November 12, 2006

Local Couple’s Meth Death By Freezing To Be Featured In National Ad

Category: Uncategorized — jerry @ 10:44 am

hornickel.jpg

    This is Janelle Hornickel’s coffin. 

     Janelle was a student at Omaha’s Creighton University (my alma mater) until January 5, 2005, when she and friend Michael Wamsley froze to death–addled by methamphetamine.

    The story made national news (Anderson Cooper’s CNN transcript below), and the meth-confused and hallucinating 911 calls between the two and Omaha’s 911 center are going to be featured in a national anti-drug campaign, according to this morning’s Omaha World Herald.

Here’s a transcript of Anderson Cooper’s 360 story:

COOPER: You’re about to hear from a young man and woman on the brink of death, a Nebraska couple, their voices recorded by a 911 operator, who know they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are shivering, they are scared, and very soon, they will both freeze to death.

That is where we begin their story, in a blinding snowstorm. A young man, clutching a cell phone, over and over punching the keys, 911.

Janelle Hornickel, a college student, and Michael Wamsley, her boyfriend, are lost, disoriented. Their vehicle went off the road. They’re wandering in the snow, desperately dialing for help.

There are many questions, more questions than answers tonight. Why were they out there? Why had they abandoned their vehicle? Were they high on drugs?

We’re covering all the angles tonight.

We start with the voices of Michael and Janelle talking to a 911 operator. Now, as you listen, keep in mind, the dispatchers did not have the most up-to-date technology, which would have allowed them to pinpoint exactly where these two were calling from.

CNN’s Keith Oppenheim picks up the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEITH OPPENHEIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a subzero snowstorm, Michael Wamsley and Janelle Hornickel, two 20-year-olds, got lost driving to Omaha, Nebraska. They made repeated calls to 911.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sarpy County, 911.

MICHAEL WAMSLEY: Yes, my girlfriend (UNINTELLIGIBLE) placed a call earlier out by an old sandpit.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Out by where?

WAMSLEY: Out by a sandpit.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

OPPENHEIM: Because Wamsley is using a cell phone, his signal is bouncing to other regions, and dispatchers want to transfer him to where they thinks he is, so he can get help faster.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

WAMSLEY: Oh, no, no, please. I don’t have a chance to — my phone’s going to die. I need some help now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don’t understand — but I can’t help you, because I’m in a different area.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

OPPENHEIM: Wamsley and Hornickel are stuck near a gravel pit near the rural outskirts of Omaha, slowly freezing to death.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

WAMSLEY: Please, can you get over here now?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

OPPENHEIM: But despite the anguish, dispatchers don’t have the technology to pinpoint the call.

DAN PETERSON, SARPY COUNTY, NEBRASKA, 911 DIRECTOR: It was just not possible to locate where they were.

OPPENHEIM: Days of searching follows the phone calls. The bodies of Wamsley and Hornickel were found outside, frozen. They left their vehicle, not dressed for the weather.

DR. HENRY NIPPER, CREIGHTON UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: Both individuals were impaired at the time of death.

OPPENHEIM: An autopsy revealed both bodies had high traces of the drug methamphetamine, or crystal meth, which may explain their confusion in the storm. And that may have made the calls even more challenging for 911 dispatchers.

Still, the question is, was this a bad mix of drugs and inadequate technology, or were the calls transferred so often that time was wasted in this search for two people calling for help?

Keith Oppenheim, CNN, Chicago.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, police and emergency officials have been listening closely to those tapes, trying to see what, if anything, they could have done differently.

A short time ago, I spoke with Sarpy County sheriff’s office, Captain Rolly Yost and Dan Peterson, the head of 911 for the county.

Dan, I want to play you part of the 911 tape, where the dispatcher was desperately trying to figure out the location of these two young people. Let’s play that.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sarpy County 911.

WAMSLEY: Sarpy County 911, we may — I don’t know how I’m going to talk to you, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, you’re at 72nd and Poppleton?

WAMSLEY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) go further north, like by, maybe a quarter mile, a mile from (UNINTELLIGIBLE)…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, Poppleton is in Omaha, that’s Douglas County. Let me…

WAMSLEY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), please, ma’am, listen, listen to us. They told us, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the lady there told us four times that she can’t do anything. I begged her…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you’re in Omaha, I can’t help you, because I’m not anywhere near Omaha.

WAMSLEY: You can’t (UNINTELLIGIBLE)…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you in Douglas County, or Omaha?

WAMSLEY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I can make (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I’m in Douglas, I should be.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, well…

WAMSLEY: I don’t know where the (UNINTELLIGIBLE)…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I’m in Sarpy County, and I can’t send an officer from Sarpy County to Douglas County.

WAMSLEY: Wait, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), OK, where is Douglas — where’s Omaha start?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Harrison Street.

WAMSLEY: OK, we are past — we’re out past Harrison. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: North or south past Harrison?

WAMSLEY: We’re south.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You’re south of Harrison?

WAMSLEY: Yes, please…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Where is that?

WAMSLEY: We’re somewhere out by a lake (UNINTELLIGIBLE)…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What lake are you by?

WAMSLEY: I don’t know, it’s like an old private something, they’ve (UNINTELLIGIBLE)…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) can stop yelling in the back, because I can’t hear you. I need to find out where you’re at. What lake are you at?

WAMSLEY: I — we don’t — I don’t — I’m not from Omaha or area originally.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, no, that’s fine, but I need you to calm down just a little bit here, so I can help you, OK?

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COOPER: As you listen to this tape, what do you hear? Is there anything more the dispatcher could have done or should have done?

PETERSON: Well, this is one of the first calls that we got, where they indicated that they were up near their apartment complex. A following call that comes on, where they indicate that they’re down in Sarpy County, and we have a cell site affiliation that is within our county. But, obviously, they were frustrated, as you can see from the callers. They really had no idea where they were.

COOPER: If somebody calls in, and they’re in the wrong county, can that 911 dispatcher not do anything about it? I mean, do they hand them over to another dispatcher? How does that work?

PETERSON: Well, what happens is, when a call is received at any dispatch center, the first thing they have to know is where the individual is that needs help. If — because calls are misrouted occasionally. So we have to make sure that the appropriate dispatch center is available to dispatch either fire rescue, whatever is required for assistance.

And it’s our usual practice that we would just transfer the call. And we get calls from, for example, our adjoining county, if it’s misrouted as well.

COOPER: Because in the tape, the young man says he was hung up on, that he had called before. Is that something that would have happened, or is — would you normally just trans — actually transfer the person, staying on the line with them?

PETERSON: Well, when we transfer the call, we stay on as long as we hear the other 911 center pick up the call from the caller. And then we drop the call.

COOPER: OK. Captain Yost, I want to play another portion of this tape. Let’s listen.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

WAMSLEY: But we’re right (UNINTELLIGIBLE)…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hamilton is way north of Harrison. That’s not anywhere near Gretna.

WAMSLEY: OK, well, ma’am, I don’t know exactly. But I need help. I talk to him, I (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and I — my phone’s just about to die. You’re my last chance here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, how far away are you from the shack?

WAMSLEY: Oh, we are in this — (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 50 yards, and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) talk, so…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. Is there a phone number on that shack at all?

WAMSLEY: I can’t tell you, it’s too dark.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, hold on just one moment.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COOPER: I mean, it’s just, it’s heartbreaking to hear these conversations on both ends, for the dispatcher, for these two kids. It, how, what role do you think drugs played in this, Captain Yost?

CAPT. ROLLY YOST, SARPY COUNTY, NEBRASKA, SHERIFF’S OFFICE: Well, the toxicology report showed that there was some — definitely some impairment there.

COOPER: With what, methamphetamines?

YOST: Her tox level was much higher than his, as far as methamphetamine and amphetamine. The rational decision-making when you’re on those drugs is very questionable.

COOPER: So what can you tell from a cell phone call at this point? I guess there are two different kind of phases or stages. You’re in stage one, or phase one, I’m not sure what you call it. You can kind of get, you can get the number, and perhaps the identity of the person, not necessarily their location.

HENDERSON: Right. We currently are able to, as in this case, we could get the callback number, and with that, we can — and we know who the provider is, so that we can, through a process, we can get the address of that caller, where, you know, where their home is. We can also get the cell site tower that that call has affiliated with.

Now, with phase two — and that’s what we’re looking for — we would actually be able to generate a dot on a graphic map, and then from that, we could certainly identify where to send the help.

COOPER: How frustrating is it for you? I mean, you get these calls all the time. I understand you receive, I think, like, about 50 percent of your calls are from cell phones. How frustrating is it to not fully have the technology that you would like to have?

HENDERSON: Well, it’s very frustrating, more so for our dispatchers, who are in the business of trying to help people, and, in our case, where we have, as taxpayers, paid for our call center to accept the technology. So, yes, we’re frustrated. And we’d like to have the capability as soon as possible.

COOPER: Captain Yost, at this point, I mean, how much do you know about what these kids were doing, where they were going, how they got out of their vehicle, or why they even left their vehicle? I mean, there was gas found in the vehicle. I understand they could have stayed in there. They could have run the engine, had heat. I mean, do you think they were just sort of, you know, high to some degree, disoriented, and just wandered out into the snow?

YOST: Well, it’s one of the affects of methamphetamine is, it’s hard to sit still for a long period of time. I think it would have been difficult for them, even though the truck had gas, running condition, had heat source. It’s difficult for them to sit still in that truck for a long period of time until we were able to locate them.

I know law enforcement has been saying for years that if you’re stranded in a snowstorm, stay with your vehicle. We’re going to find your vehicle.

COOPER: Captain Rolly Yost and Dan Peterson, I appreciate you joining us to talk about this. Thanks very much.

HENDERSON: Thank you.

YOST: Thank you.

COOPER: Just a terrible story.

[Update: More on this story here]

1 Comment

  1. I decided to close comments on this item. There were a couple of insensitive comments and some feelings were hurt.

    I’m uncomfortable “censoring” things here–I am very much anti-censorship, especially on my own blog–but, on the other hand, I note that on a number of forums, people are allowed to edit their own comments, whereas the software I use here (WordPress) does not allow this.

    This item has been the most “hit” of the items I have posted–it is a very serious and important event, and one that I want people to read about and learn from.

    Rather than make anyone feel uncomfortable by having to read through ill-advised comment postings, I have made this “executive decision” to close comments.
    I don’t want to distract from the lesson that I want people to learn from this entry and from other entries that you will find in this blog–that is:

    Drugs are fun.

    And then you die…

    Comment by jerry — September 29, 2007 @ 2:00 pm

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