Friday, April 11, 2008

Murder victim's husband to sue Sheriff's Office

Mishandled 911 call led to wife's death, says Nathan Lee

PUNTA GORDA -- Had the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office not botched the handling of a motorist's 911 call about an abduction in progress Jan. 17, the victim would still be alive today, the attorney for the victim's husband said Thursday.

And the Sheriff's Office can expect a lawsuit citing negligence in the death of Denise Amber Lee of North Port, the 21-year-old mother of two, said Thomas Marryott, attorney for Nathan Lee, the victim's husband.

The suit, which would be filed in circuit court, will seek damages in excess of $15,000 on behalf of the couple's two children, Noah, 2, and Adam, 8 months, Marryott said in a notice delivered to County Commission Chairman Thomas D'Aprile Thursday afternoon.

"We just believe if that call had been handled appropriately, she'd be alive today," said Marryott, after announcing Nathan's intent to sue at a press conference held Thursday at the Charlotte County Justice Center.

Denise, the daughter of longtime CCSO Sheriff's Sgt. Rick Goff, was kidnapped from her home on the afternoon of Jan. 17. Her body was found two days later in a shallow grave off Panacea and Plantation boulevards.

Nathan Lee said he wanted to thank "from the bottom of my heart" all the law officers from a half-dozen agencies who worked to rapidly mount the massive search for his wife.

"Unfortunately, we were looking in the wrong place," he said.

Michael Lee King of North Port, a 36-year-old unemployed plumber, was arrested on kidnapping, sexual assault and murder charges in the case. His arrest came some six hours after the kidnapping as he turned onto Interstate 75 from Toledo Blade Boulevard, not far from the grave site.

The Lee family's decision to pursue litigation came less than a week after the state attorney's office released some 800 pages of investigative documents under a "discovery" process.

Some of the released documents show that King may have become familiar with the Lee home on Latour Street after looking for a house for sale in that area last summer, according to a statement from a real estate agent who was recently interviewed by investigators.

Also, the detectives talked to the wife of a friend of King's who claimed King sexually assaulted her at his house last year after she had been drinking and passed out.

The materials released also included a tape of a 911 call from motorist Jane Kowalski of Tampa. For some nine minutes, Kowalski described a suspicious vehicle traveling south on U.S. 41 from Chamberlain to Toledo Blade boulevards.

She told the dispatcher she heard a child "screaming, screaming, screaming" in the suspect's car, a blue 1990's Camaro. The driver, a pudgy middle-aged man with short, light hair, matched King's description.

But none of the dispatchers working that night broadcast the details from Kowalski's call.

That's especially tragic because at least four Charlotte County patrol cars were within a mile of the location at the time, a sheriff's internal investigation revealed.

"My conclusion is that Michael King murdered my wife and he needs to be held accountable -- and get the death penalty," Nathan said Thursday. "As for the handling of the 911 call, the Sheriff's Office needs to be held accountable, too.

"Denise did everything she could to save her life and the Sheriff's Office didn't (do everything it could)," he added.

He also said he was "ashamed there's been so much insensitivity" shown by the Sheriff's Office to the family.

He cited press conferences held by Sheriff John Davenport in which the sheriff fell short of apologizing.

More recently, Davenport warned that mistakes will occur whenever humans are involved in a difficult task, Nathan added.

"I think my kids deserve better than that," he said.

Both Davenport and Chief Deputy William Cameron were reportedly out for the entire day Thursday, according to Bob Carpenter, sheriff's spokesman.

Carpenter added, however, that the sheriff has directed all employees to not comment on the 911 call because of pending litigation.

Marryott was asked why he waited so long to file notice of the family's intent to sue.

"We were told to wait until all the facts were in and the (internal investigation report) was completed," Marryott said. "Well, we waited, and what we found was nothing but delay, obfuscation and half-truths."

Wednesday, Denise Lee's father, Sheriff's Sgt. Rick Goff, testified before committees of the Florida Legislature that were considering a bill to set a voluntary minimum training standard for dispatch center employees.

The bill, HB 997 sponsored by Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, calls for dispatch center recruits to undergo at least 208 hours of training.

That's actually less training than the Sheriff's Office now provides, Sheriff's Capt. Sherman Robinson said Thursday.

You can e-mail Greg Martin at


Staff Writer

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