"I'm sorry, I just want to go. I want to see my family. Please let me go. Please, oh God, help me."
-Denise Amber Lee
It was the 17th of January 2008. A Thursday. Twenty one year old Denise Lee was at home with her two young boys, two year old Noah and six month old Adam. Denise lived in the house in North Port, Florida, United States with her sons and her husband Nathan Lee. They met when they were teenagers. Denise was just 17 years old and Nathan was 19 years old.
Even though they were young, they both wanted to start a life together and have a family. They married and shortly afterwards had Noah and then Adam. Nathan worked three jobs so that Denise could look after their boys at home. It wasn't easy but they were very happy together.
Nathan and Denise Lee
That day, the 17th of January, Nathan left for work early. When he left, Denise and the boys were still in bed. He called Denise at 11am. She was cutting their son Noah's hair on the back porch.
When Nathan was on his way home from work, he called Denise again but there was no answer. He got home at 3.30pm. Denise was not at home. But the two boys were. They were alone in the house and both in the same crib which was unusual.
Nathan had no idea where Denise was. The boys were too young to tell him what happened but they appeared to be unharmed. Denise's personal belongings were all in the house so it didn't look like she just left to go somewhere. But there were no signs that anything had actually happened. There was no forced entry. In fact, when Nathan got home, the house was locked. There were no signs of a struggle either. Nathan said that at that point he "began to lose it." He called the police.
Denise and the Boys
The police arrived and carried out a search of the home to try to establish what had happened to Denise and try to find out where she was. Denise's neighbor, Jennifer Eckert, told police that at 2.30pm that afternoon, she saw a green Camaro car going up and down the road. She noticed it because it was “creeping up and down the road going very slow.” The car circled the street four or five times and then it pulled into Denise's driveway and there was a man sitting in the driver's seat. She went outside her house ten minutes later and saw the car drive off. She did not see Denise in the car. Denise's father, Detective Rick Goff, was able to call on all area state, county and municipal law-enforcement agencies to search for Denise immediately.
At 6.14pm, police got a break in the case. The Sarasota County Sherriff's Office received a 911 call. The caller did not initially identify herself but it was a female voice and the caller was not speaking directly to the operator. Instead, it sounded like she was talking to a man:
Caller: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I just want to go
Caller: I'm sorry. I just want to see my family
MALE VOICE: Why did you do that?
Caller: I'm sorry. I just want to see my family
Caller: I just want to see my family again. Please.
DISPATCHER: Hello? Hello?
Caller: I just want to see my family again. Let me go.
MALE VOICE: (Inaudible) the f**king phone.
Caller: Please let me go. Please let me go. Please let me see my family again.
MALE VOICE: No f**king problem.
Caller: I'm sorry.
MALE VOICE: I was gonna let you go and then you go f**k around
Caller: I'm sorry. Please let me go.
MALE VOICE: Where's my phone?
MALE VOICE: Now I've got to go to the next street because of him
Caller: I'm sorry. Please let me go.
MALE VOICE: What are you doing?
Caller: Please let me go, please. Oh, God, please.
MALE VOICE: (inaudible) in front of my cousin Harold
Caller: Please let me go, God please.
MALE VOICE: I told you I would
Caller: Help me.
DISPATCHER: What's the address?
Caller: Please help me.
DISPATCHER: What's the address that you're at? [ (to supervisor): Coming off the North Port Tower.]
MALE VOICE: I'm not (inaudible).
Caller: Please let me go.
DISPATCHER: What is the address that you're at? Hello, ma'am?
Caller: Where are we going?
MALE VOICE: I've got to go up and around now because of what you did
Caller: Up and around where?
MALE VOICE: Didn't you see (inaudible). Exactly four streets—well, five streets over from your house
Caller: I couldn't tell (inaudible).
DISPATCHER: What's your name, ma'am? Hello? What's your name?
Caller: Please. My name is Denise. I'm married to a beautiful husband, and I just want to see my kids again.
DISPATCHER: Your name's Denise?
Caller: I'm sorry.
DISPATCHER (to supervisor): I'm thinking too, that he doesn't know
Caller: Please, God. Please protect me.
DISPATCHER: Are you on I–75?
Caller: Where are we?
MALE VOICE: What did you do with my cell phone?
Caller: I don't know. Please. Protect me, please.
DISPATCHER: Where are you at? Can you tell if you're on I–75?
Caller: I don't know where your phone is. I'm sorry.
MALE VOICE: You be honest with me
Caller: Can't you just tell me where we are?
DISPATCHER: Are you blindfolded? If you are, press the button.
Caller: I don't have your phone. Please, God.
Caller: I don't have it. I'm sorry
DISPATCHER: Denise? Do you know this guy?
MALE VOICE: Be honest
LEE: I don't—I don't have it. I'm sorry
DISPATCHER: Denise, do you know this guy? (to supervisor: She might have the phone laid down and not hear a thing I'm saying too. He keeps saying a phone.)
Caller: I don't know where it is. Maybe if I could see I could help you find it.
Caller: No, sir
Caller: I'm looking for it. Uh-huh?
DISPATCHER: How long have you been gone from your house?
Caller: I don't know.
DISPATCHER: How long?
Caller: I don't know.
DISPATCHER: Do you know how long you've been gone from your house?
DISPATCHER: What's your last name?
DISPATCHER: Do you know—
Caller: I don't know where your phone is.
DISPATCHER: Your name is Denise Lee?
DISPATCHER: Can you tell at all what street you're on?
DISPATCHER: Do you know this guy that's with you?
DISPATCHER: You don't know him from anywhere?
Caller: No. Please. Oh, God, help me.
DISPATCHER: What's your address? What's your home address; do you know?
Caller: I don't know. Please just take me to my house. Can you take me home, on Latour, please?
DISPATCHER: Can you see or do you have a blindfold on?
Caller: I can't see. Where are we?
DISPATCHER: Can they turn off the radio or turn it down?
Caller: I can't hear you. It's too loud. Where are we?
Caller: Are you going to hurt me?
MALE VOICE: Give me the phone
Caller: Are you going to let me out now?
MALE VOICE: As soon as I get the phone
Caller: Help me
The call was then terminated but the caller had identified herself. The caller was Denise Lee. Denise also managed to provide further information including that she wanted to go home and was being held against her will by a man she did not know.
The telephone number from which the 911 call was made was traced and identified as belonging to a thirty six year old unemployed plumber called Michael King. Police now believed that Michael King was holding Denise against her will.
Police went to Michael's residence in North Port but Michael wasn't there. Denise was not there either.
At 6.23pm, a seventeen year old girl, Sabrina Muxlow, called 911. Sabrina told the 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 told them that the car the girl was in was a green Camaro.
Sabrina called 911 because her father, Harold Muxlow, told her about an incident that happened at his house between 5.30pm and 6pm that day. His cousin, Michael King, arrived at the house. Harold was not expecting him. Michael asked Harold for a flashlight, a gas can, and a shovel. He told him that he needed it for his lawnmower as it was stuck in his front yard.
Harold gave the items that Michael was looking for to him but as Harold walked back towards the house, he heard a woman shout:
“Call the cops.”
Harold walked back down the driveway to Michael. He asked Michael what was going on. Michael said:
“Nothing, don't worry about it.”
Harold walked away but looked back once more and saw Michael crawling over the console in the Camaro and pushing the head of a person with shoulder length hair down in the back seat. He saw the person's knee rise up. Michael climbed into the driver's seat and drove away.
Harold then drove to Michael's house to see if the lawnmower was actually in the front yard. It wasn't and Michael was not there. He placed an anonymous 911 phone call in which he provided a description of Michael's vehicle. He told them that there may be a person inside the car being held against their will.
Harold told his daughter Sabrina what happened and she immediately called 911.
A few minutes after Sabrina's 911 call, another 911 call was made. At 6.30pm that evening, Jane Kowalski, called 911.
Jane was stopped at a traffic light on Highway 41 when she heard someone screaming. She described the scream as:
"It was a very high-pitched scream, and it was unlike any type of scream I'd ever heard in my entire life."
Jane was on the phone to her sister at the time and the screaming and loud noises were so loud that her sister heard them on the other end of the phone. Jane thought it was a child screaming at first. The noise was coming from the car next to her. Jane looked across and made eye contact with a man. He was pushing something down in the back seat of his car. Jane said that after he pushed something down, a hand came up from the back seat and started slapping very loudly on the window.
When the traffic light turned green, Jane didn't drive fast, she hoped the car would drive forward so she could see the license plate number. But he wouldn't drive forward so she began moving slowly and the man changed traffic lanes and pulled behind her. Jane called 911. She told them about the noises and screams she heard coming from the Camaro.
Jane told the operator that she could see the driver of the Camaro changing lanes and making a left turn onto Toledo Blade Boulevard, heading toward Interstate 75. Jane could not follow him due to the traffic.
Denise and Nathan Lee
When Jane made that call, there were deputies in the area. There were police on foot, in patrol cars and a helicopter. But they never received the details of Jane's 911 call and the detailed account she provided in real time of where the Camaro was headed towards. The Charlotte County dispatchers failed to provide the information to them.
Later that night, at 9pm, Deputy Christian Wymer and State Trooper Edward Pope were posted at Toledo Blade Boulevard near Interstate 75. They were looking out for the Camaro. They had a description of the car and the license plate number. At around 9.10pm, the Camaro drove from Toledo Blade Boulevard onto the on-ramp for I–75 southbound. They followed the car and forced it to pull over.
The police ordered the driver to exit the vehicle multiple times. The driver only exited when they threatened to shoot. He exited from the front door backwards. It was Michael. Michael was wet from the waist down and there was mud on his shoes. Police searched the car. They found a phone. The battery and SIM card had been removed. They also found a gas can in the car, a shovel with dirt on it and a ring on the back seat. But Denise was not in the car.
Michael was charged with kidnapping but he refused to give any information about Denise or where she was to the police. He denied being involved.
Police continued to search for Denise. Two days after Michael's arrest, a member of the search party saw an area of land near Plantation Boulevard in North Port where the earth appeared to be disturbed. At a depth of three feet one inch, they found the naked body of Denise Lee. She was lying on her side in the fetal position.
Denise had been shot dead less than three miles away from where Jane made the last 911 call.
The medical examiner determined that Denise died from a single gunshot wound to the head. The wound was consistent with the gun having been placed against Denise's head at the time it was fired. The entrance wound was to the right of Denise's right eyebrow. The medical examiner believed that when the gun was discharged, Denise's eye exploded. There was aspirated blood in Denise's lungs, which indicated that Denise continued to breathe for a period of time after the wound was inflicted.
Photo from the Trial showing where the gun was placed
There were bruises on Denise's wrists. The bruises were in the same location on each wrist and the medical examiner concluded they may have been caused by ligatures and were consistent with defensive injuries.
The medical examiner noted that Denise had vaginal bruising and anal tearing, both of which were caused by insertion trauma. Denise was raped before she was shot dead. Michael was charged with first degree murder.
Michael pleaded not guilty.
The Prosecution had a strong case. They had multiple witnesses who saw Michael that day from the neighbor who saw him in Denise's driveway to Jane and other drivers who saw him driving and trying to push something down on the back seat. His cousin, Harold, also testified on behalf of the Prosecution.
Apart from the eye witnesses and 911 calls, police also had DNA evidence. Denise sometimes wore Nathan's boxer shorts and she was wearing a pair that day, the 17th of January. The boxer shorts were found a couple of hundred yards away from where Denise's body was found. They tested positive for sperm cells and the cells matched the DNA profile of Michael.
Denise also left evidence too. In the Camaro, police found her ring and strands of her hair that she had pulled out. They believed she wanted to leave some evidence behind. Her palm print was also found on the outside of the driver's side window.
A search of Michael's house provided further evidence. Duct tape was found with Denise's hair attached to it.
The Defense case focused on the fatal shot that killed Denise. They questioned who fired the fatal shot and said that it wasn't Michael. No murder weapon was found.
It took the Jury just two hours to deliberate. They found Michael guilty of first-degree murder, involuntary sexual battery, and kidnapping.
Michael was sentenced to death. He appealed the sentence but it was upheld.
Nathan Lee started a foundation The Denise Amber Lee Foundation after her murder to promote better training around 911 calls and to create public awareness. He went on Dr Phil to share his story. Denise's father helped to get The Denise Amber Lee Act signed into law. It was passed unanimously by the Florida Legislature. The Act provides for voluntary training for 911 operatives. Despite Denise's bravery and her ferocious fight to save her life, she was let down by the 911 operators that day. Motorists, like Jane, tried to help but others who heard the screams said that they did not call 911 as they did not want to get involved in case it was a domestic dispute.
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