Friday, January 16, 2009

And this from the Sun-Herald

(I absolutely love this story. It hurts and brings heartache but it expresses beautifully who Denise was and who Nathan is. Just two really great kids trying to raise a really great family. Thank you, Jason. I don't know how everyone else feels and can only speak for myself, but I'm moved to tears.)

last updated at 1/16/2009 3:13:39 PM

Ceremony to remember Denise Lee Saturday

Family still mourns murder of 21-year-old daughter, wife

Year in Review: Lee family still waiting for answers
Funeral, search, evidence photos
Remembrance Ceremony
Abduction, murder timeline

By JASON WITZ Staff Writer

Her words hit Nathan Lee like a winter rain.

She couldn't be serious.

The couple had spent the last hour budgeting at his parents' dining room table. Money was tight.
It didn't matter. Denise Amber Lee wanted an answer.

Nathan continued driving, although his eyes started to wander off the dark road as she spoke.

Their sons, Noah and Adam, rested in the backseat, oblivious to the discussion. Denise turned to them and smiled.

She faced her husband again.

"I want to have another baby," she said.

Nathan was stunned.

Paying for two boys was difficult enough. But Denise always dreamed of having a little girl.

"It caught me off guard," he said.

A year later, Nathan still regrets the reaction in what was their last night together.

The following afternoon, the 21-year-old North Port mother would be taken by a stranger in a green Chevrolet Camaro, according to authorities. She wouldn't return.

Every day, the memories resurface.

It feels so long ago.

And yet, today, the anniversary of Denise's murder is already here.

"I'm not looking forward to it," Nathan said recently. He now lives in Englewood with his sons, ages 3 and 18 months. "It's almost like the world is going to end."

A family's grief

There's a decal on Nathan Lee's truck of his wife, depicting better times.

Denise is smiling and happy. Her face shines against a heavenly white border, almost as if she's watching everyone.

"I know it sounds clichŽ, but Denise was an angel," said Nathan, 24.

The image stirs other reactions from his oldest son.

Noah, unlike his younger brother, can remember Denise clearly. The toddler will often reach for the picture, and say "mommy."

Many times, Nathan has to fight back tears.

"You just feel so bad," he said. "(The boys) don't deserve this."

The last year has brought out varying emotions from the family.

Some have questioned their faith, at one point or another. Others have come to appreciate the little things in life.

Peggy Lee uses words to channel her sorrow.

She started a blog in December as a way to express frustration, and at the same time, keep people updated.

"(The blog) has really helped me work through it," said Peggy, who is Nathan’s mother.

For Rick Goff, time hasn't eased the loss of his daughter.

"Every day is rough," he said, leaning against his living room wall, arms folded. "I go to bed thinking about her. I wake up thinking about her. I drive around during the day thinking about her.

"There’s a big hole in our family."

That pain is amplified by the fact that his agency fumbled an opportunity to save her life.

Even now, little has been done to correct those mistakes, according to Goff, a sergeant with the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office.

"It's difficult to go in, because some of the people who made the fatal screw-ups are still there," he said. "I know they're working on the problem, but I don't think it's completely fixed."

Baby talk

Denise loved the idea of caring for another child, even if it stretched the budget.

Money didn't matter in the scheme of things. She was content drafting a shopping list and walking through Walmart with a calculator.

At first, Nathan was lukewarm to the idea.

He had recently started at Florida Power & Light, reading meters. They could survive on one income, but not with much wiggle room.

Still, Denise made it clear she wanted another baby, as she put the two boys to sleep that night.

"That was her top priority," he said. "My number-one goal was to make her happy, and if that made her happy, then that's what I would do."

Jan. 17, 2008

The morning started the same as any other day.

Denise was sleeping when Nathan left for work. A light rain tapped on the windowsill.

The day seemed to take forever.

Nathan talked to Denise earlier about opening up the house to save on electric costs.

Goff called Denise twice within a five-minute span that afternoon to invite the couple for dinner.

Oddly, she didn't answer.

Nathan returned home at 3:30 p.m. to find the windows shut, the air thick with humidity.

He could hear his sons in the bedroom.

Denise was gone, but her purse, keys and cell phone were left behind.

At 4:59 p.m., the first be-on-the-lookout bulletin, or BOLO, was issued by the North Port Police Department.

It named Denise, and gave a physical description of the possible suspect. It also mentioned the dark green Camaro, last seen in the Lees' driveway.

The Charlotte County Sheriff's Office already had sent its teletype operator home to avoid overtime, a common practice for the agency. It wouldn't broadcast details of the BOLOs until later.

During the ordeal, Tampa resident Jane Kowalski stopped at the Cranberry Boulevard intersection, on U.S. 41.

A Camaro crept alongside her vehicle, its passenger-side window partially down.

Kowalski saw a hand slapping the glass, trying to get out. Her 911 call was routed to Charlotte County, since her vehicle had crossed county lines.

She stayed on the phone nearly 10 minutes with dispatchers, describing the situation that, to her, appeared to be a kid screaming in a dark-colored Camaro.

The man turned onto Toledo Blade Boulevard during the conversation. Kowalski repeatedly asked whether she should follow the vehicle.

She parked at the Port Charlotte Town Center mall to await a follow-up interview.

No one came.

The Sheriff's Office didn't air any of Kowalski's information, which was handwritten on a piece of paper and shouted across the room by the dispatcher.

The suspect, Michael King, was apprehended shortly after 9 p.m. by the Florida Highway Patrol.

He was soaked from the waist down. Denise's ring was in the back seat of his car.

Her body was found two days later, buried off Toledo Blade, near Interstate 75.

King, 37, faces kidnapping, rape and capital murder charges. His trial is tentatively set for August, although counsel has asked for a competency hearing to raise the possibility of an insanity plea.


For months, Nathan Lee has reviewed the events in his mind, trying to understand why King wasn't caught earlier when so many opportunities existed.

He is convinced Denise would be alive if key information had been passed along to deputies saturating the area.

The department's response has added to the grief.

Two dispatchers were suspended without pay 36 and 60 hours, respectively, by the Sheriff's Office over the handling of Kowalski's call. The woman who took the call, Millie Stepp, wasn't punished.

Since the incident, the department has taken steps to counter future situations.

Supervisors will no longer carry a Nextel phone, as it added to the confusion that night with people not calling the recorded line, according to former Sheriff John Davenport. Information must be entered into the computer, rather than shouted across the room.

Goff said the problems still exist, despite the measures.

The Sheriff's Office won't comment on the case any longer, in part because of a pending lawsuit by the family.

911 reform

Nathan dreads to think all of this could happen to another family.

What's to keep the system from failing again? Something needs to change, he said.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed the Denise Amber Lee Act, which establishes voluntary training standards for dispatchers statewide.

But the fight is far from over.

Family members started the Denise Amber Lee Foundation to create awareness about 911 issues, and to improve training.

To date, the fund has generated about $30,000. The goal is to have a training center locally, and to help the families of murder victims.

For Nathan, it’s become a personal mission.

In February, he will fly to San Diego to be the keynote speaker at a conference of the National Emergency Numbers Association, a nonprofit organization that promotes training and education for 911 service.

"The good thing is people are getting the message of what's going on," he said. "We want to instill faith back into the system, and make sure it's fixed so this doesn’t happen again."

The little things

Nathan assumed Denise would be there to greet him when he returned home that afternoon.

She would always be there, he thought, as they grew old together.

It didn’t work out that way.

The reasons why Denise was picked may never be known. The whole situation has given Nathan plenty of time to reflect and to re-examine his life.

Losing her hurts. It hurts beyond belief.

But Nathan has come to cherish what he has that much more.

"I’m trying to look at everything positively, because that’s the way Denise was," he said.

If anything, the situation has brought him closer to his sons.

Looking into their eyes, he can see Denise, and the love she continues to pour out.

"They’re as close as I can get to Denise," he said. "When I’m around them, I’m around her."

Remembrance Ceremony The Denise Amber Lee remembrance celebration will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in front of North Port City Hall, off Sumter Boulevard.
Speakers include state Reps. Paige Kreegel and Ken Roberson; the Rev. Dave Baldridge, pastor of Englewood United Methodist Church; Dave Dignam of Key Agency in Englewood; North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis; North Port City Commissioner David Garofalo; and Nathan Lee, Denise's widower.
Abduction, murder timeline

Jan. 17, 2008
3:20 p.m.: Nathan discovered Denise is missing. A neighbor had seen a green Camaro in the Lees' driveway around 2:30 p.m.
5:15 p.m.: North Port resident Michael Lee King went to his cousin, Harold Muxlow's, house in North Port.
6:14 p.m.: Denise called 911: "I just want to see my family. Please let me go." A male voice asked, "Where's the phone?" The transmission was then cut. Police identified the owner of the cell phone as King and confirmed he owned a green Camaro.
6:23 p.m.: Sabrina Muxlow called 911, saying King visited her father, Harold. King asked Harold for a gas can, a flashlight and a shovel. Harold saw a bound woman get out of the car, but he gave King the items anyway. King left with the bound woman.
6:30 p.m.: Jane Kowalski, heading southbound on U.S. 41, spotted a dark Camaro at Cranberry Boulevard. She heard someone screaming and saw someone slap the back window. She called 911 and stayed on the line for more than nine minutes, providing exact locations until the Camaro suddenly turned left onto Toledo Blade Boulevard.
6:42 p.m. Police arrived at King's house on Sardinia Avenue, finding duct tape with long blond hairs.
9:16 p.m.: The Florida Highway Patrol spotted a green Camaro on Toledo Blade Boulevard, then heading south on Interstate 75. When the trooper stopped the car, he found King - alone, and soaked from the waist down. Law enforcement officers found a wet shovel, a red 5-gallon gas can, and a blue metal flashlight in the car. They also found a metal ring with a heart, which Nathan later identified as Denise's.
Jan. 18, 2008: Searchers discovered something in an area near Plantation Boulevard, off Toledo Blade.
Jan. 19, 2008: North Port Police Chief Terry Lewis announced they found the body of a white female.
Jan. 20, 2008: Lewis confirmed the body was that of Denise Amber Lee. - Source: North Port Police Department and court documents

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