Friday, September 25, 2009

Judge Allows Sheriff to Hold Back Full Report in Lee Lawsuit


Published: September 25, 2009

PUNTA GORDA - Nate Lee has to wait a little longer for answers about the mishandling of a 911 call in the January 2008 death of his wife, Denise.

This morning Charlotte Judge James Shenko granted a motion to dismiss a request by Lee for an unedited copy of the internal investigation into the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office 911 Center.

Judge Shenko cited a technicality when Lee's former attorney failed to file some paperwork on time as the reason he won't grant Lee's current request for discovery.

He recommended instead that Lee immediately file his lawsuit then come back to the issue.

The sheriff's office has admitted it messed up when dispatchers failed to alert deputies about a call from Tampa resident Jane Kowalski, a few hours after Michael King had kidnapped Denise Lee from her North Port home.

Charlotte 911 operator Mildred Stepp hand wrote the information instead of entering it into her computer. Stepp then yelled the details of the call to a pair of supervisors nearby.

Kowalski reported seeing a person in distress in the back of a car matching the description of King's Camaro detailed in a "be on the lookout" bulletin already sent to the sheriff's office.

Detectives now believe Kowalski was the last person to see Denise Lee alive. About a half-dozen deputies posted along Toledo Blade Boulevard between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 never knew about Kowalski's call. Before King reached the interstate he pulled off, shot Lee in the head and then buried her in a 4-foot grave.

The sheriff's office launched an internal investigation after Kowalski called North Port police to ask why no one had followed up with her. Charlotte gave two employees minor reprimands. Stepp kept her job.

Today the sheriff's office argued about protecting a 911 caller's identity as one of the reasons for blacking out big chunks of the internal report. But Kowalski has spoken out several times on local and national television. A sheriff's office attorney also cited appeals in an ongoing criminal case.

A Sarasota jury recently convicted King and recommended he receive the death penalty for the kidnapping, rape and murder of Denise Lee. After erroneously calling Denise Lee by her middle name, Amber, attorney Bruce Jolly called Nate Lee's request for a clean copy of the report a "fishing expedition."

Lee's attorney, Patrick Boyle, pointed out the sheriff's office inconsistent behavior when it comes to the stack of public records. While Lee's copy of the internal report has large swaths of black marker blocking information, a copy given to a producer for NBC's "Dateline" show does not.

Boyle said the "Dateline" copy reveals a statement from a sergeant where he admits "standard procedure would have been to stay with the caller until a unit arrived on scene."

That didn't happen with Kowalski.

"We are in the untenable position of knowing negligence was involved but now knowing how," Boyle said to Judge Shenko. "Every piece of information and every scrap of paper is what we desire.
"Almost two years later we still don't have those documents."

Boyle wrapped up by saying, "There is nobody in this courthouse, nobody in this town, nobody in this state and probably half the people in this country that would argue there isn't a good faith basis for a lawsuit."

Judge Shenko then instructed Boyle to file the suit and fight again for the records. The sheriff's office captain responsible for redacting or removing much of Lee's copy of the internal report offered a small smile on the opposite side of the courtroom.

Lee left frustrated yet determined to find the answers he says his wife and two young sons deserve from Charlotte's public servants.

Reporter Jackie Barron can be reached at (813) 221-570