The secret call
TAMPA — The 911 call came in like many do: Nothing to hear but background noise.
People bump their speed dials. Little kids don’t know who they’re calling. Operators must decide whether to consider the call an error or to send help. At that point, it’s their mistake to make.
On New Year’s Day, police say, 911 operator Ve’Etta Bess made the right choice, one that led officers to the home of a sexual predator they say had disabled his ankle monitor, met a woman at a bar and brought her home — a man already convicted of rape, preparing to rape once more and threatening to kill.
On Monday, Tampa police released the tape and Capt. Hugh Miller described what happened behind the scenes at an emergency operations center in East Tampa.
Bess answered the call at 4:27 a.m.: “911.”
“Hello?” Bess asked. “Hello?”
She heard a woman pleading with a man.
“Oh, my God. … Let me go home. Let me go home. Please, God, let me go home.”
Bess kept quiet. She didn’t want the man to know she was listening. The operator would later tell her captain that the totality of what she heard convinced her right away that the woman was in danger.
The woman begging for mercy had met the man at Tillie’s Place, a bar in Port Tampa. Police say they left at last call, about 2:45 a.m., and party-hopped until 4 a.m. ending up blocks away in his bedroom. That’s where police say his sexual advances got violent.
The woman managed to call 911 before dropping the phone, but the call remained open.
“I think you’re going to hurt me,” she cried. “I just want to go home to my baby girl.”
Bess had to find this woman. She turned to the help of software that communicates a signal from the cell phone to try to determine its location. Sometimes, the radius will take up half the city. Sometimes, it will be as narrow as a few houses. Some phone networks are better than others, and newer phones are better than old ones.
Fingers scrambled across the 911 computer keyboard as the woman on the telephone unleashed a muffled scream.
A little circle indicating the origin of the phone call popped up on the screen, hovering directly over registered sexual predator Tommy Lee Sailor’s house, 7408 S O’Brien St.
But it’s at this point that operators needed to be sure of the location. Sending police in the wrong direction could waste precious time.
Bess requested a second signal.
It came again, just as specific as the first. She got her boss Robin Bridges involved, and they called Sprint, to make sure the carrier had the same location. Three confirmations.
Emergency staffer Helen Hohn dispatched police.
Within three minutes of Bess receiving the 911 call, officers were on their way.
The phone line stayed open for 15 more minutes as she listened in silence.
“I’m a serial rapist,” the man told his victim. “I’m a serial killer.”
Sailor had spent most of his adult life in prison for crimes including robbery, battery of a law enforcement officer and two counts of sexual battery.
On this New Year’s Day, police say, he held a screwdriver to the woman’s throat as he sexually battered her.
“I don’t care about going back to prison,” he said.
“I just want to go home,” she pleads.
“After I do what I gotta do …”
“What do you have to do? What!?”
“I gotta have sex with you.”
“No, you don’t have to do that. You don’t even know me.”
“If I can’t have that …”
Before he was able to carry out his threat, police would force themselves inside his home, and he’d jump out a back window. They’d track him down and lock him away without bail on charges of armed false imprisonment and sexual battery with a deadly weapon.
But before any of that happened, at some point 17 minutes into the call, the worst sounded imminent.
He discovered the phone.
“You called 911?” he demanded.
She swore she didn’t. But he saw the numbers on the screen.
He spoke into the phone. “This 911?”
“Hello?” he asked.
Only the sound of his own breath.
He told his victim he would kill her.
“Well, maybe they’re going to kill you,” she replied.
Seconds later, she finally heard an answer to her plea for help:
Someone at the door.