Video: The detective's daughter

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Dennis Murphy Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 6/7/2008 1:25:17 PM ET 2008-06-07T17:25:17
TRANSCRIPT

Editor's Note: The trial of Michael King is expected to start on Aug. 17, 2009.

It was bad enough that it happened at all -- the horrible thing. But it was doubly shocking for a West Florida Community that no one was able to stop it.

On Jan. 17, 2008, a young mother named Denise Amber Lee was abducted from her home, driven down busy roads, winding through residential neighborhoods, in broad daylight, screaming for her life.

Operator: 911, what's the emergency?

People saw her for sure. 911 centers lit up, including one call from a driver giving play-by-play of a nightmare of a crime in realtime.

(911 call)

Kowalski: He's going slower than I am, which is not right. Something's going on.

And there was even one call from the victim herself, who was able to put out an alert as her kidnapper was at the wheel.

Call 911. That's what we're all trained to do isn't it?

Rick Goff: As far as I'm concerned, we blew it. And I say "we" because I'm part of that Sheriff's office.

Howie Grace: The tragedy of it is huge. The senselessness of it is huge.

Young Denise Amber Lee never wanted to be known as anything but a loving mom and devoted wife.

She was 21 years old, and truly a happily married woman.

She met her future husband, Nate Lee, in high school. He hung with the cool kids, the ball players. Denise was more the studious type -- a bookworm and math ace.

When she finally overcame her shyness senior year and was bold enough to ask out the guy who'd caught her interest, they both learned that opposites really did attract.

Nate Lee: One of the main things about Denise was she was pretty quiet. She just wasn't a very outgoing person. She actually talked to me first. And I always thought that was the most ironic thing ever. Because, you know, as quiet as she was, and people find out that she's the one that approached me.

Dennis Murphy, Dateline NBC: It's like being the girl that asked the guy to dance.

Nate Lee: Man, I should have just known right there, she's the one.

Three weeks after their first date, the couple marked Valentine's Day together with a pledge of what was to come.

Nate Lee: It was kind of awkward because, you know, we had we'd just met and Valentine's Day was already there. And we both didn't know what we should do and we were falling in love. Well, I ended up getting her just a little $40 ring with a heart on it.

Denise never took that ring off, and not long after, she got another one -- when Nate asked her to marry him.

Nate Lee: Just everything about her was perfect. And we hit it off right from the start. And we ended up starting a beautiful family.

Noah came along first.

Then Adam came a couple of years later.

Denise had her hands full raising children, so she put off getting her college degree.

Nate was juggling three jobs to make ends meet.

There was way more love in their young household than money.

Nate Lee: We were going through what most people would say is some tough times. You know, we had two little kids and we were young -- money wasn't necessarily on our side. But it didn't phase us. We were -- we knew we were gonna be fine, and we knew we were, you know, going to grow old together.

They'd rented a house in North Port, Fla., a bedroom community 40 miles south of Sarasota. It was close to both their parents, but in a mostly rural setting. That appealed to them.

Denise's father, Rick Goff, a police sergeant, wasn't entirely comfortable with the feel of the subdivision, which was a little like a new construction ghost town after the sizzling housing market had sputtered.

Dennis Murphy: Were you worried about the house bein out in the sticks?

Rick Goff: Yes. Soon as myself and her mother saw it, we go, "We're not real happy about this house out here." But it's brand new, three bedrooms, two bath house. Real cheap rent. And back then, I mean, that's what they could afford.

The quiet, partly-built community suited Nate and Denise just fine. It was a perfect safe haven, they thought, for their growing family.

At least until the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 17.

That day started off routinely. It was drizzling outside as Nate left for his job as an electric meter-reader; Denise was home with the boys. They checked in with each other periodically on their cell phones.

Dennis Murphy: When do you think the last time was that you talked to her?

Nate Lee: It was 11:09. I have the phone records. And it was only about a five-minute conversation. We were just talking about, you know, what we normally talk about. I remember asking her that morning to "Make sure you open the windows, so we don't, you know, turn the air off; save some money." And she said she already had.

Nate didn't get a chance to call again until he got off work at three that afternoon. The phone rang but there was no answer.

It was unlike Denise to be out.

Nate Lee: It took me about 25 minutes to get home from there. And I ended up calling eight times in that 25 minutes.

Dennis Murphy: You're wondering?

Nate Lee: I didn't start getting nervous until I turned on our street.

As he was pulling into his driveway, he noticed rightaway the windows -- the ones Denise said she'd opened -- were now shut.

Inside, he found his sons, 6-month-old Adam and 2-year-old Noah, lying together in a crib. Denise was nowhere to be found.

Dennis Murphy: Had you ever known her to leave the children alone?

Nate Lee: No. No.

Dennis Murphy: So when do you start to freak?

Nate Lee: I started freaking about then. Then I looked at the windows, I noticed it was hot in the house. And I noticed the windows were pushed down but they weren't shut and latched. They were just like pushed down, like somebody pushed them down in a hurry.

And there were bad signs. Denise's cell phone and keys were lying on a chair. Wherever she'd gone, she'd left in a hurry. Nate called 911.

911 Call

Operator: North Port emergency.

Nate Lee: Uh yes, I'm at 7912 Latour Avenue. I just got home from work and my wife, I can't find her. My kids were in the house and I don't know where she is. I've looked everyplace.

That 911 call, made at 3:29 pm, would be the first of many made that day related to Denise's disappearance.

Nate Lee: They asked me, "Is her money missing?" This and that. And, "Any sign of forced entry?" And everything looked normal. The only thing that wasn't normal was the fact that Denise wasn't there.

The next obvious person to call was his father-in-law, Rick, who happened to be a 25-year-veteran of the sheriff's department in neighboring Charlotte County.

Rick, it turned out, had also been trying to get ahold of Denise that day. He'd left a message inviting them all over to dinner. When he saw Nate's cell phone number pop up, he figured it was the kids calling back.

Rick Goff: I go, "Hey, you guys want to come over and eat? That's the first thing I asked him as soon as he called. He goes, "I can't. Denise is missing."

Dennis Murphy: That's the first you're hearing this?

Rick Goff: And I go, "Nate, you've got to explain what you mean by that." And he says, "I'm telling you. She's missing."

Rick knew firsthand how law enforcement tends to look at spouses reported suddenly missing: skeptically.

He was intent that late afternoon on convincing the North Port Police, who were running the investigation, that this missing person report was different -- and they needed to hit it immediately.

Rick Goff: I go, "Listen, if nothing else, I know my daughter. Can we, like, get my helicopter and my dogs out here," because it was a different jurisdiction. I already called my people, my chief and stuff. And they're all -- anything I need.

Dennis Murphy: What are you allowing yourself to think here, at this point?

Rick Goff: I knew something happened to her bad.

When police got to the Lee residence, they started knocking on doors and got their first big tip of the day from a neighbor.

Jennifer Eckert: I was by myself the whole time, so I kept thinking he could have stopped here.

Jennifer Eckert was staying with relatives in the house next to the Lees's. She told police she'd seen a white male sitting in a dark green Camaro,parked in Denise's driveway at around 2:30 p.m. -- just one hour before Nate had arrived home.

Jennifer Eckert: I came outside and he sat there I'd say for a good 15 minutes. So I went back inside, and then about 10 minutes later, he left.

By 5 p.m. -- an hour and a half after Denise was reported missing -- police had the description of a suspect and vehicle, and issued a regional 'BOLO' -- a 'be on the lookout' alert.

But it was the next lead in the case, a stomach churning 911 call, that would confirm their worst fears.

Rick Goff: We just wanted to verify that it was her voice. And made sure it was what we thought it was. And the first thing was her screaming.

It was Denise Lee, his daughter.

Detective Rick Goff knows a thing or two about finding people. His job is tracking down fugitives in criminal cases. But they don't usually involve his daughter.

Dennis Murphy: This became a crisis in your law enforcement family, the people you worked with for 20 years.

Rick Goff: They came out of the woodwork to help. My chief, my sheriff, all of them came down. Just everybody.

Minutes after learning Denise had disappeared, Rick was pleading for help from everyone he could think of, including the media.

Howie Grace, a friend and photo journalist for the local NBC station, WBBH-TV, remembers getting a call from Rick that evening.

Howie Grace: He was crying. And that struck me because as long as I've known him, I've never really known him to show emotion, let alone to show emotion of that magnitude. And I said, "What's going on?" And he says, "My daughter's been kidnapped."

On his way over to North Port to cover the story, the photographer saw firsthand what Rick meant about people coming out of the woodwork to help. Everyone, from highway patrol to the Marshall's service, was on the lookout for Denise.

Howie Grace: It started the moment I got off the interstate. They were searchin, they were visually flashlights in the cars and stoppin everybody or anybody who looked suspicious.

At 6:14 pm, the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office received a bizarre 911 call on a cell phone, from someone claiming to be Denise Lee.

The missing person herself? How could that be?

Nate was home with his father-in-law when they got word about the call.

Nate Lee: Rick, I remember saying said something like, "Man, if those kids are playing jokes?" He thought it was somebody just calling in to be funny.

But the call was very real and there was nothing funny at all about Denise's plight.

Somehow, she'd managed to sneak her abductor's cell phone away from him while he was driving. She dialed 911.

That call from a terrified Denise has been sealed as evidence by the prosecutor's office. Her voice has been heard by just a handful of people, her father Det. Rick Goff among them.

Rick Goff: We just wanted to verify that it was her voice. And made sure it was what we thought it was. And first thing was her screaming.

Dennis Murphy: Does it get more awful than that to hear?

Rick Goff: Uh-uh.

Dennis Murphy: Your child out there and you can't do anything?

Rick Goff: Yup. The first words is she's been kidnapped.

Rick says that during the phone call, Denise managed to dupe her abductor into thinking she was having a conversation with him, begging him to take her home, but in fact all the while was passing on key information to the 911 call taker.

She gave information like the make of the vehicle she was in, a green Camaro, which confirmed the tip police got earlier that day. And the fact that her kidnapper was a stranger to her.

Rick Goff: She's making it seem like she's talking to him. You know, she's answering the 911 operator's questions by laying on the phone and listening to it.

Dennis Murphy: But I mean, some sort of a description of the guy?

Rick Goff: Yeah. And her babies are home alone and her address. But she's giving the exact address to the 911 operator. But she's making it sound like she's talking to him. I mean, she was really smart. Really smart. He never knew it. Until, like seven minutes into the call that he finally figured his phone wasn't there. And he searched, then found it missing.

According to police records, the kidnapper's voice can be heard saying, "Where's the phone?" with Denise replying, "I don't know," before the call abruptly ends.

Dennis Murphy: Tell me what's going on with you at the moment.

Nate Lee: I was 100 percent sure that they were going to get her. And I'm thinking, you know, a cell phone, "Well, they can track her." They can figure this out.

But it wasn't that simple. The kidnapper's phone was an inexpensive throw-away, not equipped with the kind of GPS tracking device police can usually lock onto to locate the whereabouts of a cell.

The only thing police were able to get were "pings" from nearby cell phone towers, that meant she was somewhere in the area.

They were finding haystacks, not needles.

But if they couldn't find where the phone was, they could at least find out who it belonged to.

From the phone number, they were able to identify the owner -- one Michael Lee King. Denise's family drew a total blank on the name.

Nate Lee: I've tried to look at this from every possible scenario and answer every single question, and dug as deep as I possibly could dig. And I had never, ever been in contact with this person, ever. And I know Denise had never been in contact with that person, ever. It's just scary to think that something that random -- sombody could've been following her for weeks, months.

That awful 911 call from Denise Amber Lee had given the police a major lead, but the authorities still did not know where their man and his green Camaro were.

(911 Call)

Operator: Police emergency, Operator Bonnell...

At 6:23 p.m., nine minutes after Denise's call, the 911 board lit up again.

This one was from the suspect's own family.

It had been almost four hours since a green Camaro was spotted in the driveway of Denise Lee's home. Three hours since her husband Nate reported her missing. Denise herself had just called 911 from her abductor's cell phone, pleading for help, when the Sarasota County authorities got their second 911 call from a witness.

(911 call)

Operator: Yes what's the problem?

Sabrina Muxlow, the daughter of the suspected kidnapper's cousin, called in with a disturbing story she had just heard from her father.

Minutes before, Michael King had stopped by her dad's house in North Port with a girl tied up in his car.

(911 call)

Sabrina Muxlow: And the girl came out of like got out of the car, and like my dad's cousin went and put her back in the car, and when she got out --

Operator: OK, where's your dad's house?

Sabrina Muxlow: It's in North Port.

Sabrina told the operator her father wanted to remain anonymous, but she gave the police the street where he lived.

(911 call)

Operator: OK, now how did he -- where would he be going with this female?

Sabrina Muxlow: He came over to my dad's house, borrowed a shovel, a gas tank, and something else...

Operator: OK. We've been looking for this female.

Sabrina Muxlow: You have.

Operator: Yes, I'm here. And I'm, yes, she would be -- we got the helicopter up, you are just so wonderful to call us this information, OK.

Sabrina Muxlow: Yeah.

At that point, Denise had been just four miles from her home.

Investigators were now getting a better picture of their suspect: Where he lived, who he was.

And then, just as Sabrina hung up, police got yet another 911 call from a witness, the third that day.

This one came from a driver, Jane Kowalski, traveling on US-41, which runs along Florida's west coast. Her call, clocked in at 6:30 p.m., was made on a cell phone just beyond the Sarasota County line, so it was routed to a different 911 call center, in Charlotte County.

(911 Call)

Operator: 911. Where's your emergency?

Kowalski: Well, I'm on 41 going south, and I'm gonna do a cross street right now. It's at, I'm on Chamberlain, I just crossed Chamberlain, I'm on 41 going south. And I was a stoplight and a man pulled up next to me and there was a child screaming in the car.

Operator: What kind of vehicle was he in?

Kowalski: It's a blue Camaro, a, a, like Camaro, like in the '90s or early 2000s or something.

Jane Kowalski described what she thought was a child screaming and banging on the window in the car next to her. In the darkening light, she thought the Camaro was blue or black.

Jane Kowalski: Complete, just terrifying, screaming, loud.I mean -- I've never heard anything like that. So I looked over at him. And I saw the man. And I sort of gave him a look, like, "What's going on in your car?"

Dennis Murphy: You made eye contact?

Kowalski: Oh, absolutely. Well, all of a sudden after that, a hand came up and started banging on the passenger window.

At the time, she knew nothing about the search underway for Denise Lee, but called into 911 because she thought she was witnessing a child abduction.

(911 call)

Operator: The vehicle had a white male driver and there was a child screaming in the car.

During the call, the operator seemed to be getting it all down and realized the importance of what she was hearing.

Kowalski:And banging on the window --

Operator: Hold on, ma'am.

Kowalski: Like slap --

Operator: OK -- I've got everybody hollering at me, and, just one second.

But she also sounded distracted.

Operator: Just one second...

And slow to respond.

Kowalksi: He's going to turn left on Toledo Blade, he's turning left right now.

Operator: Oh-

Kowalski: And,and I'm in the other lane and-

Operator: You're going southbound and he's turning west on Toledo Blade?

Kowalski: Yeah, do you want me to, do you want me to turn?

Operator: OK, does he want her to follow him? OK, can you turn?

Kowalski: Oh, oh, he just turned on Toledo Blade, I don't know if I can catch up. There's a bunch of traffic and I can't get over.

In her 911 call, Jane Kowalski described a slow-motion stand-off with the suspicious driver. They were going 35 miles an hour on a busy highway, with traffic piling up behind them.

She was waiting for him to pull ahead to get a look at his back plates. Instead, she lost him at Toledo Blade Boulevard when he pulled a quick left behind her, heading back toward North Port.

Within 16 minutes, from 6:14 to 6:30 pm, police had received three 911 calls related to the case: One from Denise, another placing her in North Port at the home of King's cousin, and a third from a witness driving alongside her on a main highway.

And yet the authorities, even with a helicopter above and patrol officers in three counties on the lookout, could not locate that green Camaro and his screaming captive.

Maddeningly, police were just a step behind their suspect. At 6:42 p.m., they showed up at Michael King's home and realized he'd been there and gone.

John Davis, Reporter for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: They found duct tape. We know that had some long strands of hair on it. They found apparent signs that someone had been held there. But more importantly, they found the house was empty.

Meanwhile, back at the Sarasota call center, one more 911 call came in at 6:50 pm. It was the fourth call from a witness that day. It was made from a pay phone.

(911 call)

Operator: 911. What's the location of your emergency?

911 Caller: Uhm, it's uh, I'm not sure exactly what the emergency is exactly, but I think there's somebody that's been taken without their uh, they don't want to be where they need to be.

Operator: Uh-huh.

911 Caller: And in a '95 green Camaro. In North Port somewhere.

Operator: OK. And how do you know this?

911 Caller: I don't know. Just uh...

The man on the phone tried to remain anonymous, the information he provided was a little disjointed. But he seemed to know something about what was going on in that green Camaro,and he was able to add a detail about the car. It had what auto enthusiasts call a "bra" on its front.

(911 call)

Operator: Is he going to hurt the girl?

911 Caller: I have no idea.

Operator: Did you, you saw them though?

911 Caller: Yes.

Operator: And what, where was she?

911 Caller: Uhm, in the car.

Operator: In the car? Was she OK?

911 Caller: Um, it didn't look like she wanted to be there.

The mystery caller routine didn't work for long. Police were able to figure out pretty quickly that the caller was Harold Muxlow, King's cousin and the father of the young woman who'd called 911 earlier in the hour.

When they went knocking on Harold's door, they got him to reveal more about that encounter in his driveway.

Harold Muxlow: He said lawn mower broke down and stuck in a ditch, and needs gas and a shovel.

At about 6 p.m., the cousin said, Michael King had stopped off at his house to borrow a gas can, shovel, and flashlight. After grabbing that stuff from his tool shed, Muxlow said he watched the woman -- who would turn out to be Denise -- struggle with King for about 30 seconds. At one point, she even got outside the car and yelled, "Call the cops," before King shoved her back inside.

Muxlow: I turned back around, started walking down there, he said, "Oh don't worry about it. And he took off."

Davis: King had told him not to worry about it. And Harold Muxlow sort of chalked it up to another one of Michael King's sort of crazy relationships. Although it bothered him enough to call his daughter. But apparently not enough at the time to intervene.

The car, the suspect and Denise Lee were gone again.

It was a missed opportunity that bitterly eats at Denise's father, Sgt. Rick Goff.

Goff: Muxlow, I don't know how he did what he did, knowing he's got a young daughter himself. What if it was her in the car? He needs to think of that. You know? Could've been his daughter in that car.

After Harold Muxlow's 911 call, the flurry of leads ended. For the next two-and-a-half hours, nothing more was learned about Michael King's wherabouts.

Until finally, at 9:16 p.m., a trooper pulled over a '95 green Camaro with a black bra in front.

King was behind the wheel. But Denise was nowhere to be found.

A state trooper pulled over the green Camaro about seven hours after it had first been sighted in Denise Lee's driveway.

Michael King was picked up about six miles from the point where the concerned driver had reported seeing what she thought was a child screaming for help in the back.

When he stepped out of his car, King was soaking wet from the waist down. In his pocket was a cell phone with the batteries removed. A muddy shovel was lying inside his car.

Det. Rick Goff remembers getting the call that night around 9:30 that King had been pulled over. To him, this wasn't just any routine case. The victim was his daughter.

Rick Goff: I had hope. Because standing there, listening to the radio, they're stopping a green Camaro and it matched the tag that we had. I had a lot of hope.

But, in what had become an all too familiar pattern that day, police were too late. Denise was nowhere to be found.

King had his own explanation for what had happened that day. Hours after his arrest, he told a rambling account of his story to his cousin, Harold Muxlow, who the police had allowed into the interrogation room for a visit. They recorded the conversation on a surveillance camera.

King: I got hijacked. I told you that. I couldn't, I tried to put 911 on the phone and everything.

King said that both he and Denise had been victims of a kidnapping. King had been blindfolded, so he couldn't tell for sure where the kidnapper had left Denise.

John Davis, Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter: He led them to an area not far from his home as a possible area where the abduction had taken place, or where they had been taken.

But the areas King took police to turned up nothing. The police, unconvinced by King's story, charged him with kidnapping.

After all those 911 calls, and their suspect finally in cuffs, Denise was still missing.

Police: We're hoping she's alive. We're hoping.

For two days, scores of volunteers joined officers in searching for her, until finally a K-9 unit stumbled upon a shallow grave in a marshy field, half a mile from where King had been arrested. Denise had been shot in the head.

Terry Lewis, Chief of Police, North Port, Fla.: Her dad wanted her home so you know, I don't know what to say about that. We brought her home but this isn't the way we as a team wanted to bring her home.

Rick Goff: Denise is thankful that all your efforts brought her home. She's no longer…

Denise's father and husband reached out to all those who had searched and prayed with them.

But how much grief can anyone bear? Losing Denise like this.

Nate Lee: I'm gonna miss her so much. And I don't know how I'm going to go through my, the rest of my life without her.

The horrific end to Denise Amber Lee's young life left a community in shock.

Howie Grace, photojournalist, WBBH: The tragedy of it is huge.  The senselessness of it is huge.  And the fact that there's still no connection between King and the victim, you know, who's to say.

How had it come to this? And who was this man accused of killing her?

Over the next few days, the police would learn more about Michael King.

He was a 36-year-old out-of-work plumber who had stopped showing up at his work place three months before.

He had first moved to Florida in 2002, following a bitter divorce in Michigan.

On the morning of Jan. 17, just two hours before he was spotted in Denise Lee's driveway, he had been firing off rounds at a local gun range; his signature can be seen on a sign-in sheet.

But Michael King had no criminal history -- just a few complaints filed by neighbors who suspected him of playing pranks.

Patti Paull, who owns a beauty salon in Venice, Fla., says King was a regular.

She described him as a quiet, unassuming customer, though she did tell police about one disturbing incident.

King had shown up at the salon with a girl he claimed to be 15-years-old.

Paull: I thought maybe it was his niece, or his daughter. And then they started to kiss at the desk, which made us all pretty uncomfortable, because she did look to be young. He told us he met her in Tennessee off the Internet.

Police interviews with other witnesses would reveal a pattern of disturbing behavior -- reports that king exposed himself to a woman while on the job, and even one allegation of rape. None of these incidents were reported to police at the time.

Days after Denise Lee's disappearance, investigators were finally getting a handle on the man they had chased. And then a bombshell of a question would stop them in their tracks, and throw them back into the crucial hours of their initial search.

Jane Kowalksi: I called them and said, "You know, I'm the 911 caller who called in. And do you need any more information from me?" And they didn't know who I was.

Dennis Murphy: They just drew a blank on it? "What 911 caller?"

Kowalski: Well, exactly.

There were four 911 calls from witnesses -- including one from the victim herself, and two from the accused killer's family. All the calls placed Denise a few miles from her home in an area swarming with law enforcement.

There was even that one 911 call from a driver who had watched the crime unfold in real time.

(911 call)

Operator: There's a child in the car, someplace between 5 and 10, and it was banging on the window.

Kowalski: And screaming, like screaming screaming --

Kowalski: And not a happy scream like get me out of here scream.

At the time, the driver, Jane Kowalski, thought it was a child screaming. but when she saw Michael King's picture on the news the next day, she realized what she had witnessed was the kidnapping of Denise Lee.

Jane Kowalski: I didn't know who she was. But I definitely recognized him. I was like, "Oh my God. I can't believe it." And I ended up calling the North Port police department and said, "You know, I'm the 911 caller who called in. And do you need any more information from me?" And they didn't know who I was.

Dennis Murphy: They just drew a blank on it? What 911 caller?

Jane Kowalski: Well, exactly. Because my 911 call didn't go to them. It went to the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office.

Jane had just crossed the border of Sarasota County when she made that call, so it was routed to neighboring Charlotte County -- where Denise's father, Rick, works as a sergeant.

But as it turns out, that call never got forwarded to the North Port police, or anyone else searching for Denise. Because dispatchers never sent it out.

In fact, it took two more days of Jane calling back before investigators in North Port were able to track down her 911 call.

Dennis Murphy: There was a firestorm about the Kowalski 911 call, huh?

Jane Kowalski: Exactly. Because I basically was the last person to basically see her alive.  Even if it was just her hand.  And, you know, have the location of where she was.  And if someone would've responded to that call, I mean, the outcome could be different.

In an internal investigation, the Charlotte County Sheriff's office found that the operator had made the connection between the 911 call and the search for Denise Lee.

The operator's job was to give the information to police dispatchers -- the ones talking to deputies on their radios out in the field.

But instead of entering the tip into a computer database during the call, the operator shouted it across the aisle.

And the dispatchers -- who said they heard her -- never actually sent the tip out. In the chaos that night, they simply forgot.

John Davis: One of the dispatchers thought that her radio wasn't working. She was wrong, her radio was, in effect, working. And in some cases, people had assumed that the information went out by other people helping. The ball was basically dropped all around.

John Davenport, the Sheriff of Charlotte County, suddenly found himself confronting attacks on his department's competence.

Davenport: The assumption is that Charlotte County screwed up and could've saved this girl's life. That's what everybody's thinking. And I'm telling you, that until the facts come out here, that's the wrong assumption to make.

It didn't help the Sheriff's case that at the time the 911 call came in, there were deputies from his office stationed on the very road Jane was driving along.

One deputy even said in a sworn statement that he was parked on the side of Toledo Blade Boulevard at 6:35 p.m. that night -- the very road King had turned onto when Jane lost him. Denise and her captor may have driven right by him.

Nate Lee: I swear, every time I hear the story, seems like another's cop car that was in the vicinity. I've heard one, I've heard two, I've heard five.

Dennis Murphy: So they're blasting past units that could have stopped right then and there.

Nate Lee: Yeah. There's not a doubt in my mind Denise would still be here. Not a doubt in my mind.

Davenport takes issue with all the coulda, woulda, shouldas that have swirled around his department's handling of that 911 call. After all, he says, deputies were already on the lookout for a green Camaro that day -- with or without Jane Kowalski's tip.

Davenport: Was it a missed opportunity?  Certainly it was.  Would it have changed the outcome?  We'll never know.  I don't think it would have, because we had officers in that area looking for the green Camero. They didn't find it. 

If his department could be accused of anything, the sheriff says, it would be trying too hard that night.

Davenport: Because it was one of our own, and we knew it, and all the resources were being sent, it was chaos. It was stressful. I mean, in the course of trying to do too much, frankly, I think they missed the call.

After his internal investigation, Sheriff Davenport ordered remedial training for four of the call center workers, and a few days' suspension for the two dispatchers involved.

For Denise's husband, the punishments amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Nate Lee: Right now, those people that handle that situation that night are all still working. And they all still have their jobs. They could be working right now. And you've just got to, I guess, flip a coin and hope.

For Denise's father, a 25-year veteran of the sheriff's office, the knowledge of that fumbled 911 call cut extraordinarly deep.

Goff: She was beating on the window so hard and screaming, trying to get help. Which is the smart thing to do because by that time she knows she probably wasn't coming back. And as far as I'm concerned, we blew it. And I say "we" because I'm part of that sheriff's office.

The family's shock soon turned to anger. Denise had done everything she could to save herself that day. But had the police?

And then, more details emerged about just how hard Denise had fought for her life. It wasn't just the 911 calls she had managed to leave behind.

Clues of her awful ordeal had been planted in that now infamous green Camaro.

On Jan. 23, six days after Denise Amber Lee had been kidnapped from her home and brutally murdered, a funeral was held. It was the biggest the town had ever seen.

Rick Goff: She's my baby girl and I'm going to miss her. I don't know how we're going to get on without her.

Hundreds of police officers came out to support the daughter of one of their own.

Goff: A 30-mile funeral procession, rose petals in the road, all the fire trucks were backed out of the fire station with their lights going.  Elementary schools out there, standing and watching her go by. The people working outside were saluting the hearse.

Amidst the family's grief, the questions of Denise's ordeal that day still haunted them.

Why would Michael King have chosen Denise in the first place? How could he have gotten her into his car?

Nate Lee: He has a '95 green Camaro and I have a '95 green Dodge Avenger.  And anybody that knows cars knows that those cars look pretty similar. So, you know, he could have pulled in the driveway and she might a thought it was me. And then who knows what happened then?

And there was the question of those windows. Why had they been shut? Nate speculates it was one of Denise's final acts of motherhood -- saving her children from a monster.

Nate Lee: He could have shut the windows because he didn't want to hear her screaming, people would hear her screaming. Or she shut them.

Dennis Murphy: So the kids couldn't wander off.

Nate Lee: Yeah. That would have been the first thing out of her mouth was, "Let me just make sure my kids are OK and make sure they don't get out."

The day of Denise's funeral, the police also got a lab report, showing a match between King's DNA and DNA found on the wife and mother's body.

In addition to kidnapping and murder, Michael King would also be charged with rape.

King has since pleaded not guilty to all those charges.

And there was more evidence in the back seat of that Camaro, clues that the murdered detective's daughter may have intentionally left behind: Strands of her sandy brown hair, torn out by the roots and stuck under the seat.

Dennis Murphy: She knew they needed the root pole of the hair?

Nate Lee: Yeah. You know, she used to love "Law & Order" and she watched all those shows all the time.

Also in that back seat of the car, they found the heart-shaped ring she always wore -- the one Nate had bought her for their first Valentine's Day.

Nate Lee: The ring didn't necessarily come off very easily, so it's not like it just fell off. I know she placed it there, and it's the only ring I know she would've been 100 percent I would've been able to identify. Because that ring is the most sentimental thing I've ever... you know.

It was as though she was telling investigators, "It was me, I was here."

Dennis Murphy: What does that tell us about her?

Nate Lee: Just to think that her going through all that that she was still able to think of whatever she could do in case that she didn't get found. Or she did get found. I'm sure she knew that, "You know, my dad's doing everything he can." And he was.

Denise seemed to have done everything she could to save herself, but as Nate believes, the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office failed her.

After the revelation of a missed 911 call, the county sheriff, John Davenport, was standing firm behind his decision not to fire his call center workers.

Davenport: Those people, there's no punishment I could ever give them that they're not already facing themselves and living with themselves over all of this. They feel terrible about this. Terrible.

Dennis Murphy: But if they choke under pressure, maybe they're not the right people. You still have confidence...

Davenport: I have total confidence in people that have been involved in this. I truly do. And they've been under pressure many times before. But they didn't make the mistake. This time they did. We all have.

For Nate, that answer simply wouldn't cut it. In April, he filed an intent to sue Charlotte County for negligence in his wife's death.

Nate Lee: If you have heard Miss Kowalski's call, you heard severe incompetence. That is unacceptable. 

Lawsuits of this kind are typically capped at just $200,000. Nate says it's not about the money, but accountability.

Dennis Murphy: That system that's in place today, Nate, and the people operating it, do you think they're complicit in your wife's murder?

Nate Lee: I mean I hate to say that the sheriff's office is responsible for my wife's death. Because you know, they didn't pull the trigger. But they could have stopped him.

The potential lawsuit puts Nate's father-in-law, Rick Goff, in an awkward position, since it's directed at the institution he's devoted his life working for.

But Rick has taken up a cause of his own to reform Florida's 911 system, pressing for passage of a state law, named after Denise, to standardize training for all call center workers.

Rick Goff: We had cars on the road waiting to apprehend the guy right where she was at. But they never dispatched the car. On behalf of my daughter, I'd like this bill passed.

Rick Goff: I'd like to say Denise had confidence in a system, because why she dialed 911. And she was trying to get her life saved. And then Jane Kowalski, she had confidence in 911 that night. She tried to get Denise saved. And that didn't happen. So that's all -- we just want to instill confidence back in the system.

Dennis Murphy: Is it tough for you to get your shoes and uniform on every day and drive over there and go to work?

Rick Goff: I don't wear a uniform.  But it was tough, you know, the first couple days going back ... There's people ask me every day, "How are you doing?" I'm doin pretty crappy. I mean, to say the least. To me, there's no good day because she's not here. Some days are worse than others. Some days are all right. But there's no good days because she's not here.

Denise had done so many things right that day: :eaving behind her own clues, secretly calling 911, and screaming for help.

But in the end none of it was enough to save her and bring her back to her family.

Dennis Murphy: Nate and the boys, how are they doing? They're going to be too young to remember anything.

Nate Lee: It's a blessing in some ways, but it's very unfortunate that they're not going to really have gotten to know her.  But they're as healthy as can be, and I'm not worried about them. They've got part of Denise in them, and that's the most comforting thing I can think about.

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