Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Lee family still awaiting answers

Editor's note: As 2008 draws to a close, the Sun is recapping the top stories of the year.

Someday, Nathan Lee will have to explain all of this to his sons.

He dreads that day, when the two boys will be old enough to understand why their mother never returned that January afternoon. She was taken, as Adam and Noah cried in their crib.

The man would rape and murder Denise Amber Lee, a 21-year-old angel in the eyes of her children.

Authorities tried to save her, but they seemed to be a step behind.

Nathan has spent many nights awake, wondering how he will recount the details when he still has questions.

And those answers haven't been forthcoming.

Lee plans on suing the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office concerning the handling of a 911 call by one of the last witnesses to see Denise alive, and the subsequent internal investigation by the department.

"I'm angry at the way the Sheriff's Office wants to shrug it off like it's no big deal," he said. "That bothers me."

The past year has been surreal to the 24-year-old North Port father, whose life forever changed Jan. 17.

Lee returned home at 3:30 p.m. that day to find the windows shut.

Something wasn't right, as he had spoken to Denise earlier about opening up the house to save on electric costs.

She did, but now the home was sealed and humid.

Lee could hear his sons -- then 2 and 7 months -- in the bedroom. Noah's voice was hoarse.

Denise was gone, but her purse, keys and cell phone were left behind. Lee called 911.

At 4:59 p.m., the first BOLO was issued by the North Port Police Department.

It named Denise, and gave a physical description of the possible suspect. It also mentioned the dark green Chevrolet Camaro, last seen in Lee's driveway that afternoon.

By then, the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office had sent its teletype operator home to avoid overtime, a common practice for the agency.

A dispatcher later told investigators she checked the computer frequently for alerts, although details about the car weren't aired until later.

During the ordeal, Denise secretly used the suspect's cell phone to contact the Sarasota County 911 call center.

Her conversation with authorities lasted roughly seven minutes, as she relayed information while pretending to be talking to her captor.

Soon after, Jane Kowalski stopped on Tamiami Trail at the Cranberry Boulevard intersection.

A dark Camaro pulled up alongside her vehicle, its passenger side window partially down.

Kowalski saw a hand slapping the glass, trying to get out. Her 911 call was routed to the Charlotte County, since she had crossed county lines.

She stayed on the phone nearly 10 minutes with dispatchers, describing the situation, which to her, appeared to be a kid screaming in a "blue" Camaro.

Kowalski slowed her vehicle, but the suspect, sensing her suspicion, wouldn't pass.

At the last minute, the man turned onto Toledo Blade Boulevard. Kowalski parked at the Port Charlotte Town Center to await a follow-up interview.

No one ever came.

The Sheriff's Office didn't broadcast any of Kowalski's information, which was handwritten on a piece of paper and shouted across the room by the dispatcher.

Michael King was apprehended shortly after 9 p.m. by the Florida Highway Patrol. He was soaked from the waist down. Denise's ring was in the backseat of his Camaro.

Her body was found two days later, buried off Toledo Blade, near Interstate 75.

King, 37, faces kidnapping, rape and capital murder charges. The state is seeking the death penalty.

The case has made national news, in part, due to the controversy surrounding the missed opportunities by authorities.

Lee is convinced Denise would still be alive if key information had been passed along to deputies saturating the area.

The department's response has only made matters worse for the grieving husband.

Two dispatchers were suspended without pay by the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office over the handling of Kowalski's call.

Elizabeth Martinez used vacation time to cover her 36-hour required leave, while Susan Kallestad was suspended 60 hours. Both women had to complete 12 hours of remedial training.

Since the incident, Sheriff John Davenport said the department has taken steps to help with future situations.

Dispatch supervisors will no longer carry a Nextel phone, as it added to the confusion that night with people not calling the recorded line. Information has to be entered into the computer, not yelled across the room.

"This was human error," Davenport said.

Lee has taken his frustration to a higher level.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed the Denise Amber Lee Act, which establishes voluntary training standards for dispatchers statewide. Lee hopes to pass a similar act in his home state of Maryland.

But he's not finished.

Family members established the Denise Amber Lee Foundation to create awareness about 911 issues, and improve training.

To date, the fund has generated about $30,000. The goal is to have a training center locally, and help the families of murder victims.

"(The foundation) is my medicine," Lee said. "I'm really doing my best to turn a negative into a positive."

One of those positives is the relationship Lee shares with his boys.

The three have formed a bond unlike before, where even the little things are cherished.

Right now, the kids don't fully understand the concept of life and death. One day, they will ask about Jan. 17, 2008.

"It will probably be the second worst day of my life," Lee said.

E-mail: jwitz@sun-herald.com


Staff Writer

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