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The Voice On The Line Was Fading
by Paul Bass | Oct 11, 2013 7:08 am
Posted to: Legal Writes
The caller to 911 had trouble getting words out. Finally he explained why.
“I was just stabbed,” he reported. It would turn out someone stabbed him 49 times.
It was now more than two minutes into the call. It was the first mention of a stabbing.
The call originally came in at 10:22 p.m. last Saturday. It lasted three minutes and 32 seconds. Three minutes and 32 seconds of excrutiating attempts on both sides to find out how to rescue a dying man.
Despite the calm, persistent efforts of the 911 staffer taking the call, the conversation didn’t produce enough information for police to find the stabbed man in time. Instead, police found the man’s body the next morning after receiving an anonymous tip.
Police promptly found and arrested a 44-year-old man who confessed to stabbing the victim, 49-year-old Robert Stevenson, over a personal dispute. The death took place inside an apartment the alleged killer rents on Spring Street in the Hill neighborhood. (The two men were friends.)
Police Chief Dean Esserman has ordered an internal investigation into the handling of the incident. He is not pointing fingers at any one involved in the case—but rather trying to discern whether a life could have been saved.
“I’m proud of the police department’s response—not just the hard work, but the compassion that was shown to the family” of the victim, Esserman said. “We need to take a hard look at ourselves form the initial phone call to the police response at the scene to see if there’s anything more we could have done, any of us could have done, to have saved this man’s life.”
George Peet, deputy director of public-safety communications, played the harrowing 3:32 recording for the Independent Thursday in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. (State law passed in response to the Sandy Hook killings prevents the department from releasing the recording itself to be broadcast, the department said. Also, the victim’s family requested that Stevenson’s dying words not be broadcast.)
“North State Street?”
Stevenson dialed 911 from a cell phone. He reached Eustace “Larry” Lawrence, a 911 call-taker stationed by a bank of four computer monitors in the public safety command center on the fourth floor of 1 Union Ave. police headquarters.
To his left, Lawrence had open a tabbed “Total Response” flip file detailing the protocol for handling emergency calls. Peet said Lawrence followed the protocol and handled the call the way he was trained to. (Lawrence declined to be interviewed or photographed for this story. He’s not the call-taker pictured in either of the photos in this story.)
As always, call-takers and dispatchers were working throughout the room as Lawrence fielded the call. He typed updated information into his computer for the dispatcher as he conducted the conversation.
“New Haven 911. What’s the location of the emergency?” Lawrence stated upon receiving the call.
Stevenson uttered an undecipherable response. It sounded like “North State Street?”
Urged to repeat himself, he clarified: “Spring Street and ...” Again, his final words were undecipherable.
Lawrence asked for the cross street. Stevenson continued to push out hard-to-understand words. Lawrence asked if he needed an ambulance or a police officer.
“Both,” Stevenson responded.
“Why you need the ambulance?”
“You’re dying? Why’re you dying?”
Stevenson tried responding.
“I can hardly hear you,” Lawrence pressed, keeping his voice calm and clear. “Anyone there with you?”
“Yeah, I’m dying.”
“You’re dying. Where are you?”
Lawrence mentioned Spring Street again.
“We have a bad connection. I can hardly hear you,” Lawrence remarked. “You have another phone you can use?”
“Please come and get me,” Stevenson weakly implored.
“I don’t even know where you are,” Lawrence informed him. “I got Spring Street. Spring and where?”
“I’m dying ...”
“You’re on Spring and where?”
Stevenson offered a response that sounded like DeWitt Street. (It would turn out that Stevenson lived on DeWitt Street, but wasn’t there at the time.)
“Spring & DeWitt?” Lawrence pressed.
“On Spring ... near Washington ... Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.”
“All right,” Lawrence interjected. “Stop talking for a minute. Are you on Spring ...”
Stevenson continued talking in a garbled voice.
“I’m trying to find out where you are. I’ve got Spring and Washington. But I don’t know the cross street. Do you have a cross? Washington and Spring don’t cross…”
“Yes they do,” Stevenson corrected him. He was right.
It was now some two minutes into the call.
“I was just stabbed,” Stevenson revealed.
“You were stabbed?” Lawrence repeated. “Who stabbed you?”
Stevenson grasped for breath, struggling to respond.
“Are you outside?”
“You’re not outside? ... Sir, I know you’re in pain. But try to deal with me so I can get the information, so I can find you ...
“Listen to me. Are you outside on Spring and Washington?”
“No? You’re inside a house?”
Stevenson responded in the affirmative.
“You know the address of the house?”
“You don’t know the address of the house? How we gonna know which house to find you?
“Is there anyone else there?” Lawrence continued.
Then the line went dead. By the time police found his bloodied, punctured body on the floor of a rear kitchen on Spring Street the next morning, Stevenson had long expired.
Peet (pictured in his office Thursday), Lawrence’s supervisor, has listened to that recording over and over again since Saturday’s homicide. Lawrence did exactly what he was supposed to do—stay calm, and try to keep the caller focused.
To the untrained ear, Lawrence’s monotone might sound unsympathetic. That’s because he is trained to stay calm and determine crucial information as quickly as possible, beginning with the location of the caller, Peet said.
Cell phones have made that job harder, he said. When a call comes from a land line, the address pops up on the call-taker’s monitor. A cell phone reveals the location of the cell tower that broadcast the call—in this case, a tower on Sargent Drive.
Some cell-phone providers use technology that enables cops to identify a call’s origin within 300 yards. That wasn’t the case here, Peet said.
Officers hurried to the intersection of Washington and Spring as soon as a dispatcher put out the call, the first officer arriving within a minute. They searched the neighborhood. They couldn’t find Stevenson. Officers returned to the block and found Stevenson’s body the following morning at 7:37, following an anonymous call that revealed the address. The internal investigation into the incident will explore the decisions made and actions taken by the police Saturday night, to see if any lessons emerge about how they may have been able to find Stevenson. (AN initial police press release summarized their efforts this way: “Officers interviewed those people they could find in the area. None had any information regarding the reported assault. Officers checked the area hospitals to find out if any victim had sought treatment for such an assault. A check was also
made to see if EMS had responded to such a call in the area.”)
There’s a reason that Lawrence kept repeating the word “dying” back to Stevenson during the 911 conversation: the call-takers are trained to repeat key words to keep a caller focused, according to Peet. Asking more general or sympathetic-sounding questions risks having the caller go on a tangent. Seconds are precious on emergency calls.
The one momentary glitch in the 911 call occurred when Lawrence concluded that Washington and Spring don’t intersect. They do, but that information hadn’t yet popped up on his screen, Peet said. It soon did. Lawrence instantly corrected himself and moved on, Peet said.
While Lawrence took the call seriously from the start, Peet noted that the 911 staff receives calls all the time from intoxicated or mentally ill people who claim to be dying or in other serious trouble that proves otherwise. Lawrence picked up pretty quickly that this caller was in trouble, Peet said—but it was two minutes into the call until he revealed that he had in fact been stabbed.
Peet noted that Lawrence could tell that the caller was running out of breath, having difficulty answering. Lawrence sought to help Stevenson “conserve his energy” when he asked him to stop talking for a moment, and then sought to focus him on that key question of his location.
After he lost the connection, Lawrence called Stevenson’s cell phone number three times. He got a precorded message each time. Stevenson identified himself as “Tony” in the calls.
Meanwhile, dispatcher Paul Mullally, seated in the next corral of desks and monitors over from Lawrence’s, was sending officers to the scene. He leaned over to Lawrence and checked in about the attempts to reach the caller. Mullally then dialed the cell number and left a message.
“Tony,” he said, “it’s the police department. We’re looking for you. We understand you need some help over there. Please call us back.”
Tags: 911, George Peet, Eustace Lawrence
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Very sad. I hope Lawrence does not feel he failed. Sometimes even the best-trained people doing the best they can cannot fix something.
My heart and prayers go out to the family of this gentleman. My boyfriend worked with him and says that he was a good guy and everyone from the job will be attending his services. I pray that God will comfort the family during this time.
Why isn’t there technology that can locate the cell phone ? Many phones have a GPS chip embedded; all can be localized by finding close cell towers. That might not be enough info to find someone indoors, but it doesn’t sound like the police used that capability. Please inquire about this.
I’m no expert, but not all cell phones have GPS within. Furthermore, if I’m not mistaken, GPS data are collected by the phone company and are not immediately available to law enforcement the same way that cell-tower information is.
@DrJay - from earlier NHI article:
“They couldn’t trace the cell phone signal any closer than a Long Wharf tower that “carried the call,” Hartman reported.”
@DrJay - Don’t forget GPS & Location Services in cell phones is a fairly new technology.. Not even 5yrs old & not always available in every phone depending on price…. & there are many MANY people do not have newer or higher priced phones
Great job by call taker…very difficult job. I do believe taking a photo(s) of active COLLECT/NCIC screens is in violation of state statutes (and posting them publicly)...not completely sure on this but that Dept. could get fined.
While they are looking into it, they should investigate why the Fire Department was sent into a possible homicide scene, instead of staging, at least 10 minutes before the police were even dispatched.
@Not sure, good question. You are partially correct, it is a violation to show these screens. Where you are mistaken is both of the pictures are not showing this particular computer, in fact, the Collect computers at both positions were turned off for the purpose of these pictures (notice the screens showing black).
@city watcher the fd doesn’t waiit cause life safety comes first. The call was not sure the person was dead and someone has to make sure or try to save a life. That would be the fire department. They preserve the scene as much as possible but their first responsibility is to try to save the person