The Murder of Denise Amber Lee
When I came across this name on my list I knew exactly who it was and I even triple checked to be sure I had not blogged about this case yet. It is one of those cases that have always stuck with me and I am surprised that in all this time I have failed to report on it. You may also notice that this is one of the cases where the name of the victim is in the title as opposed to the name of the perpetrator. It is not my intention to dismiss any victims when I am blogging but it is a sad reality that in most crimes it is the perpetrator that is more remembered, generally because of their court proceedings as well as the details of the crime. Then there are the cases where there are multiple perpetrators in which I will sometimes title the blog on the victim, but that is not the case here. This is one of those rare cases that as I said the crime and the events have stuck with me in a way that it almost seems wrong to give the perpetrator in this case one more ounce of recognition. I am sure that all victims of violent crime leave a legacy of their own through their family but Denise's case is a bit unique. She not only left a legacy, she created one in the hours leading up to her death, and her family, especially her husband still advocates for changes in this country, changes that he believes could have saved his wife's life.
Denise Lee lived in North Port Florida with her husband, Nathan, and their two sons. In January of 2008 Noah was two years old and Adam was just six months old. On that day Nathan had talked to his wife a little after eleven that morning while he was at work. Denise had mentioned the heat outside and how she had opened the windows of their home. When Nathan returned home around 3:30 he noticed that the windows were closed but likely thought little of it. He got inside and it did not take long before he knew something was wrong. Nathan could not find Denise, she was no where to be found despite her keys, purse and cell phone still being in the home. What Nathan did find was his two young sons in a crib together, but all alone. Nathan would make the first of several 911 calls that were taken in this case. Nathan informed the dispatcher that his wife was missing and an officer went to their home. Although my research was not specific it is likely that either before or after his 911 call Nathan called Denise's parents not just to possibly look for her or inform them he could not find her but because Denise's father, Rick Goff, was a sergeant in a nearby county's sheriff's department.
Authorities arrived at the home and saw no signs of forced entry into the home. It can only be assumed that initial feelings may have pointed fingers at Nathan. I mean, is it not always the husband? That thinking did not last too long. Authorities began talking with neighbors and one described a strange incident. The woman said that around two or two-thirty that afternoon a green Camaro with a black bra had gone up and down the street slowly several times. Finally the woman had gone outside when she saw it again and she then saw it pull into Nathan and Denise's driveway. The neighbor described the man she saw driving but at the time she simply assumed the driver had found the home he was looking for.
The next 911 call to come into the dispatch came from Denise herself around 6:15. Her call would be later played at the trial of a man named Michael King. The call itself was very strange and the dispatcher is thought to be the last person to have spoken to Denise, aside from her killer. Throughout the 911 Denise Lee was in the back of the now described green Camaro. At one point the dispatcher was unsure if Denise could hear her questions but she knew that the woman she was speaking to was in a dangerous situation. For her part Denise had gotten a hold of the cell phone of her kidnapper and was talking to him in a way to answer the questions that the dispatcher was asking. Throughout the more than six minute call it was said that Denise said the word “please” seventeen times. Denise was unable to tell the dispatcher where she was but they knew it was her. She was able to relay her name, the fact that she was married with young children and even the road she lived on. For his part Michael King knew his cell phone was gone and kept asking Denise about it to which she feigned knowledge.
Some research says that the phone number was traced and that led authorities to Michael King's home. Other research indicates that the cell phone was a pre-paid cell phone and tracing to an owner was impossible. It was more likely that it was the next 911 call that was received soon after that gave them the information they needed although just who is was is up for debate. Some things state that the next call came from a man named Harold Muxlow, while others state it was his daughter, Sabrina. Still other research indicates that they both called, although obviously one had to call before the other. I believe it is likely that they did both call considering almost all research says that there were five 911 calls made concerning this case. I also likely believe that it was Sabrina Muxlow who called first. So just who were the Muxlow's and what did they have to do with this case?
Harold Muxlow was Michael King's cousin. According to Harold's later testimony Michael had come to his home wanting to borrow a shovel, a gas can and a flashlight. He told Harold that his lawnmower had gotten stuck in a ditch in his yard. Harold gave Michael the items but as he was leaving Harold saw a young woman, who we now know was Denise Lee, struggling with Michael. In fact, the woman yelled for Harold to call the police. It is said that after they left Harold drove over to Michael's home. He did not see Michael, but neither did he see a lawnmower stuck in his yard. It is unclear exactly what happened next but it seems that rather than calling 911, Harold called his daughter Sabrina and told her what had happened. Sabrina then called the 911 and told them of the incident. At some point it does appear that Harold himself called 911, likely under the urging of his daughter who was likely asked by the dispatcher to get him to call. So by this time they likely have at least two reports about a green Camaro and they have heard the name Michael King at least twice.
It was the last 911 call (or was it the 4th of 5?) that brought on much controversy and would later lead to changes in laws. It is believed that while Michael King was at Harold Muxlow's home was the time in which Denise was able to obtain his cell phone. Soon after Denise's call a woman by the name of Jane Kowalski was driving down the road speaking to her sister on the phone when she was stopped at a red light. Next to her was a green Camaro, although she would tell 911 operators she believed it was blue. Kowalski got a good look at the driver but that is not what drew her attention. She could hear screaming coming from the inside of the car. At some point she saw a hand on the back window and noticed the driving looking as if he was pushing something down in the back seat. The screams were so loud that her sister could hear the exchange through the phone. The size of the hand she saw made Kowalski believe that there was a child in the back seat. She would call 911 to report what she was seeing. In fact, Kowalski decided to talk to 911 and follow the car for as long as she could giving the dispatcher a description. By this time there were several officers and resources out looking for Denise and there were actually officers nearby when Kowalski called. However, two major things happened during this call that many say caused the failure to save Denise Lee.
First, the call got transferred from one county to another. All of the other calls went to Sarasota County while Kowalski's call went to nearby Charlotte County. Apparently while this huge manhunt is going on in Sarasota County the next county over did not have the information or working on it. The saddest thing is that Denise's father worked for the sheriff's department in Charlotte County. Secondly, while two dispatchers were consulted throughout Kowalski's call, neither of them called it into parole cars that were near the area. Later they would each claim that they believed the other one had done so. Where this becomes much more of an issue lies with the fact that Kowalski was following the vehicle for a period of time and giving all but a “play by play” as to where the vehicle was going. Presumably whether the dispatcher believed the other had made the call to the parole officers are not is insignificant because Kowalski was giving more information throughout her call that should have been dispatched. A BOLO had already been issued for the car but apparently the dispatchers did not know or did not follow protocol to know. The chance to save Denise Lee was lost.
Authorities finally caught up with Michael King around 9:30 that evening but Denise Lee was not with him. By all appearances King did not readily confess to anything but authorities apparently had enough to hold him. A search of his car found a ring that Nathan Lee identified as belonging to Denise and that she never took off. Prosecutors would come to believe that considering where and how it was found it was Denise Lee's last effort to make sure the person who had committed this crime against her would be caught. It was unclear as to just how authorities found their way to an undeveloped area in North Port in which they would eventually discover the remains of Denise Lee on January 19, 2008, two days after her abduction. It would be determined that she had been shot once in the head and buried in a shallow grave.
In August of 2009 Michael King would stand trial. Prosecutors would present evidence that included hair and other items linked to Denise Lee through DNA not only in and on King's car, but also the grave site and even in his home. Upon searching his home they found what they called a “rape room.” Inside this room investigators found duct tape and other items that are typical in rape cases as well as DNA evidence concluded that King had sexually assaulted Denise. It was said, whether King had admitted or it was the prosecution theory, that after abducting Denise from her home King had taken her to his home, one that was in foreclosure, where he tortured and raped her. He then tied her back up and put her in the car and drove to his cousin Harold's house. It was here that he got the tools to later bury her. Although he had gotten a gas can from Harold, I found nothing that stated there was an attempt to burn her body. Then again no one will likely ever know if that was his original intention.
Aside from the DNA evidence that they had, the prosecutors also had several people who identified Michael King and his vehicle in several different areas at times. First there was the neighbor who saw the vehicle and the person driving it at the Lee's home. They also had Harold Muxlow who told his story about King coming to his home and the woman in his car. And then there was Jane Kowalski who could identify the car (despite her color issue) and the person driving it at the time of her 911 call. Cell phone records also proved that the call that Denise Lee made to 911 was made from Michael King's phone.
Throughout the trial the defense attempted to suggest that there had been some tampering of evidence and that the DNA was not reliable. They also apparently wanted to suggest that King had not been the perpetrator but that the real person behind the crime was a friend of his. The judge on the case prevented the latter from being presented. When it came time to put on their case, the defense called no witnesses.
On August 28, 2009, after deliberating for about two hours, the jury in this case returned with guilty verdicts against Michael King. He was found guilty of 1st degree murder, kidnapping and sexual battery. The the next phase would determine his sentence and the death penalty was an option. The defense went to work finally it seems. They presented evidence that King had suffered from a head injury in a sledding accident as a child and that his behavior had become unpredictable after that point. Of course, as is the case in many jury trials experts disagreed as to the extent to the injury as well as the long term effects. On September 4, 2009 Michael King was sentenced to death for the 1st degree murder charge. He also received a life sentence for kidnapping and thirty-years on the sexual battery charge. He remains in a Florida prison. His conviction was upheld in February of 2012.
Law enforcement official denied, at least publicly, that the 911 call(s) were mishandled and that but for these mistakes Denise Lee may have been saved. The two dispatchers involved in Kowalski's phone call were disciplined however for apparently failing to follow procedure. One was suspended for sixty hours while the other received a thirty-six hour suspension. Both were required to take twelve hours of remedial training.
Nathan Lee has made it his life's goal to reach police departments across the country and have them require that 911 operators have training for situations. Apparently this was not a given, something I was surprised by. In April of 2008 the state of Florida passed The Denise Amber Lee Act that requires mandatory training to all 911 operators. As of 2016 at least twenty-four states required no formal training for 911 operators.
Denise Lee was failed and the saddest part comes when you realize that her father, Rick Goff was a well known and respected officer in the area. This was a case that was rather personal for a police department. Denise was all but one of their own. There were resources not just available but utilized at a much faster rate than they would have been under different circumstances. It is theorized she was taken around 2:30 in the afternoon, in broad daylight. Authorities would be informed one hour later. Three hours later they heard from the victim herself and there were multiple calls and witnesses who reported what they had seen. They may not have been able to prevent all of the trauma that she faced but they surely could have prevented her death.