Deputy found negligent in handling of 911 call before widow died
The Seminole sheriff says he'll discipline but not fire Michelle Ashby, who was 'careless.'
Rene Stutzman | Sentinel Staff Writer
(published) November 6, 2007
SANFORD - Before she even approached the home of an 83-year-old widow who had dialed 911 as she lay dying, Seminole County Deputy Michelle Ashby decided the call was no big deal.
She radioed a backup deputy and said she didn't need help.
She didn't talk to neighbors. She didn't find it suspicious that there was a car in the garage but no answer at the door. She didn't check whether the woman had called for help before. Instead, the deputy left after three minutes -- without breaking in and trying to help Matilda "Tillie" Kovanich. The elderly woman's body was found the next day, after neighbors called 911.
Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger on Monday released the results of an internal-affairs investigation into how his agency handled Kovanich's call for help Oct. 20.
Its conclusion: Ashby was negligent.
"She was careless and inattentive and didn't follow through," Eslinger said.
Ashby, a 13-year department veteran, remained suspended with pay Monday, her status since Oct. 29, shortly after Eslinger ordered the investigation. Eslinger said he would decide how to discipline the deputy after reviewing her career at the agency. He will not fire her.
"She's a good deputy," he said. [Comment: This raises the interesting and disturbing issue of what a Seminole Co. deputy has to do to be considered "bad" by Eslinger.]
According to the one-inch-thick report released Monday, there is little chance anyone could have done much to help Kovanich. She had begun to bleed profusely from her right foot, and Dr. Marie Herrmann, the Volusia County Medical Examiner who performed the autopsy, concluded that Kovanich died within seconds of placing the 911 call, according to the report. She suffered a heart attack because of all the blood loss.
Kovanich's son, Joe Ruth of Wheaton, Ill., didn't learn until Monday how little time Ashby spent at the house.
"I am extremely disappointed with the way the deputy handled the first call," he said. "It seems to me she made some grievous errors, and we're paying the consequences. . . . It's very unlikely that my mother could have been saved, but the fact that she was ignored is very upsetting."
The Sheriff's Office did not release a copy of the call, but it provided a transcript. It shows that the elderly woman called for help at 11:16 a.m., shortly after getting home from Saturday morning errands.
The unidentified dispatcher asked Kovanich if she needed police, fire or medical help, but there was no response.
"Hello? Hello? Hello, 911," the dispatcher said.
The dispatcher tried at least eight times in one minute, 43 seconds to get Kovanich to talk, then disconnected and twice called back. Both times, the line was busy.
The dispatcher then sent Ashby to the house.
According to the report, Ashby arrived at the house, called off a backup unit, walked to the front door and found it locked. She walked around the house, tried to peer into windows, saw nothing suspicious, heard no noises and left.
"The house was dark. I didn't see any lights on. There was no sound of television, radio. . . . Everything was locked up. . . . I was comfortable the house was unoccupied," she told sheriff's Capt. Martin Linnekugel, who investigated.
She saw a car in the garage, she told him, saw shopping bags inside a locked screen door but those things did not make her suspicious, she said.
"OK. And if you'd checked the call history you would've found a . . . prior call from two years ago, that noted an elderly female lives by herself . . . but you didn't think to check the prior call history?" Linnekugel asked.
"No, sir," was Ashby's response.
Two paramedics who went to the house the following day told Linnekugel if they had been Ashby, they'd have broken in.
Eslinger said Ashby had violated no agency procedures on how to respond to 911 hang-ups.
The agency has no policy, he said.
"We cannot instruct someone to use common sense or logic or deductive reasoning," Eslinger said. "It's practice and a matter of routine to handle these types of calls."
Sheldon Greenberg, associate dean and director of the Public Safety Leadership Division of Johns Hopkins University, said there is no national standard for dealing with those kinds of calls. In general, people need to trust officers to make the right decision, because they usually do.
But if a 911 caller says nothing but stays on the phone line, "We tend to think that an open line is someone in need that can't communicate."
Rene Stutzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-324-7294.