appeared to be Knowlton's said she lives in Punta Gorda, but had been a librarian at Scott County Public Library in Savage, Minnesota. She studied library science at Minnesota State University in Mankato, Minnesota, and elementary education at George Mason University in Virginia. The profile information said she's from Austin, Minnesota.

Her son, Steven Knowlton, called it a devastating time for the family in a statement to "CBS This Morning."

"My mom was a saint," he said. "Such a tremendous loss of a wonderful human being and the best mom a kid could ever hope for."

Carolyn Hartwigsen, of Edina, Minnesota, told The Associated Press she was a longtime friend of Knowlton. She said Knowlton had a love of books and tried to instill that in young readers.

"So much is on the internet now. But, books are so important to have in children's hands. That was important to her," Hartwigsen said Wednesday morning.

Hartwigsen said Mary and her husband of more than 50 years would come back to Minnesota periodically to visit.

"She was the salt of the earth, a beautiful soul and the kindest women you would know," she said.

The couple had two sons, Hartwigsen said.

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