911 Call from Cell Phone Mishandled; Dispatcher Resigns


Josh Kovner | | Friday, March 14, 2008

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Dispatcher David McDonald's voice on the tape-recording of the 911 call is earnest, and his questions are clear, but internal police documents released Tuesday show he was on a track that would later end his 17-year career.

The voice of the man on the other end of the phone conversation is croaking, guttural, breathless.

The man, possibly Ronald Gebo, 70, tells McDonald over his cell phone that he's been in bed for four days and can't walk. He acknowledges he dialed 911. He's says he's out of breath, and fears he's not going to make it.

He does say "yeah" when McDonald asks if he's OK. He never directly answers McDonald when asked for his name and his address, and whether he can put someone else on the phone.

McDonald ended the call after two minutes and 1 second. He never started a case report or alerted a supervisor, sent a police cruiser or called the phone company to learn the registered owner of the cell phone number he had called, according to an internal police investigation.

Two days after the Nov. 30, 2007, conversation, Gebo and a housemate, Eugene Amoroso, 62, were found dead of natural causes in Gebo's home at 14 N. Meadow Road.

Internal documents, including a recording of the call, provide more details of the events that led to McDonald's 10-day suspension and his decision to resign rather than undergo retraining earlier this winter.

Gebo's daughter, Rhonda, found her father dead in his bed. She had been trying to reach him for two days, she told police. His cell phone, with a GPS tracking chip, was found next to his body, the documents state. The phone was registered to Rhonda Gebo, with her father listed as a "full-access" user.

When McDonald was told by police officials that the man he'd spoken with was found dead, McDonald exclaimed, "Oh, my God," the documents state.

In an explanatory memo to department officials, McDonald said he thought the man had had a tracheotomy and was not in respiratory distress. He said he "assumed" the man had dialed 911 by mistake.

"I apologize for my actions and did not mean for this to happen, and that I am sorry (sic)," he wrote in his memo.

Department procedures require that an officer be sent to every 911 call, even if the call was made in error. Dispatchers are required to notify their supervisor, start a case file and document every 911 call in the computer-aided records system. During medical calls, they must follow emergency medical dispatching protocols. And in the case of a cell phone call with no address, dispatchers can learn the registered owner of the phone by calling the phone carrier, which comes up on the computer screen along with the phone number.

McDonald, charged with seven departmental violations, failed to follow those procedures and failed to recognize that the caller needed help, despite the man's statements and the sound of congestion in his voice, according to the internal documents.

Tests concluded Gebo, a retired painter, died of alcoholism and atherosclerosis, a narrowing of arteries due to the buildup of plaque. Amoroso died of bronchial pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an irreversible lung disease commonly associated with smoking, the autopsy showed.

The man's original 911 call was picked up by dispatchers at Valley Shore Emergency Communications, a regional 911 center based in Westbrook. Callers who dial 911 from cell phones in the center of Old Saybrook are often routed to Valley Shore, the internal documents state.

In the tape of the call to Valley Shore, the man is heard, in what sounds like a phlegm-choked voice, making a few unintelligible sounds. The call disconnected after 14 seconds. A Valley Shore dispatcher called the Old Saybrook center and provided McDonald with the man's cell phone number. Dispatch records show the phone carrier was Verizon and the call was coming from the vicinity of the Barley Hill Road tower.

The Valley Shore dispatcher told McDonald that it "sounded like the guy was having some trouble breathing."

McDonald told his Valley Shore counterpart, "I'll give him a call and find out."

Contact Josh Kovner at jkovner@courant.com

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