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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 46.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Brittany Zimmermann called 911, but no one came
Police not sent in response to victim's plea for help
Zimmermann's murder remains unsolved.
Zimmermann's murder remains unsolved.

© 2008 Isthmus Publishing Co.

Madison police believe Brittany Zimmermann called 911 before she was stabbed and beaten to death inside her Doty Street apartment, but the 911 Center failed to send help after erroneously concluding the call was a mistake.

The 21-year-old UW-Madison student's body, with multiple stab wounds to the chest and blunt force trauma to the head, was discovered at 1:08 p.m. on April 2 by Zimmermann's fiancé. The scene was such a mess that he initially believed Zimmermann had been shot.

Zimmermann's murder is the fifth unsolved Madison homicide in the past 10 months. Two have occurred downtown, inside homes, during the day, apparently by strangers.

Four weeks after Zimmermann was murdered, her killer or killers remain at large, and little is known about the investigation. But Isthmus has been able to confirm several new details.

The most significant is that the 911 Center received a call from Zimmermann before she was killed, did not dispatch police, and then did not immediately or accurately inform the Police Department about the call after cops found her body, law enforcement officials tell Isthmus.

Sources suggest the center may have made a call-back to a wrong number, where the person who answered assured that no crisis was occurring. One source says cops might have been better situated to make a quick arrest had mistakes not been made by the 911 Center.

Over the past two and a half weeks, the 911 Center has refused requests for basic information about the calls. This week, Joe Norwick, director of the Dane County 911 Center since July, declined further opportunities to comment after being provided with a written summary of parts of this story.

In an email, Norwick said he was basing his refusal on a request from the Madison Police Department to withhold all information "pertaining to this matter" because release would "seriously impair" the murder investigation.

Madison police officials vigorously dispute this. While declining to call the 911 Center's action a cover-up, they suggested that Norwick is improperly using the department as an excuse not to own up to his agency's mistakes.

Zimmermann, a small-town girl who dreamed of becoming a doctor, graduated with distinction from Marshfield High School in 2005. At the UW, she majored in medical microbiology and immunology, and was planning to enroll in medical school after graduating next spring.

Her mother, Jean Zimmermann, politely declines to talk in detail about her daughter's death. "There are just so many things we don't know right now," she says.

Zimmermann's obituary describes her fiancé as "the love of her life," and the two were planning to wed in Hawaii. Says police spokesman Joel DeSpain, "This was a girl who walked the straight line in life."

In the wake of Zimmermann's murder, Madison police have launched a crackdown on so-called transients roaming the city's streets.

Some of these individuals, says DeSpain, "are dangerous, released from mental institutions, have violent pasts, are drug users, are convicted of crimes but never served prison time because of mental illness."

Police, perhaps hoping to match DNA or fingerprints from the crime scene, rounded up about two dozen transients in the days after Zimmermann's murder (see Watchdog item, "Brother, Can You Spare Some DNA?").

Sparking prompt attention was David A. Kahl, 42, who allegedly entered a home two blocks from Zimmermann's apartment minutes after she was murdered, seeking to score money for crack cocaine with a scam about a flat tire.

Kahl, called a "material witness" in court records, told police of two men who were breaking into downtown homes to steal electronics. He said he knew the men from a "crack house" in the 500 block of West Wilson Street, which abuts the backyard of Zimmermann's apartment. Kahl admitted to his probation agent that he smoked $8,000 worth of crack in the past month and that, on the day of Zimmermann's murder, he smoked with the two men, whom he knew only as Hank and Mitchell.

Police won't say whether they've identified Hank and Mitchell, or even publicly acknowledge Kahl's connection to the case. Police have said Kahl is not a suspect and don't believe he has direct knowledge of the murder.

Among the transients who stood out as potential suspects is Jeffery D. Ball, 48, who was found with a knife in a woman's bathroom in the commercial section of Butler Plaza, a few blocks east of the Capitol, on the night of Zimmermann's murder.

Ball also had been found there about a week before, only to be confronted by an employee. "He threatened to cut my heart out," says the employee, who for safety reasons is not being identified.

When Ball was found the night of the murder, the employee called police, who used a Taser gun to subdue him. Ball has a criminal record in Dane County dating back at least 15 years.

Two days after Zimmermann's murder, Ball fought with deputies in the Dane County jail and had to be subdued again with a Taser. He's now facing charges of battery to law enforcement officers and prisoners, according to a criminal complaint.

Another potential suspect is a 51-year-old British citizen whom UW police found, along with four others, sleeping in his underwear in a student lounge on the fifth floor of Vilas Hall, about a week before the Zimmermann homicide. The man, drunk and armed with a knife, made "multiple irrational statements," including that he believed he was in "Strasbourg, France and was a teacher and police officer," according to a UW police report released to Isthmus.

It's unclear why homicide detectives zeroed in on this man in the days after Zimmermann's murder. But UW police reports indicate that Madison detectives asked their campus counterparts to retroactively arrest the man for carrying a concealed weapon, presumably so authorities would be able to hold him in jail.

None of the potential suspects in the Zimmermann case comes close to fitting the description of the man believed to have killed Joel Marino.

Marino, 31, was stabbed at about 1 p.m. on Jan. 28 inside his home on West Shore Drive along Monona Bay, about three blocks south of Brittingham Park (the Zimmermann apartment is three blocks northeast).

The perception that the Marino investigation had stalled has frustrated Marino's parents, leading Marino's father to tell Isthmus a few weeks ago that he believed Madison police lacked the resources and expertise to solve his son's murder. (See "Joel Marino's Dad on Madison Cops: 'I've Lost Confidence'")

A month after the murder, Madison police announced that they believe Marino's killer is a clean-cut white male in his 20s, with facial stubble, who was wearing a white winter cap with a UW emblem and carrying a new-looking backpack, which police believe he bought on State Street. Police also announced that they linked DNA on the cap and backpack to DNA on the knife, left at the crime scene. But no arrests have been made.

This week, police said the Zimmermann case has continued to net leads in the Marino investigation, and that both cases are active. No direct connections have been established between the two.

Police also continue to investigate the murder of Kelly Nolan, a college student who disappeared on June 23, 2007, after a night of drinking on State Street. Nolan's decomposing body was found 16 days later in a wooded area in the town of Dunn, where police believe she was killed.

Two other Madison murders in the past year remain unsolved. Larry Gardner, 56, was killed Nov. 21 on Cypress Way on the south side, and George Thomas, 67, was killed at the King's Inn motel on the Beltline on Aug. 22.

Yet while they question the 911 Center's decision to rebuff requests for basic information about its actions and procedures, police say some details of unsolved murders need to remain secret to protect ongoing investigations.

"We've already had people give us false confessions. You get people who will tell you anything," says DeSpain. "There's that need to inform the community so they can be safe, and then there's a need to make sure we can find the killer."

Another reason police keep information close to their vest is that they often aren't sure of its significance. DeSpain says there have been nights when he's gone home aware of some promising lead, "thinking tomorrow will be the day where we announce the arrest. And then overnight it all falls apart."

Update: Further details about the investigation into this article and clarifications about the 911 call are available here.

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