Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thank you, Sun-Herald, for your support of the Denise Amber Lee Foundation


Family, friends turn tragedy into service

OUR POSITION: The Denise Amber Lee Foundation is working to fix the 911 emergency call system and prevent another tragedy. They deserve our support.

There are events in any community that resonate with a special power, that seem to touch what can only be described as the heart and soul of the community. There are events that leave emotional marks, events that change the way people view the world around them.

Hundreds gathered last weekend to mark the one-year anniversary of the murder of Denise Amber Lee in North Port. Most affected by the tragedy are those who were closest to Denise, her husband and two young children, her parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, former classmates, co-workers and friends. For them, the wounds are deepest.

But Denise was a local girl, born and raised. Her family's roots extend back decades. They are strongly involved locally, so it was only natural that the tragedy of her passing extended to a wider community throughout Charlotte and Sarasota counties.

Beyond that, though, were the circumstances surrounding the 21-year-old woman's kidnapping and murder, now well known. The Charlotte County Sheriff's Office botched a 911 emergency call that could have helped police save Denise's life, and that fact has received national publicity, as it should. It's a tragedy that might have been prevented if better emergency procedures had been in place. Only if.

It was particularly astounding that critical information from a passing motorist, Jane Kowalski of Tampa, was not relayed through the emergency system. Kowalski did everything possible to alert dispatchers during a 911 call, but her information fell into a crack.

Kowalski was honored for her efforts last weekend by the city of North Port and the Denise Amber Lee Foundation, which cited her "selfless act and extraordinary spirit." While declining to classify her actions as heroic -- "All I did was call 911," she told the Sun -- she added, "I can't believe that, with all I saw and heard, no one else did. I know others saw."

Kowalski does deserve the recognition she received for her actions. Despite what she said, she did go beyond the norm.

Denise's family and friends also deserve to see their crusade for changes in 911 emergency systems bear fruit.

The foundation has made 911 reform its mission. It is working to establish a clear set of procedures for emergency workers handling calls. It is working to see that dispatcher training and certification is mandatory; they are on the front line, after all, critical to the process.

Denise's family and the foundation are trying to make sure that similar tragedies don't happen again.

"I want to do what I can to change the 911 system," Denise's husband, Nathan Lee, said. "Mistakes do happen, but they can be prevented as well."

The foundation (Web site: has raised $30,000 so far to press the cause nationally, to start a training center and to help the families of murder victims.

Family and friends are taking their personal tragedy and creating something that might spare others such grief in the future. They deserve our full support and blessings.