911 Dispatcher: 'It Didn't Register As a Scream'


 
 

Ryan J. Foley | | Monday, December 15, 2008


MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- The operator who mishandled a 911 call from a slain college student's cell phone said she didn't know why she didn't hear a scream or sounds of a struggle, according to records released Thursday.

"If I heard the initial 'scream,' it didn't register as a scream," Rita Gahagan said during a personnel interview in April. She said she later heard background noises that police have said indicate a struggle, but they "didn't register as anyone in obvious distress."

The interview was conducted days after Gahagan mishandled the 911 call from University of Wisconsin-Madison student Brittany Zimmermann, who was stabbed to death in her apartment April 2. Her murder remains unsolved.

Until Thursday, the county had refused to release Gahagan's interview; it provided the four pages documenting the interview after it was ordered to do so by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Richard Niess. A group of media outlets is suing the county for access to records related to its handling of the call.

The newly released records show county officials have not been candid with the public about the call.

They show they realized within days of Zimmermann's homicide that the call contained a scream. Yet weeks later, then-911 center director Joe Norwick insisted the dispatcher had no way of distinguishing the call from dozens of accidental and "hang-up" calls the center receives daily.

Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk later acknowledged the call contained significant sounds but refused to describe them. Norwick has since resigned.

The county did not even acknowledge the existence of the call until nearly a month after Zimmermann's slaying and then only after a report about it appeared in a newspaper.

The call lasted nearly a minute, and Gahagan inquired three times whether an emergency existed. After it was disconnected, Gahagan never called the number back, though the 911 center's policy requires it.

She told her bosses she failed to call Zimmermann back because she moved on "to other 911 calls waiting to be answered."

Police did not arrive at Zimmermann's apartment for more than 40 minutes, after her fiance found the 21-year-old dead and called 911.

In addition, 911 center officials mistakenly told homicide investigators Gahagan had returned Zimmermann's call and two men had answered. Gahagan had reached the men after returning a landline hang-up call that had followed Zimmermann's call; investigators spent days searching for those innocent men.

In a second interview, Gahagan told county officials she would have dispatched police had she heard any "signs of a serious situation." She was asked again how "she missed the initial 'scream' sound."

"Rita shrugged her shoulders and indicated that she had no new or different recollection of the incident," according to the summary by 911 center operations manager, Rich McVicar.

Gahagan has since been transferred, at her own request, to another department in the county.

Niess has scheduled a hearing next week on whether to release audio of the call, which police and prosecutors say would jeopardize their search for Zimmermann's killer and revictimize her friends and family.

The only phone listing for Gahagan had been disconnected when The Associated Press tried to call her Thursday night.




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