Thursday, September 3, 2009

From the New Mexico Independent

In the battle against violent crime, we all need to be dot connectors

By Tracy Dingmann 9/3/09 1:08 AM

I was driving with my son the other day when we both saw something that made us laugh.

It was a young male driver and a female passenger traveling down Montgomery Boulevard in northeast Albuquerque in a clunker while waging an extremely physical battle. At first we saw what we thought was mutual rough tickling — but at times it looked like it might actually be slapping and punching.

At one point the woman’s flip-flop clad foot was sticking out the driver’s side window. Were they play-fighting? Re-enacting last night’s WWF title bout? It was hard to tell.

To be safe, the other drivers on the road steered clear of the car, which was weaving erratically. I watched from a distance as the car made a turn onto San Pedro Drive – with the driver and passenger still brawling – and drove out of sight.

What would you think? What would you do?

On a bright sunny Saturday I chose to interpret this odd incident as another example of the bizarre things people do when they drive. I stuffed it into that category and largely forgot about it.

Until a few days later, that is, when I heard about the case of Denise Amber Lee. She was a 21-year-old mother of two who was kidnapped in broad daylight from her home in Sarasota, Florida, and later found raped and shot to death.

A jury found Michael King guilty of her murder last week and will decide this week whether he should face the death penalty for his crimes.

What happened to Lee is horrific. But her death is even more tragic because at least two people saw her kidnapping in progress and called 911 in time to save her.

One female driver saw and heard Lee struggling with King as he drove down the street in his car.


While driving on US-41, Jane Kowalski made a cell phone call to 911 to report an emergency. “I was at a stoplight and a man pulled up next to me and there was a child screaming in the car,” she says on the call, placed at 6:30 p.m.

In chilling descriptions, Kowalski says she could hear “terrifying screaming” and that she’s “never heard anything like that.”

After she made eye contact with the driver, she says “a hand came up and started banging on the passenger window.”

She offers to follow the Camaro, but it turned before the operator could respond.

Kowalski did her best to get the operator to dispatch someone to help, but the information taken from her was never passed along to officers in the field who were actively looking for Lee. During King’s trial, broadcast live last week on TruTv, a devastated Kowalski testified about her efforts to get the attention of law enforcement that day.

Another person, a relative of the killer, lent King a shovel and a gas can as Lee lay bound in King’s car. From a few feet away, the relative saw Lee’s knee and head bob up – and saw King repeatedly push them down. He heard Lee (who he had never seen before) scream, “Call the cops,” but he thought it was just a “boyfriend/girlfriend thing.”

The relative called 911 much later, but his information was full of lies and did not help them find Lee in time. Police believe King killed Lee — who managed to call 911 herself from King’s car — and buried her within about an hour of when the calls were made.

I have no idea whether what I saw the other day in that car was a kidnapping or an incident of domestic violence. But I do know that I should have snapped out of it, taken a page from the Jane Kowalski playbook and called the cops.

It’s so easy to glide around the city in your car, whizzing past people and neighborhoods you don’t know and don’t think you have any reason to care about.

It is easy to just try to ignore murders on the West Mesa or gang-related shootings or anything else that looks weird because it doesn’t fit in with your demographic or your class or you just don’t want any trouble.

I mean, why wouldn’t you want to think only about your family and your house and your job and your car and your kids? There’s such bad news everywhere… desensitization is the logical choice, because who wants to face what’s really going on?

I think I was Exhibit A of that particular theory the other day, but I’m going to try to do better.

Hearing the horror story of Denise Amber Lee — who died because no one bothered to connect the dots — really haunts me. Not to mention the saga of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who suffered in captivity for 18 years right under the nose of her kidnapper’s parole officers and vaguely concerned neighbors.

I know it sounds a little sappy, but I think we can all do better.