Student's 911 call falls on deaf ears

May 2, 2008 1:19:02 PM PDT
The Madison, Wis., reporter who broke a bombshell story about an unreturned 911 call from a murdered college student said today that police and county dispatchers intentionally withheld from the public details about the breach of protocol, which could have saved the student's life. Brittany Zimmermann called 911 from her cell phone before her April 2 murder at an off-campus apartment near the University of Wisconsin, but a busy county dispatcher who heard nothing on the line failed to notify police or return the 21-year-old student's call.

Joe Norwick, director of the Dane County 911 Communications Center, confirmed Zimmermann's 911 call -- and his staff member's lack of follow up -- at a press conference Thursday after a bombshell investigative report appeared in the Isthmus, a weekly Madison newspaper.

Jason Shepard, the reporter who broke the story and a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin, said the 911 call foul-up and the extent of media pressure required to break the story suggest a lack of transparency around the investigation. "It's disconcerting that they hid the 911 call," he said. "The reality is nobody wanted this to come out."

Shepard pointed to an earlier detail about the assailant's forced entry into Zimmermann's apartment, which he said was not revealed until the media brought it to light. "Their justification for withholding stuff is evolving," he said.

Shepard has also reported that Zimmermann was stabbed to death multiple times in the chest and beaten upon her head, details police have not confirmed.

Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain said that while the 911 call details may have proved accurate, not everything Shepard reported was. "We believe there is some misinformation in the reporting of the Isthmus story," he said, "but I'm not going to parse the story."

No Cell Phone Police Dispatch

Zimmermann's original call, made from her cell phone, was disconnected when the Dane County dispatcher, hearing no response from Zimmermann, decided no emergency was taking place.

"A dispatcher answered this call, and inquired several times to determine whether an emergency existed on the other end of the phone and received no answer to the inquiries," Norwick said.

The dispatcher moved on to another waiting call, which was also a hang-up, according to Norwick. The dispatcher then called the second number back and confirmed that the call was not an emergency, before moving on to a third 911 call about an unwanted person in a Madison house. The dispatcher, who Norwick defended and who has not been disciplined, never circled back to return Zimmermann's call.

That decision broke dispatch protocol and jeopardized the possibility that police could have arrived more quickly and either prevented Zimmermann's death or captured her killer.

"Under current policy, if dispatchers answer a 911 call and either don't hear a voice on the other end of the call or are unable to determine if there's an emergency, the dispatcher calls that number back," Norwick said, adding, however, that police are only automatically sent if a 911 call comes from a land line, not a cell phone.

Dispatcher Defended

Norwick offered statistics to defend the dispatcher, saying 115 "so-called 911 hang-up calls" came through the dispatch center every day, 83 of which came from cell phones. "These calls can range from children playing with phones, buttons inadvertently bumped on phones left in coat pockets or purses, or crime victims looking for help," Norwick said.

Tragically, in the case of Brittany Zimmermann, a very violent crime was under way inside the apartment she shared with her fiance. The police investigation into her murder turns one-month-old today and has produced no suspects and kept the college community on edge.

The Madison Police Department released a statement Thursday acknowledging that the 911 call was made, a fact that had not been previously shared with the public.

"That day, the MPD brought this call to the attention of the Dane County 911 Center," the statement reads, adding that the police requested that the dispatch center not release "information pertaining to this call," a request that has not changed.

Evidence of Emergency?

But police say the call's recording should have indicated to dispatchers that some type of emergency was taking place. "It would be accurate to state that there is evidence contained in the call, which should have resulted in a Madison police officer being dispatched," the statement reads. "That would have been consistent with both Madison Police Department Policy, and national 911 standards."

Police offered no indication of what evidence from the call should have prompted the dispatch. Neither police nor Dane County dispatch are willing to release the recording, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

Madison police also released a January 2007 memo that was sent to the county communications center about a technology upgrade that would allow dispatchers to determine the location of a call from a cell phone.

Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, who held a press conference Thursday to release the police statement about the cell phone call, did not immediately return a phone call from ABC News today, but DeSpain, the police spokesman, said that if it were not for Norwick's press conference, the police would not have held one of their own.

Investigative Report Hits Hard

Few details have been released regarding Zimmermann's murder, one in a string five unsolved homicides in 10 months that have shaken the Wisconsin college town. In late January, 35-year-old Joel Marino was stabbed to death with a paring knife inside his apartment. Unlike Marino, Zimmermann's exact cause of death has not been confirmed. "We're not releasing the cause of death and have asked the coroner to do the same," DeSpain said.

Shepard, who said the story followed three weeks of reporting, cited anonymous law enforcement sources in the story. He said he sent an outline of the story to Norwick revealing his intention to report the 911 call. Norwick would not comment, Shepard told ABC News, because of the police request to not share information about Zimmermann's 911 call. Shepard argues, however, that police did not ask him to make a blanket denial that the call was ever made.

When he began to apply pressure on authorities about the 911 call, he said, some police began to feel like the dispatchers were pointing fingers at police when it was the dispatcher's mistake that may have compromised the police response.

Noting that the details of the 911 call and the forced entry were only made public after media pressure, Shepard also said that nothing has been said about DNA collected at the crime scene.

Community Tension

The Isthmus story stirred outrage in Madison, where residents remain on edge. The Wisconsin State Journal hammered the Dane County dispatch in an editorial today titled "No apology? You better find one." "Apologize from the heart," the editorial began. "Find out what went wrong and fix it."

Since Zimmermann's death, her family has created a scholarship in her name. Zimmermann, a Wisconsin native and junior at the university, was a medical microbiology and immunology major who hoped to attend medical school.

Police quickly ruled out Zimmermann's fiance, who discovered her body and reported it to 911, as a suspect in the case. The investigation has focused in part on Madison's homeless and transient communities, with tips coming in from "residents who saw people going door-to-door asking for money on the day of the homicide."

Some of those people were interviewed and arrested on other charges, Madison police confirmed, but no one has been named a suspect in the murder.

ABC News' Emily Friedman contributed to this report.