Inside The Tragic 2008 Murder Of Denise Amber Lee

The following article includes allegations of murder and sexual assault.

On January 17, 2008, Nathan Lee returned mid-afternoon from his job as an electric meter reader to his home in North Port, Florida. He discovered his two sons, 2-year-old Noah and 6-month-old Adam, lying side by side in their crib (via Casetext). Everything seemed normal, except for one eerie difference: Their mother, Denise, Lee's 21-year-old wife whom he had met in high school, was missing.

Nathan immediately called 911 and, straight after, his father-in-law, Rick Goff, a veteran of Charlotte County Sherriff's Department. Both men knew that Denise going missing was entirely out of character for her and that something was badly wrong. Using his connections, Goff was able to make local police and his own department act without delay. Soon, a helicopter was in the air, and a search was underway. Chillingly, a neighbor contacted the police to tell them she had seen a man sitting in a green Camaro in the driveway of the Lees' residence around the time that Denise went missing. It was soon confirmed that the young mother had been kidnapped. But despite several more witnesses coming forward and Denise herself acting heroically to try and contact the authorities, the horrifying incident ended in disaster.

Calling 911 failed

Denise Amber Lee and her kidnapper, a man named Michael King, who was unknown to her and her family, were spotted several times that day as the Camaro traveled around North Port. Per Casetext, she was taken to King's home and then to the home of his cousin, where the kidnapper borrowed a gas can, a shovel, and a flashlight. Lee, who was tied up and who fought with King in full sight of his cousin, reportedly called out for the cousin to call the cops. However, King was able to convince him that everything was above board. 

It was only later that the cousin's daughter, who had heard from her father of the bizarre sight of a family member traveling with a tied-up woman, called the police to share her concerns. The police received several other calls that day, including one from another witness who reported seeing what she believed to be a child banging on the window of the Camaro and screaming to be let out. She attempted to follow the car while on the line with the police operator but lost the car in traffic. Shockingly, another call came from inside the car, with Denise getting King's cell phone away from him and dialing 911 without him knowing. She kept up the pretense of having a conversation with him while in fact relaying key information to the police. Tragically, the calls were in vain, as the police were unable to locate Denise before it was too late.

The arrest and trial of Michael King

According to NBC News, the police finally apprehended Michael King at 9:16 p.m. after identifying his vehicle and pulling him over. The only trace of Denise Amber Lee was a black bra. King himself was reportedly wet from the waist down and still in possession of the shovel, which had mud on it. He had also removed the batteries from his cell phone. Under police interview, King claimed that he and Denise had both been kidnapped. Notably, he said he had been blindfolded during the purported ordeal and had no idea where she had been taken. Her body was later discovered in a shallow grave just a few miles from her home.

King was indicted on February 6, 2008, and in the subsequent trial his background was laid out for all to see. A former plumber who had quit his job three months before the kidnapping, King had moved to the area six years earlier after a divorce. After his arrest, witnesses came forward to accuse him of previous sex crimes. The prosecution set out its case that King had kidnapped Denise, raped her, and then shot her in the head before burying her body.

It took the jury just two and a half hours to find King guilty of the murder of Denise Amber Lee, and he was sentenced to death unanimously. As of 2023, he is still on death row.

The case changed the law

The fact that Denise Amber Lee had managed to make a 911 call during her kidnapping made headlines in the media. Many Americans were understandably concerned and shocked that the emergency number may prove not to be useful in a life-and-death situation after all. Per NBC News, it turned out that King's phone, which was an old basic model and not easily traceable, meaning that it could only be traced to the nearest phone tower. Lee's frantic phone call was used as evidence in convicting Michael King, as was that of the witness who saw her screaming for help in King's car. The last person to have seen Lee alive, the witness' call to 911 proved useless as the operator failed to enter the sighting into the police database, so it never got communicated to officers on the ground. In the aftermath of Lee's death, the Charlotte Country Sheriff's Office was accused of incompetence and blamed for the failure of the rescue attempt.

Six months after Lee's death, her husband, Nathan, set up a foundation in her memory to improve the effectiveness of the 911 emergency service with the hope that systemic changes to how calls are processed can help save lives. In April 2008 the Senate passed the Denise Amber Lee Act outlining new training procedures for operators. The Denise Amber Lee Foundation is still active today.