Murder of Denise Amber Lee
Lee and several others had attempted to call for help through the 9-1-1 system but there was a lack of communication and the police and other emergency services arrived too late. Five 9-1-1 calls were made that day, including one by Lee herself from her abductor's phone and one from a witness, Jane Kowalski, who gave a detailed account of events as they unfolded before her. Failures were later found in the way the 9-1-1 operators handled Kowalski's call and further failures were later identified nationwide in the 9-1-1 system. King was sentenced to death.
The Denise Amber Lee Act was passed unanimously by the Florida Legislature on April 24, 2008. This act provides for mandatory training for 9-1-1 operatives. Lee's family continue to lobby for a new laws to be passed nationwide which would institute mandatory training and certification for all 9-1-1 dispatchers. The Denise Amber Lee Foundation was established in June 2008 to promote such training as well as to raise public awareness of the issues involved.
Denise Amber Lee
Denise Amber Lee (née Goff) (August 6, 1986 – January 17, 2008) was born in Englewood, Florida. Lee was the daughter of Sgt. Rick Goff, of the sheriff's office in Charlotte County, Florida and Sue Goff. Not long after their first date, Lee's future husband, Nathan, bought her a $40 heart-shaped ring which she never removed. The ring would later become key evidence connecting perpetrator and victim.
Michael King (born 1971) trained as a plumber but had been unemployed for several months prior to the crime and was facing foreclosure on his home in North Port. He is divorced. He has a low IQ and family members described to the court how King had had an accident while sledding as a child; an expert witness described the subsequent injury as a "divot" in his brain.
On January 17, 2008, Michael King abducted Denise Amber Lee from her home. He drove her around, tied up in his vehicle, for quite some time; several people witnessed the journey. Later, King raped and murdered Lee and buried her in a shallow grave. Her body was found on January 19, 2008. King was later found guilty of kidnapping, sexual battery and first degree murder; he was sentenced to death and is presently detained awaiting execution.
Nathan Lee was at work that Thursday (January 17, 2008); his wife, Denise Lee, was at home with their young children. She called him at 11:21 a.m., the last time the two would speak. Among the topics discussed was the nice weather: the couple decided that the windows should be opened at their home. She said she had already opened them. Nathan Lee arrived home around 3:30 p.m. to find the windows closed, his wife missing and the children home alone in the same crib. This prompted him to make his 9-1-1 call, the first of the day related to this crime.
A neighbor saw a car arrive at Lee’s home around 2 p.m. The car was later identified as Michael King's dark green 1994 Chevy Camaro.
Lee was bound and taken to King's home in North Port, Florida, where he set up what the prosecution in the trial referred to as a "rape room". Duct tape and other evidence was found in this room.
She was then taken to King's cousin Harold Muxlow's home, where King then borrowed a shovel, a gas can, and a flashlight. Lee was able to take King's cell phone while he was out of the vehicle and dial 9-1-1. Her desperate 9-1-1 call was released during the trial, which caused a lot of reaction by the public. The operator obtained information from Lee which later helped convict King. The call is several minutes long with Lee begging for her life saying “please” 17 times. She answered the call taker's questions while pretending to talk to King. Judge Deno Economou, the presiding judge over the murder trial, noted how unusual and rare it was to hear a murder victim’s last words. Prosecutors said later that Lee had given them their best evidence that she was taken against her will, she did not know her abductor and her subsequent murder was premeditated. Lee was unable to give her exact location. Police were unable to trace the location of the caller (Denise Amber Lee) because it was made on a prepaid wireless phone.
Around 6:30 p.m., a witness, Jane Kowalski, heard screaming from a car next to hers at a stoplight. Kowalski called 9-1-1 to report what she believed to be a child abduction.
At 9:15 p.m., roughly six hours after Lee was first reported missing, King was arrested.
The trial of the State of Florida vs. Michael L. King officially began on August 24, 2009. Lead prosecuting attorney was State Assistant Lon Arend, lead defense attorney was Public Defender Carolyn Schlemmer. Presiding judge is Hon. Deno Economou, and the trial took place in Sarasota County, Florida.
The prosecution presented DNA and other forensic evidence, including hair and personal articles of Lee's found around and within the Camaro, King's home, and the grave site. Other evidence included King's change of clothing, duct tape, a shell casing, the shovel, and King's cell phone. The prosecution also called eyewitnesses, including Jane Kowalski and King's cousin. The defense attempted to provide reasonable doubt by bringing to the jury's attention of evidence tampering and contamination, and by suggesting that one of King's friends had committed the crime. The judge did not approve of the latter defense. The defense rested without calling any witnesses.
On August 28, 2009 after deliberating for two hours and five minutes, the jury found King guilty of kidnapping with intent to commit a felony, sexual battery, and first degree murder. On September 4, 2009, at 2:45 pm, the jury handed down the recommended sentence of death, in a 12–0 vote.
The 9-1-1 calls
In total, five 9-1-1 calls related to Lee's disappearance were placed by five different people between 3:29 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on January 17, 2008. Four were routed to operatives in Sarasota County, Florida; the other— placed by Jane Kowalski and the fourth in the sequence— was routed to operatives in neighboring Charlotte County, Florida. The one routed to Charlotte County was allegedly mishandled.
The second call was placed by Lee at 6:14 p.m. from her abductor's cellphone. This call was presented by the state prosecutors as part of the key evidence at King's trial.
Jane Kowalski's call was placed by cellphone at 6:30 p.m. while she was driving on U.S. Route 41. "I was at a stoplight and a man pulled up next to me and there was a child screaming in the car", she said. She explained further that she heard "terrifying screaming" and that she had "never heard anything like that". Kowalski believed that she was witnessing a child abduction. She also identified the car as a Camaro but stated the color as blue (rather than green). She stated that she had made eye contact with the driver after which "a hand came up and started banging on the passenger window". Since she had crossed the county line into Charlotte, the call was routed to that latter state's 9-1-1 call center. It was only after she saw the news the following day that she realized she had witnessed the abduction of Lee rather than that of a child. When she called the North Port Police Department to explain who she was and that she had made a 9-1-1 call, it became apparent that the call had not been forwarded to the correct authorities. It is this call that is alleged to have been mishandled due to the fact that the operatives neglected to file it correctly. This call was also presented by the state prosecutors as part of the key evidence at King's trial.
Due to Jane Kowalski's mishandled 9-1-1 call, more research revealed several issues countrywide in the 9-1-1 system, so a non-profit organization with the mission to "To promote and support public safety through uniform training, standardized protocols, defined measurable outcomes, and technological advances in the 9-1-1 system." was established in June 2008 in Lee's name.
On April 24, 2008, the Senate Bill, CS/SB 1694, concerning the Denise Amber Lee Act, which provides for voluntary training for 9-1-1 operatives, was passed unanimously by the Florida Legislature. The Act's passage into state law continues.
House Bill CS/HB 355 and Senate Bill CS/SB 742 are being considered at present in Tallahassee to address the fact that 9-1-1 operatives in the state are not required to undertake mandatory training. Lee's husband Nathan Lee and her father Rick Goff continue to lobby in Tallahassee to get Denise's Law passed, which would recommend mandatory training and certification for all 9-1-1 dispatchers.
A separate bill, sponsored by Representative Robert C. Schenck, that would place significant limitations on 9-1-1 calls when played in public, is being considered by the Florida Legislature. The Lee family has spoken against this bill. The Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, has said that he is "not favorably inclined toward the bill". The bill was later dropped.
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- Official websites and relevant blogs
- Further reading
- Denise Lee slaying Topic page of Sarasota Herald-Tribune website, 2008
- Frantic calls for help fail to save Lee Breaking News, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; January 22, 2008; John Davis and Zac Anderson
- North Port Police never learned about key 911 call in Lee case Breaking News, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; February 8, 2008; John Davis
- The legacy of Denise Amber Lee Sarasota Herald-Tribune; January 18, 2009
- Prosecutor: Denise Amber Lee was tied to headboard in King’s car Naples News; August 24, 2009; Elaine Allen-Emrich
- More training for North Port 911 center Sarasota Herald-Tribune; February 17, 2010
- Husband Pushes for Tougher 911 Dispatcher Training First Coast News; February 18, 2010; Len Kiese and Taren Reed