On January 17, 2008, a handful of strangers witnessed something suspicious and called 911 to report it a North Point, Florida, emergency dispatcher. Several minutes later, the dispatcher received a chilling yet composed 911 call from a woman pleading for her life with an abductor. The woman was on the man's cell phone as he drove her to his home, where he sexually assaulted and later killed her. The woman was 21 years old and the mother of two young sons, and her name was Denise Amber Lee.
Denise Amber Lee is a hero in my book. The daughter of a police detective, she fought back by kicking and screaming in the car, drawing attention to her terrifying ordeal in hopes someone would help. And she thought enough in the midst of a crisis to find a cell phone in her abductor's car and use it to call 911, so an emergency dispatcher could overhear her begging him to let her go. In the process, Denise managed to provide her name and as much information as she could before the call was lost.
Several minutes after Denise’s call, Jane Kowalski, another stranger, called 911 and reported what looked like a child in a car “being held against her will.” Kowalski stayed on the phone with the emergency dispatcher for nine minutes, giving a blow-by-blow account of what she saw until losing sight of the man and woman in the green Camaro. But emergency dispatchers never relayed that call to police officers on the street; Kowalski called during a dispatcher shift change. The two poorly trained dispatchers were later suspended from the police department.
Two days later, Denise Lee's body was found with a bullet to the head, buried in a shallow, sand-filled grave.
During last week's trial, Denise's 911 call was played for the jury. Many others came forward to testify, including Kowalski, a computer consultant from Tampa. What Kowalski saw on that awful day ultimately cost Denise Lee her life. As a witness for the prosecution, Kowalski was able to place abductor and victim together in the car. And when shown random photos at the police station, Kowalski easily identified the abductor: Michael King, 38, an unemployed plumber.
On Friday, after deliberating for two hours, a Florida jury found King guilty of kidnapping, sexual battery, and first degree murder. King, who awaits sentencing, faces the death penalty.
This tragedy is a victory for justice as well. People who didn't know Denise Amber Lee took the time to report a crime. Jane Kowalski took matters a step further and followed the car on a hunch something was wrong, without any regard for her own safety. And Denise Amber Lee did everything humanly possible to escape death.