NORTH PORT — The high-pitched scream reached Jane Kowalski as she sat at a traffic light on U.S. 41.
"It was very, very loud and unlike anything I've ever heard in my entire life, there was that much panic and terror," Kowalski, 45, of Tampa, said last week.
She made eye contact with a heavy man in a dark Camaro to her left. It was dusk, but she could see he was trying to shove something down behind him.
A hand reached up from the back seat and banged on the window.
Fearing it might be a kidnapped child, Kowalski called 911. She spoke with a Charlotte County operator for nine minutes as she kept an eye on the Camaro in her rearview mirror. Halfway through the call, the Camaro turned off the road and disappeared.
The operator assured Kowalski someone would follow up, so she kept driving to her grandmother's house. But dispatchers never told deputies, who were in the vicinity, police documents show.
Within hours, Denise Amber Lee, a 21-year-old mother of two, was dead and buried in a dirt grave less than 3 miles away.
Lee's husband, Nathan, thinks she might still be alive today if Kowalski's call had gotten to deputies on the road.
"There's no doubt in my mind she would have been saved," he said.
• • •
The day she was kidnapped, Jan. 17, Denise Amber Lee was doing what she did most days. She was home in North Port with her two boys, Noah, 2, and Adam, 6 months.
The family had settled in North Port, a fast-growing community of about 50,000 in Sarasota County, because rents were cheap.
Denise and Nathan began dating after taking the same math class at Manatee Community College. Neither finished their degrees once they started a family but both hoped to one day.
Raising the two young children was challenging for the petite young mother, who was still breastfeeding, but she enjoyed every moment.
"Something so simple as going to the mall to buy new sunglasses is a thousand times harder when you have two boys under two," she wrote on her MySpace page last August. "But it was still fun. Any time I get to leave the house is a treat for me."
On Jan. 17, when Nathan Lee got home at 3:20 p.m. from his job as a meter reader with Florida Power & Light, his sons were in their cribs in soiled diapers and his wife was gone.
He called police. A neighbor told them she had seen a man in his 30s pull a green Camaro into the Lee driveway about 2:30 p.m.
Over the next few hours, the hunt for Denise Amber Lee escalated with officers walking the banks of area ponds and riding through woods on ATVs. A bloodhound searched around the home, and a helicopter flew overhead.
Her father, Rick Goff, worked one county to the south as a sergeant for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office. His family was from Englewood, a town just southwest of North Port. His great-great-great grandfather was the first to settle in the town in 1876. The family's roots ran deep.
"I know the only reason she went with him was because she didn't want her children harmed," said Goff, 46.
At 6:14 p.m. on Jan. 17, a woman called 911.
She was crying and could be heard saying: "I'm sorry, I just want to see my family, please let me go."
It was Denise Amber Lee. In the background, a car radio could be heard playing the song Too Little, Too Late by JoJo.
The call was disconnected but not before police got the information they needed. The phone belonged to Michael Lee King, a 36-year-old unemployed plumber with a history of increasingly odd behavior but no criminal record. He owned a green Camaro.
Nine minutes after Lee's call, 17-year-old Sabrina Muxlow called 911 to say King had stopped by her father's home in North Port about 6 p.m. Her father, Harold Muxlow, 45, had seen a young woman tied up in the car.
"He came over to my dad's house, borrowed a shovel, a gas tank and something else," Sabrina Muxlow told a Sarasota County 911 operator.
King and Harold Muxlow were cousins. King told him he needed the items because his lawn mower was broken. But as King pulled away in his Camaro, Harold Muxlow saw a young woman yell out, "Call the cops," he later told police. Eventually, he too would call 911.
By 6:30 p.m., police say, King had left North Port and entered Charlotte County on U.S. 41, where Kowalski spotted the Camaro.
Her 911 call went to Charlotte County's dispatchers, although Sarasota County deputies and North Port officers were handling the case.
Is there an Amber Alert out? Kowalski asked, thinking perhaps it was an abducted child.
Confusion apparently reigned in the dispatch center that night as the communication supervisor tried to establish a patch between North Port and Sarasota and Charlotte counties so the agencies could communicate about Lee.
So when the 911 operator brought up Kowalski's call, one dispatcher thought she needed to wait for the patch to be completed before she could air the call. Then a shift change took place, and the new dispatchers were not informed of the call.
The information on Kowalski's call was put in a computer file about the Lee case, but deputies were never told to respond to it, according to an internal investigation by Charlotte County Sheriff's Office.
One deputy admitted he was likely sitting at an intersection when King drove through it.
Several hours later, at 9:16 p.m., a Florida Highway Patrol officer stopped King driving his Camaro south onto Interstate 75. He was wet from the waist down and had a dirt-encrusted shovel.
Denise Amber Lee was gone.
Police found several strands of her sandy brown hair in the Camaro, as well as a ring with a heart in the back seat her husband had given her.
• • •
King has pleaded not guilty to charges of first degree premeditated murder, kidnapping and sexual battery. Police say he took Lee to his North Port home after abducting her and raped her before going over to his cousin's house for the shovel.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. King's lawyer could not be reached for comment.
Nathan Lee doesn't know of any connection between King and his wife.
A neighbor who lives a few doors down from the Lee home told police that a man who resembled King, a plumber, came to look at her home, which was for sale, last summer.
A day or so before Lee's abduction, King had just returned from Michigan, where he grew up. He had left his 12-year-old son there with his brother.
He had lost his job as a plumber in Venice the previous October for lying to his boss, who called him a "habitual liar," according to police reports.
King also had a history of disputes with his neighbors in North Port, and one accused him of stalking her daughter from the bus stop. Another woman, whose husband knew King, told police he raped her one night after she passed out drunk. And another woman reported he flashed her one day while she was pumping breast milk for her baby in a car outside the hair salon where she worked. None of these incidents resulted in any charges.
King's wife had left him and his son years before. Another woman, with whom he had had a serious relationship, had left him last November.
In January, the bank foreclosed on his home in North Port. And the day Lee was abducted, he visited a bankruptcy lawyer and practiced shooting a gun at a Venice gun range.
• • •
Last week, Nathan Lee announced plans to file a lawsuit against the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office, the agency that has employed Denise Amber Lee's father for the past 25 years.
It was a tough decision because a lot of good police work was done that night and ultimately King was captured, said Lee and his father-in-law, Goff.
Both men blame the Charlotte County dispatchers who failed to pass on Kowalski's call to deputies on the road. "We think she could have been saved if the call was handled correctly," Goff said.
Capt. Sherman Robinson, who is in charge of communications for Charlotte County, acknowledged in an interview last week that deputies on the road were not made aware of Kowalski's call. But he said they were aware of a Be on the Lookout (BOLO) for the green Camaro.
"When you look at the totality of the event, we got information out on the radio. But followup wasn't quite done, and that should have been done," said Robinson, who spoke before Nathan Lee announced his lawsuit against the county.
A Charlotte County dispatcher acknowledged she messed up, according to documents from the internal investigation.
"You know, nobody wants to screw up and nobody wants to live with that, but I will take full responsibility for … my actions in this," dispatcher Susan Kallestad said. " … I really screwed up on that."
Kallestad was suspended for 60 hours for failing to send deputies to respond to Kowalski's call. Another dispatcher was suspended for 36 hours.
Charlotte County Sheriff John Davenport, in announcing the suspensions, did not apologize for the failure, which irks Nathan Lee. Davenport could not be reached for comment.
Kowalski says that to this day she has never heard from the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office and that she had to call police back to let them know what she saw. She couldn't understand how a nine-minute call like hers, with such serious consequences, got lost in the mix.
"They could have gotten him while he was still following me," Kowalski said. "I don't know what the end result would have been except that it would have been different."
Nathan Lee thinks about his wife and wonders where she got the strength to fight so hard for her life. It's not like she had ever done anything before to show that side of herself.
"She had a lot of reason to get out of that car," Lee said. "I know the main thing on her mind was getting to see those kids again."
Lee, who plays trumpet, was going to play with the Venice Symphony the night his wife died. He never made it, but he's practicing for another concert with the symphony. He tried to go back to work with Florida Power & Light but soon left the job and asked to be reassigned. Being a meter reader, all you do is walk and think. And he didn't want to think that much.
Times staff writer Ilyce Meckler and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.