The cell phone call came into the Germantown, Tenn., police department's emergency dispatch late one night last July. The 911 operator heard a man's garbled voice, an expletive, then as many as ten gunshots. Then silence.
The dispatcher redialed the number and got no answer, then traced the call to a cellphone tower a few miles away, in southeast Memphis -- outside the city's jurisdiction. No squad cars were dispatched to the area and the call was never passed on to Memphis police.
The handling of the call, key details of which have been revealed by an internal police department investigation, had major consequences.
As it turns out, the man on the other end of the line that July night was almost certainly former NBA player and Memphis hometown hero Lorenzen Wright, frantically seeking help moments before being cut down in a hail of gunfire. Wright's body was found 10 days later in a heavily wooded area just a few hundred yards from the cell phone tower that picked up his 911 call.
The murder remains unsolved.
On Tuesday, Wright's mother, Deborah Marion, filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Germantown and the city's police department, alleging that the mishandling of Wright's call for help represented a violation of his civil rights and crippled the investigation into his murder. Wright's nearly 7-foot-tall body was badly decomposed and weighed just 57 pounds when it was found. The long delay between the time of the murder and the discovery of the body has been an obstacle to detectives working the case, Memphis police have said.
Stacey Ewell, a spokeswoman for the city, said that Germantown's assistant chief of police, Rodney Bright, had no information regarding the lawsuit and would not comment. An internal investigation by the police department earlier this year cleared the 911 dispatchers involved of any wrongdoing or negligence in their handling of the call.
A spokeswoman for the Memphis police department, which is handling the Wright investigation, also declined to comment.
In an interview with HuffPost, Marion alleged that Germantown 911 dispatchers did nothing more than try to redial Wright's cell phone back before giving up on the call.
"They said they called back. A dead man can't answer the phone," she said. "Then nothing -- nothing else. They ignored it."
Marion said that her lawsuit, which seeks several million dollars in damages, was not just about the money, but was an attempt to force the Germantown police to acknowledge wrongdoing in their handling of her son's distress call -- and to reform their 911 call procedures.
"They still act like they didn't do anything wrong," she said. "They have taken no responsibility."
The internal investigation by the Germantown police department concluded that dispatchers followed proper procedure in the incident and noted that the sounds heard on the call might have been fireworks.
Last summer, however, police sources told a reporter for Memphis' ABC24 News that Claudia Kelney-Woods, the 911 dispatcher who took the call, did not sound confused at all about what she had just heard.
"Hello, hello. I've got nothing but gunshots," Kelney-Woods says at the end of Wright's call, the station reported.
Wright's ex-wife, Sherra Wright, also filed suit Tuesday against the city of Germantown for negligence in the handling of the 911 call.