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."
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.