Charlotte County (Fla.) sheriff's Sgt. Rick Goff is convinced that a poorly handled 911 call by his own department cost his daughter her life.
Now, he is pushing for a state law that might prevent such a mistake from happening again.
Goff and Nathan Lee, his son-in-law, were in the Capitol on Tuesday to advocate for a bill that would establish state standards for the training and certification of 911 emergency dispatchers. Goff broke down in tears during the House committee meeting Tuesday morning when he introduced himself as "the father of Denise Amber Lee."
"She's my daughter who was kidnapped, raped and murdered from her house in North Port where her two children were at home," Goff said.
The committee passed the bill unanimously.
"This is an important bill that will save lives," said its sponsor, Rep. Carl Domino, R-Juno Beach. Domino first filed the legislation last year at the urging of emergency first responders.
Nathan Lee and Goff, as well as some lawmakers, want it to go further — to require every 911 dispatcher in Florida's 67 counties to have the same training.
As the bill is now written, the state training standards and certification would not be mandatory. Instead, the Department of Health would create criteria that counties would have the option of using.
Domino pointed out that 28 of the 31 states that have uniform standards for training 911 dispatchers make them mandatory. But the cost of making them mandatory kept his bill from advancing last year.
Now the state has even less money.
"Because of our poor budget year, we're not going to make it mandatory," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Democrat whose district includes part of Charlotte County. "Hopefully everyone will voluntarily subscribe to these standards."
Goff agreed to testify on behalf of the legislation after learning about it from another lawmaker a few weeks ago.
He and his son-in-law will return to Tallahassee next week when a committee takes up the Senate version of the bill, which Aronberg is sponsoring.
"There were mistakes made, and that's what we're trying to correct," Goff said.
In an e-mail message to Domino supporting the legislation, Goff wrote, "It is the family as well as the whole communities' opinion that if this call would have been handled correctly that my daughter would still be alive and home with her family.
"On behalf of the Goff/Lee family, we would like to offer our assistance in pushing for your bill to be passed, since this incident has had such an impact on our lives. There is not a day goes by that we (don't) think about the mistakes made in the dispatch center the day my daughter was kidnapped and murdered, and to think that it happened within my own agency. Again, on behalf of Denise, our family will do everything to see this bill passed, and would even love to see it listed under her name, so that when her children are older they will know their mother was a special person."
During his testimony Tuesday, Goff told how his 21-year-old daughter, after allegedly being abducted by Michael King on the afternoon of Jan. 17, managed to get the attention of a woman at a stoplight by screaming and banging on the back window of King's Chevrolet Camaro.
The driver called Charlotte County's 911. But that call was never relayed to the squads of police who were just blocks away looking for his missing daughter.
"She was found later buried in a shallow grave, shot in the head," Goff told the panel of legislators, his voice cracking in the starkly silent room. "We had cars on the road waiting to apprehend the guy right where she was at, but they never dispatched the car. On behalf of my daughter, I'd like this bill passed."
Later, seated in Domino's office, Nathan Lee said, "If anybody's heard that call, how that call was handled — if I was having a heart attack and was talking to whoever was on that line, I would not be alive."
Goff added, "That's the call that could have saved her life."
King, 36, pleaded not guilty last month to charges that he kidnapped, raped and murdered Denise Lee.
Charlotte County currently trains its 911 dispatchers using an "in-house" program based on recommendations from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, said Capt. Sherman Robinson, the logistics commander who handles 911 dispatch.
It takes about six to eight months to complete.
Several lawmakers agreed with Lee's family and voiced support for making statewide standards mandatory.
"Mr. Goff, as a parent, I am just speechless at your testimony," said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, during Tuesday's committee meeting. "It was powerful, and I can't imagine what you must be feeling. We cannot have 67 different versions for 67 different counties of how we go about this process."
Goff and Nathan Lee both said Tuesday that they want an apology from Charlotte County Sheriff John Davenport.
"That was the first thing we wanted," Goff said.
They also want stiffer penalties for the two dispatchers who handled the call they believe could have saved Denise Lee's life.
"We wanted them terminated, at least terminated, if not criminally charged, and that was not done," Goff said.
The Sheriff's Office temporarily suspended the dispatchers.
Goff and Nathan Lee did not rule out taking legal action, including the pursuit of a grand jury investigation.
"We're keeping our options open," Nathan Lee said. "We want the situation to be resolved and whatever we can do to make sure it doesn't happen again. We're going to pursue whatever avenue that entails."
Herald-Tribune staff writer Anna Scott contributed to this report.
EMERGENCY DISPATCHER TRAINING
* Under a proposed law, the state Department of Health would create certification standards for 911 dispatchers. Counties could voluntarily require their dispatchers to have the certification.
* The law would create the first statewide option of its kind for emergency dispatchers in Florida.
* Dispatchers would have to take at least 208 hours of training courses. They would also have to pledge under oath not to be addicted to alcohol or drugs, and be free of mental or physical disease that affects performance.
* Application fees would pay for the health department's administrative costs.
SOURCE: House Bill 997 and Senate Bill 1694