May 19, 2006 2:36 PM PDT

Police blotter: 911 dispatcher misuses database, kills ex-girlfriend

"Police blotter" is a weekly CNET News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: An emotionally disturbed 911 emergency dispatcher abused his access to the call center's databases while tracking his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend before murdering both of them.

When: Federal district court in the western district of Pennsylvania ruled on May 15 in a suit brought by the mother of the late boyfriend.

Outcome: Wrongful death and survival claims transferred to state court for further proceedings, and other claims dismissed.

What happened, according to court documents: In October 2003, Michael Michalski worked for Allegheny County, Pa., as an emergency dispatcher. He began running searches on the internal computer network and databases to locate his former girlfriend, Gretchen Ferderbar, and her current boyfriend, Mark Phillips.

A supervisor, Daniel Nussbaum, became aware of Michalski's misuse of government databases and placed him on a deferred suspension that was to begin a week later, on Oct. 27.

Because he still had access to the databases before his suspension began, Michalski continued to gain unauthorized access to personal information about Phillips. Specifically, he looked up Phillips' motor vehicle and license plate registrations in an effort to track and locate Phillips.

Then, while on suspension, Michalski phoned his co-workers at the call center, who allegedly helped him continue the database lookups even though they were aware it was for an illicit purpose.

On Oct. 29, Nussbaum, the supervisor, met with Michalski and confronted him. The supervisor allegedly believed Michalski appeared volatile and, after firing him, told Ferderbar she should be careful. Nussbaum, according to the complaint filed in this case, contacted one local police department but not the ones in the area where the ex-girlfriend, Ferderbar, and her new boyfriend lived.

Later that day, Michalski shot and killed his ex-girlfriend, Ferderbar, and her new boyfriend, Phillips, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.

That article says: "According to Allegheny County police, Michalski, 21, went into the Ferderbars' home...just before 3 p.m. He argued with Gretchen Ferderbar and moments later, pulled out the Glock handgun, firing several times. His ex-girlfriend was hit once in the head and once in the leg. Phillips died from shots to the head, neck and chest."

A Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article from October 2005 says Michalski pleaded guilty to the slayings that month and was sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

Phillips' mother sued Allegheny County, claiming it had a duty to do more once it realized Michalski was abusing his database access. U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab forwarded the case to state court on May 15.

Excerpt from the court's opinion: "On the afternoon of October 29, 2003, Michalski contacted dispatchers at the 911 Call Center...to explain the circumstances of his termination, indicating that he had nothing left to live for and that Gretchen Ferderbar and Mark Phillips were going to pay for putting him in his present situation. Despite this contact by Michalski, none of the dispatchers made an effort to contact Gretchen Ferderbar or Mark Phillips or the police departments of the Township of Shaler or the Borough of Carnegie. Later that afternoon, Michalski shot and killed Mark Phillips with a handgun.

"(Northwest Regional Communications, which operates the call center) and the individual defendants assert that plaintiff has failed to state a constitutionally cognizable equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment because the complaint fails to allege that they intentionally treated Mark Phillips differently from other similarly situated persons. Again, after consideration, the Court agrees.

"NRC and the individual defendants maintain that the allegations in the complaint do not set forth a substantive due process claim based on the state-created danger theory as a matter of law. Again, after consideration, the Court agrees.

"The Court concludes that the harm ultimately caused by Michalski--the murder of Mark Phillips--was not foreseeable. There are no allegations in the complaint that Michalski had a history of violence or, if he did, that any of the defendants were aware of such history. Second, the Court concludes as a matter of law that the alleged conduct of (two co-workers) in providing Michalski with unauthorized personal information concerning Mark Phillips from the 911 Call Center's network and databases does not rise to the required level of shocking the conscience.

"The Court will transfer plaintiff's wrongful death and survival claims to state court where NRC and the individual defendants may pursue, in an appropriate motion, the arguments raised..."

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call-center, Police Blotter, suspension, Pennsylvania, supervisor

7 comments

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wave of the future
I would look for this sort of thing to become more
common as secret government surveillance spreads
and little concern is given to oversight.
Posted by Jackson Cracker (272 comments )
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Wonderful Parenting
A real thinker, proud parents all around. A real proud moment, if you put down your Budweiser long enough to think about it.
Posted by jewoods (1 comment )
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Lol...
While your comment had me in stiches, I fail to see what parenting had to do with this. Was it bad parenting on the part of the parents of the person that did the killing? Was it bad parenting on the part of the guy that was killed and now wants to sue because, well, because they are just stupid hick idiots that think they can finally buy that trailer home if they win?
Posted by thenet411 (415 comments )
Link Flag
I get it.
I get the parenting reference and had a much longer comment that disappered when I went back to double check a fact.
My point was, am I the only one that is OUTRAGED by this story. It's insane that a 911 dispatcher atter being caught using information to stalk his ex-girlfriend & her new boyfriend, was allowed to return to work and contine to do so. After his suspention he enlisted 2 of his coworkers to help and the gladly assisted him. When the supervisor did finally fire him he made a half hearted attemt to warn the exgirlfriend and contacted the wrong law enforment agengy. He didn't even warn the boy.
Then when the disturbud 911 dispatcher made a call to the center and threatened to make the ex-girlfriend & new boyfriend pay on the day her was fired only hour later. Nothing was done. noone was called. Now 2 people are dead, and thier death could have been prevented. That should Outrage everyone. For me outrage is just the tip of the iceburg. I hope this mother win somthing in her suit and maybe someone will wakeup, at least in that company!
Posted by wookiebluz (1 comment )
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Figures PRC
The call center was a company called PRC Pricision Response Corporation and they never screen there employees they are based out of Sunrise, Fl. I hated that company hope they get sued big time. They hired people at $7 an hour and except quality. They also have minimum wage employees stealing information from Blue Cross customers, AARP and travelocity customers. That what they get for hiring $7 ah hour illegals.

I knwq thiw would happen
Posted by cpudrewfl (56 comments )
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Can you read?
You obviously are not smart enough to type worth a crap and you clearly have reading issues too. This was NOT a private company that was sued. It was a multi-jurisdictional regional government entity. Under various federal laws, governments have immunity from prosecution / lawsuits in cases such as these, unless it was directly the fault of the agency (the communication section, specifically) that caused the people to get killed. Since the agency took the steps to remove the person from the position and did make a notification of any kind, they were exempt from further responsibility. Unless the person was working on duty for the governmental agency, and under the guise of said employment, committed the murders, AND having met the first two criteria, the agency had reason to believe he would do so AND State or Federal Law had created a statutory duty to act on that belief, then MAYBE they could have gotten to court with their lawsuit. However, all four criteria, and sometimes more, have to be present to get to a Federal Civil Rights trial against a governmental agency.

The Supreme Court, for over 50 years, has made it VERY clear that unless the agent of the government, under the color of that employment, commits the act, then the government is not liable. Furthermore, if the government could not have known the act would be committed based on no previous evidence of violence, such as in a case of a police use of force lawsuit, then the agency cannot be sued. In other words, this case only gets into Federal court, if the dispatch supervisor was on duty, ignored a call from a citizen within his jurisdiction for which he was responsible for sending police in a timely manner, and ONLY because of that failure, someone died. In this case, the citizen that called was the suspect, and the dispatch supervisor had more than satisfied the duty to act under the law by telling the eventual victim that her ex was being fired for having been looking her up in the databases to try and find her. Finally, if on the original deferred suspension, the agency acted in good faith, under well-tested employment rules, they cannot be held liable for his continued misuse, since they did act on that once it was discovered by firing him. This situation may have involved a union contract, as is likely the case in the northeast...Pennsylvania is one of the most unionized law-enforcement states in the USA, and the 1 week deferred suspension may have been mandatory under that contract.

However, the agency made some small errors here, and there might yet be money paid to the family. While those mistakes, as the court said, do not rise to the level of a Federal lawsuit, State law may be less kind to a governmental agency. The lawsuit under Federal law was made for one purpose, to get more money. There are no caps on the amounts that can be paid to a winner in a federal civil rights lawsuit, and the loser pays the legal bills on top of the judgment. If Pennsylvania has any tort-reform caps in place, each side could possibly be required to cover their own legal bills, and there might be a maximum dollar amount that can be won, even including legal fees.

A final point, and one you might want to consider before slamming the government agency in this case and others. Every time someone wins one of these lawsuits, it makes the business of government more expensive for all of us, even in different states. Insurance for the local governments goes up, training costs go up, and staying within the bounds of employee-rights laws while preventing cases such as these requires more lawyers than ever...and we all know how expensive those are. Where does all that money come from? Yep, from local sales and property taxes. If you like more taxes, keep on encouraging people to sue your governmental agencies. Just don't complain when they foreclose on YOUR house when you don't pay your taxes.
Posted by 527nrhpd (44 comments )
Link Flag
We are all screwed!
Bush has declared open season on our private lives. All the screening in the world isn't going to stop an employee with a vendetta.
Posted by casper2004 (267 comments )
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