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Latour Avenue, like so many streets across America, had been whacked by the economy. In the town of North Port, Florida, the street boasted spread-out single-level stucco houses with two-car garages. When the homes were built, only a few years before, the plan was for this street, and many of the other streets in surrounding North Port Estates, to be a safe enclave for young families raising small children.
Stats told the story. In 2006, 4,321 new houses were built in North Port. In 2007, only 380 of them were purchased. Hundreds of homes were unfinished. Hundreds were in foreclosure. As the money left town, locals (most of them newcomers, strangers in town) lost their jobs, and crime seeped in. On Latour Avenue, there had been burglaries. Car break-ins. Vandalism. Crimes that would have been unthinkable only a few years before.
More stats: there were 130 burglaries in North Port in 2001. By 2007, that number had risen to 466.
Violent crime came to North Port in 2006 when a six-year-old girl was abducted and found murdered a few blocks from her home. For many months, that crime remained unsolved.
The community didn't feel like a community anymore. Longtime residents felt hopelessly outnumbered by strangers. There was a time when people knew their neighbors. There was a time when people in North Port trusted each other. No more. And it was even worse during the winter when the town's population was inflated by snowbirds, Northerners who migrated to the South to keep the chill of winter out of their bones.
Now the people on Latour, as well as the rest of the city, locked their doors—not just at night but during the daytime as well....
Thursday, January 17, 2008, 2:30 P.M.
On Latour Avenue, twenty-three-year-old Jenifer-Marie Eckert was unemployed and temporarily staying with relatives. She'd only been living in that house for two weeks. At that moment, she was home alone, watching the living-room television and waiting for her boyfriend, Charles, who was late. Normally, she would have had the blinds closed, but she needed to simultaneously watch TV and look out the window.
Jenifer-Marie saw a green Camaro crawling down the street at pedestrian speed, like drivers do when they're lost or trying to read house numbers. It was a late-nineties model; she couldn't tell specifically what year. There was a white male driving, no passengers.
The car went up the street, used a driveway to turn around, and then drove back just as slowly. What the heck is this guy up to? Jenifer-Marie thought. Four or five times the guy passed by, always going slowest right past her house.
She'd never seen him before, but he looked normal enough. If he was really lost, she should help the guy out, give him directions. She went outside on the walkway a few steps from her front door and briefly made eye contact with the driver while he was still on the road.
As the Camaro slithered into the Lees' driveway next door, Jenifer-Marie could see the man had light hair. She never saw him standing, but she thought he was tall. The top of his head was almost to the ceiling of the car.
Later she would try hard to remember the car in greater detail. She didn't notice any dents or bumper stickers, but she was pretty sure it had one of those black things on the front that covered the snout.
The Lees'home next door was much like the four others on the street—three-bedroom, two-bathroom, single-story, two-car garage—except there was a pillared overhang above the front entrance. This way, the young couple and their sons could sit or play outside the front door without being exposed to the strong Florida sun or equally harsh rain. A curving sidewalk led from the small front patio to the driveway. Since it was the corner house, it had kempt lawns on three sides. At the back of the house was a screened-in patio from which the occupants could gaze at the thick woods beyond their lawn.
The car usurped the spot in the Lees' driveway usually occupied by the husband's car. For a moment, Jenifer-Marie made eye contact. The last she saw of him he seemed to be fumbling around with something in the front seat. She thought the man had located his destination, so she went back in her house. As she was reentering the house, she heard the car door slam, indicating the driver had gotten out.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later—her boyfriend really late now—she went outside again and stood in her driveway, just in time to see the car leave the Lees' house—in a hurry. She knew he'd gotten out of the car and then back in again, but she only saw him in the car. As far as she could tell, when the guy left, he was alone. The big difference between his arrival and departure was urgency. He crawled in—but he peeled out.
Just at that moment, another neighbor, Yvonne Parrish, a thirty-six-year-old mother of five who lived two houses from the Lees, looked out the window and saw the Camaro speed by.
"It looked like he was trying to get away from something," she later said.
At just after two-thirty, thirty-nine-year-old Dale Wagler was leaving a friend's house in the drizzle, on his way to the brand-new Walgreens to pick up a couple of prescriptions. He was about to pull his white Dodge onto Cranberry Boulevard in North Port when he saw a dark Camaro with a black "bra" on the front coming around the curve, weaving all over the road.
"No directional signal or nothin'," Dale later said.
The Camaro slowed down, like the driver was looking for a street to turn off on. The car swerved right in front of Dale, cutting him off. Dale looked at the guy, a blond, and the guy looked back.
"Gave this evil look, a don't-mess-with-me look," Dale said, "and then he floored it. Stomped on it."
Normally, Dale Wagler would have been provoked, might've followed a guy like that, might've flipped him off—but not this guy, not after that look. That was a look that said, "Follow me and I'll kill ya."
After the car zipped by, Dale saw hands in the back window. He thought they were waving around, but he couldn't be sure because of the rain.
At the time, all he could think was "There's a couple of drunks."
Dale was heading in the opposite direction on Cranberry, but he continued to watch the swerving car in his rearview mirror. The car was all over the road, crossing the white line and the yellow line.
He thought: "Now there's some people that are going to get pulled over." Later he'd realize the importance of what he'd seen, but at the time, "it just didn't soak in enough."
The first indication to law enforcement that something was desperately wrong came at 3:29 P.M. when the local 911 center received a call from Nathaniel "Nate" Alan Lee.
Operator: "North Port Emergency."
Nate Lee: "Uh, yes, I'm at **** Latour Avenue. I just got home from work and my wife ... I can't find her. My kids were in the house and I don't know where she is. I've looked everyplace."
He'd come home from his job as a meter reader for the electric company to find his two sons—a two-year-old and a six-month-old—in the crib together, but their mother was gone. She would never leave them home alone, no matter what.
There was the usual disarray that comes with having small children. Toys were everywhere. On the floor, on the furniture, in the tub. One closet was filled to capacity with nothing but disposable diapers.
Nate said there was no sign of theft, no sign of forced entry, but Denise's keys were on the couch, another indication that she had left the house under duress.
She left her purse behind—with her cell phone on. Women never leave their purse behind. That meant she either left on foot, or was in a car with someone else. "The only thing that isn't normal is she isn't here," Lee said. He thought about the ease with which his wife could be overpowered. She only weighed 102 pounds.
Lee also told the operator that the missing woman was the daughter of Rick Goff, of the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office (CCSO).
After hanging up on the 911 operator, Nate called his father-in-law. Rick had called Denise's cell just minutes before and had gotten no answer. He wanted to invite "the kids" over for dinner that night. When he saw Nate was calling him, he assumed that it was in response to the invitation.
Rick answered with, "Hey, you guys want to come over and eat?"
"I can't. Denise is missing," Nate replied.
"Nate, you've got to explain what you mean by that."
"I'm telling you. She's missing."
"I'll be right there," Rick said.
If Denise had been stolen by someone hoping no one would notice, he couldn't have chosen a worse victim. Denise Lee was a member of the Goff family—a family to be reckoned with. They had been the first settlers of Englewood, Florida, in 1887. Denise's father had been with the CCSO since September 1982. He started in corrections, spent two years there, then three on road patrol, and fifteen years undercover. Since then, he'd been in charge of the Marshal's Fugitive Task Force, tracking wanted suspects. Denise's mom, Susan, had been the supervisor in the Tax Collector's Office in Englewood, where they lived, for more than twenty years. Rick and Sue were married in January 1983 and had three children: Denise, born in 1986, Amanda—who, contrary to her dad's advice, wanted to be a cop working with children—born in 1989, and Tyler, a promising baseball player, born in 1991.
While on his way to the Lee house, Rick Goff called his sheriff's department. He knew that reports of missing spouses tended to be handled with nonchalance by police because so frequently the spouse returned on his or her own and their partner had been quick to panic. Goff wanted to make sure that no one took that attitude in this case. He told his people he wanted dogs, and he wanted helicopters. This was not a domestic squabble that would work itself out. This was a genuine emergency. He wanted immediate action. As is true when police feel one of their own is in trouble, the call to action went out without hesitation.
"Anything you need," Goff was told.
Rick Goff, like Nate before him, ran through the possibilities in his head, and didn't like the conclusions he was coming to.
"I knew right away something happened to her bad," he later said.
Among the officers who reported to the scene of the apparent abduction was a criminalistics specialist, Cortnie Lynn Watts, who thoroughly photographed the house inside and out. Not knowing what was evidence and what wasn't, she photographed everything, every room from every angle. The keys that the missing woman had left behind, the contents of her purse carelessly spilled out. The most heartbreaking of those photos were of the high chair on the back patio and the little clumps of hair on the floor. The missing woman had been giving her son a haircut not long before she disappeared.
In response to Nate's 911 call, two units were dispatched to the Latour Avenue home. They arrived at 3:44 P.M. Nate gave a statement to Officer Scott Smith. He told Smith the same things he'd mentioned to the dispatcher: wife gone, two babies left behind, left her car, purse, key, cell phone, all behind. It was just past three-thirty. A neighborhood canvass was instituted to gather info regarding the lost woman.
Jenifer-Marie Eckert next door volunteered the information she had regarding the green Camaro she saw creepy-crawling the street at two-thirty. The neighbor now told her story with fear in her voice. The woman next door had been snatched, and there she was, all alone, only a few feet away. It could have been her.
The first detectives reached the scene of the possible abduction at four-sixteen. There were two cars in the driveway, a 2006 Toyota Corolla (the missing woman's) and a 1994 Dodge Avenger (her husband's). At four thirty-three, a request came into the CCSO from North Port for a "K-9 search team"—that is, a bloodhound and trainer. Deputy First Class (DFC) Deryk Alexander and his dog responded to the call.
Both Charlotte and Sarasota sheriff's departments were sent requests for search helicopters.
Road Patrol sergeant Pamela Jernigan was the first officer to report to the Lee home. The missing woman's husband, Nate, and father, Rick, were there.
"Can you think of anyplace Denise might have gone? Someplace nearby where she could walk on foot? A neighbor's?"
Jernigan was well aware of police philosophy based on years and years of experiences. When a wife disappeared or—heaven forbid—was killed, it was her duty to take a long look at the husband before considering other options. Despite the fact that the man's father-in-law was a cop and the husband was not sending up any red flags whatsoever, there were a few questions she needed to ask.
"When was the last time you spoke with her?" Jernigan asked.
"Um, a little after eleven o'clock this morning," Nate Lee replied. Phone records would later reveal that the call was placed from him to her at 11:09 A.M. The call had lasted approximately five minutes.
"What was said?" In other words, was there a fight?
The conversation couldn't have been more normal. Since it was cool, he advised her to open the windows and kill the air-conditioning, and Denise said she'd already done so.
"She told me she planned on giving our oldest son a haircut today." Again, no red flag.
The first note of concern came at three o'clock when he got off work. He called her cell phone as he left work, to see if there was anything she needed him to pick up on the way home. No answer. That was odd—but there were plenty of reasons why she might not answer. Maybe she was changing a diaper. She would call back. It was a twenty-five-minute drive from his job to his home. He expected her to call back, but she did not.
Phone records would indicate that Nate was growing worried already. He called Denise's cell eight times during the twenty-five-minute drive.
That worry grew to out-and-out concern as he pulled his car onto their street. Even before he pulled into the driveway, he could see that the windows—the ones she'd said she'd opened—were now shut.
"What time did you get home?"
"About three-thirty. The boys were in the crib together, and Denise was gone." He tried to stay calm, not to freak, but he couldn't help it. She'd never left the boys alone before, and there was no good scenario that explained the facts.
No red flags, but procedures still needed to be followed. Nate had to wait outside while the house was searched.
Inside the house, it was hot. With the windows closed, and the air turned off, the place had heated up. The windows had been pushed down but not latched, as if someone had closed them in a hurry.
A high chair had been moved onto the back patio and there were wispy tufts of blond hair on the floor in front of it, a sign that Denise had been playing barber just as she said she would.
Then the husband saw that she'd left her purse, keys, and cell phone behind; he immediately called 911.
Sergeant Jernigan noted that the front door had two locks. The top one was a dead bolt, the bottom one a regular lock. The bottom lock could be locked from the inside by turning a latch. The dead bolt could be locked only from the outside and required a key.
When Nate Lee had arrived home, the front door had been locked from the inside and pulled shut from the outside. Denise's key had not been used. Jernigan then looked at Denise's cell phone, checking for outgoing and incoming calls, to see which people Denise had been in touch with that day. There were several calls back and forth with her husband. She had called one friend, Natalie Mink, that morning. (It turned out Denise left a message and never got through to Natalie.)
Having determined that Denise was no longer there, and that she was gone under suspicious circumstances, Jernigan called a criminal investigator to the scene. He turned out to be Detective Christopher Morales, who would become the case's lead detective.
At 4:38 p.m., the following message went out over law enforcement's computer system: MISSING 21 YRO FEMALE DENISE AMBER LEE THIN BUILD BLUE EYES DIRTY BLONDE HAIR 5-2 UNK CLOTHING HER HUSB ARRIVED HOME AT 1530 HRS FOUND THEIR 2 TODDLER CHILDREN ALONE, VEH AND KEYS PURSE STILL AT HOUSE CANNOT LOCATE HER REQUESTING BLOODHOUND.
Excerpted from A KILLER'S TOUCH by MICHAEL BENSON Copyright © 2011 by Michael Benson. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted October 29, 2011
As true crime goes, this story was one of the better ones. The opening chapters that describes the crinme was very well written, it moved fast and since I was not familiar with the crime it had suspense for me, certainly one more familiar with the crime would have known what was coming. The court proceeding portion of the book did not read exactly like the court transcript, which in my opinion is a good choice, too much technical and legal mumbo-jumbo always turns me off, then a quick epilogue to let you know what has been going on and with who ties the story up nicely. I felt this was a well written true crime novel and if you have an interest in reading that type of book you should read this one.
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Posted December 4, 2011
Was dissapointed in this book. I read a lot of true crime and for me this one was tough to get through. I foumd myself flipping through the last several pages. Too much of the trial and testimony by the experts. Was just too slow and boring for me. Definitely did not keep me interested.
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