Denise Lee was murdered after being kidnapped, and family members blame 911 dispatchers for her death. Watch tonight on ABC Primetime and read Denise Lee’s tragic story here.
Denise was only 17 and in high school, but taking courses in college when she met Nathan, 19, who was attending the college. Nathan Lee says they fell in love at first sight. Nathan said, “I know it sounds cliché, but I mean, we really knew right away. I mean, we were two peas in a pod. We were as happy as you could be.”
Sadly, the couple’s happiness came to an end in January, when Denise was kidnapped and murdered. Her husband, Nathan, believes her death could have been avoided, if only the 911 calls would not have been mishandled. Maybe her death could have been prevented.
Nathan and Denise Lee married and soon had their first son, Noah, in 2006. They had a second son named Adam in July of last year. The couple worked hard to make things work, with Denise staying at home with their children, and Nathan worked to support their family.
“We had two beautiful kids and were just, you know, just livin’ the American Dream,” Nathan said. Then one day their lives were destroyed.
It seemed to just be a normal day, January 17th, and Nathan had gone to work. Nathan spoke to Denise at around 11 a.m. that morning. He tried calling her that afternoon around 3 p.m. on his way home from work, but could never get ahold of her.
Approximately an hour before Nathan would have gotten home, their neighbor, Jennifer Eckert had looked out of her window blinds and saw “a green Camaro going up and down the road”. Eckert saw the car pull into the Lee’s driveway and saw a man sitting in the driver’s seat.
Nathan got home from work at about 3:30, and found his two sons there alone.
“It was within 10 minutes that I really knew that something’s not right,” Nathan said. Nathan just had a bad feeling something was wrong with his 21 year-old wife, Denise. Nathan looked around his home and found her purse and cell phone. He also tried to ask his 2 year-old son about his mother.
Nathan remembered getting extremely nervous and felt about to “lose it.” Nathan then called 911, a call that he believes could have saved Denise’s life. Nathan Lee was just scared to death, feeling paralyzed as police searched their home for clues of Denise’s whereabouts.
There was suddenly a clue in the case, as Denise Lee, herself, called 911.
Somehow Denise had gotten the kidnapper’s cell phone and called 911 at 6:14 p.m. According to a North Port police report, operators listened to her pleading helplessly with her alleged captor for about six and a half minutes.
Denise Lee’s father, Rick Goff, heard the recording of her 911 call, which has not been released to the public. Goff said, “The dispatch is asking questions and she’s like making it sound like she’s talking to him … but she’s really answering dispatch questions. ‘Where do you live’ and things like that,” Goff said.
The call was lost though, before it could be traced. Police were able to learn that the cell phone belonged to a North Port man named Michael King, a 36-year-old unemployed plumber.
Police rushed to King’s home but neither Michael King or Denise Lee were there. The house was empty but there were disturbing evidence in the bedroom. Police found a child’s blanket and duct tape with long brown hair on it.
There may have been an even better chance to save Denise Lee, when the kidnapper stopped by his cousin’s home to borrow a shovel and can of gasoline. Harold Muxlow, King’s cousin, later told North Port police that King told him he needed those items because, “his lawnmower was stuck in a ditch and out of gas.”
Muxlow said he even saw Denise Lee tied up and screaming, “call the cops” and struggling to get out of the back seat of his cousin’s car. Muxlow did not call the police but did call his 17-year-old daughter, Sabrina Muxlow, to tell her what he’d seen. She immediately called 911.
At 6:23 p.m., Sabrina’s call reached the Sarasota County, Fla., 911 Call Center. Muxlow told operators that her father saw a girl tied up and that she “came out of the … car and my dad’s cousin went and put her back in the car when she got out.” She also described the car as “a green Camaro.”
But by the time police got the call, King had already left the home with Denise Lee. After this point, at least three different people saw Denise Lee struggling, and they neglected to call the police.
One man said that he saw Lee, “slamming on the windows with her palms really hard. It just looked like she was trying to break them out … and shaking her head back really violently, back and forth,” he said.
Not wanting to get involved in what they thought was a domestic dispute, no one intervened. “It made me sick to my stomach that I hadn’t done what I should have done, made the phone call,” he said
Jane Kowolski probably was the last person to see Denise Lee alive. She had her window down and heard someone screaming and slapping at the back window. Kowolski could see the man driving trying to push something down in the back seat. She called 911 but mistakenly reported the vehicle as a blue Chevrolet camaro.
Sheriff John Davenport of the North Port Police Department described the breakdown of this basic police procedure as a missed opportunity. ” This 911 call, one dispatcher thought the other had sent it out, the other thought the other one had sent it out, and they didn’t send it out,” Davenport said.
Less than 3 miles away from Kowolski’s 911 call, Denise Amber Lee was shot to death. King was arrested the same night by a Florida trooper.
King was booked into the South County jail on one charge of kidnapping. King would not provide any information about Denise Lee, and tried to say he was also a victim. But clues were left in King’s car including hair and a ring that belonged to Denise Lee.
“It was a ring that I gave her on our first Valentine’s Day … It took me less than a second to confirm that it was hers,” Nathan Lee stated.
Denise Lee’s body was found in a shallow grave, and DNA proved King had also sexually assaulted her.
On Jan. 23, Sarasota prosecutors charged King with the abduction and murder of Denise Amber Lee. He pleaded not guilty. It is still unknown why King had chosen Denise Lee, or if there was a connection.
Davenport stands by his dispatch officers, and did not think it would have changed the outcome of the case. The dispatchers who failed to relay the 911 call were disciplined. One was suspended for 60 hours, the other 36 hours, and both were ordered to take 12 hours of remedial training.
This is especially a tragedy as Mr. Goff, Denise Lee’s father, was a detective, and worked in the Charlotte County Sheriff’s office for over 20 years.
Denise’s husband tries to remember the happy moments of their life together saying, “I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with her. And … there wasn’t a doubt in my mind, wasn’t a doubt in hers. The best four years of my life, I’m sure. For my whole life,” Nathan said.
Nathan wants the death penalty for King and intends to sue Charlotte County for mistakes he think could have been avoided in Denise Lee’s death.
“If I was in that situation … I don’t know what I would have done,” he said. “She did everything she could. Denise did everything in her power to save her life.”
This is a tragic story, do you think the fault lies in the 911 dispatchers handling of the calls?
Here’s Dateline’s story on Denise Lee Part I below.
Here’s the other Dateline videos of Denise Lee’s Kidnapping & murder: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6.