911 Dispatcher Suspended for Failing to Help Stabbed Student

A former emergency dispatcher who insisted she didn't hear the screams of a college student who dialed 911 as she was being stabbed to death will be suspended for mishandling the call, officials said Friday.

Topf Wells, chief of staff for Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, said Rita Gahagan would serve a three-day suspension without pay from her current job as a county child support clerk. Gahagan was transferred out of the 911 center shortly after the incident.

Gahagan's immediate supervisor will decide when the suspension begins.

Brittany Zimmermannn, a University of Wisconsin-Madison senior, was stabbed to death after someone broke into her apartment on April 2. Police said Zimmermann, 21, managed to call 911 from her cell phone during the attack.

Police said the call included a scream and sounds of a struggle, but Gahagan had said she heard nothing unusual when she picked up. She ended the call after repeatedly asking if there was an emergency and receiving no answer, and didn't call the number back or send police to investigate as the 911 center's policy suggested.

Police arrived at the apartment more than 40 minutes later, after Zimmermann's fiance found her body and called 911. The crime remains unsolved.

Kathy Krusiec, the 911 center's interim director, wrote in a disciplinary memo dated Monday that Gahagan might have confused Zimmermann's call with a 911 call from an abandoned landline that came in right after. Gahagan called that number back.

"You stated you were under the impression that it was one (and) the same incident. It has since been confirmed that these were two separate incidents," the memo said.

Gahagan had requested a transfer out of the 911 center before the slaying. Wells said it was granted in mid-April.

The case has been complicated by misinformation from the call center, which mistakenly told homicide investigators that Gahagan had called back Zimmermann's cell phone and two men answered.

The county also didn't acknowledge the existence of Zimmermann's call until a news report mentioned it nearly a month after the slaying. Joe Norwick, the center's director, had insisted Gahagan had no way of distinguishing the call from dozens of daily accidental and hang-up calls received by the center even after county officials realized someone had screamed during the call.

Norwick has since resigned.

A recording of the call has not been publicly released and a group of news organizations had sued the county under the state's open records law to obtain the recording. Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled Monday that the call would stay secret because it could be crucial in helping investigators catch the killer.

Wells didn't immediately return a message left after business hours at his home Friday.