The man called in a panic, his words spilling out in a jumble as he tried to describe the violence that just occurred before his eyes outside a North Charleston shopping center.
“This lady got shot. The lady got shot in the head out in front of the Tanger Outlet,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “I saw it happen. I saw the whole thing happen.”
Dezerea Shelton, the 911 operator who answered the call, calmly but forcefully worked to keep the man's emotions in check, to get him to focus on the crucial details that emergency workers needed to know as they raced to the scene.
“My partner is going to have help on the way but I need you to stay on the line because we need to get information for our officers,” she said.
Shelton's cool demeanor during the Aug. 12 call, and her ability to coax details about the location of the crime and the description of the shooter, earned her a written commendation from her superiors.
It was one of 17 such accolades she received over the past two years for her work at Charleston County's emergency dispatch center, where she routinely scored high marks for her competency and skills answering high-stress calls.
So it took county officials by surprise this month when an investigation led to allegations that Shelton also had been intentionally turning her back on some calls for help from the public — up to 45 of them. Some of the calls she never forwarded to dispatchers to alert police. Some she wiped from the computer dispatch system entirely, according to arrest affidavits.
The 27-year-old Hanahan woman, who was fired on Sept. 5, remains jailed on charges of misconduct in office and obstruction of justice, with her bail set at $40,000.
“You get these positive reports back that this person is always a high performer, so you have no reason to look any deeper,” said Allyson Burrell, the deputy director of the Charleston County Consolidated 9-1-1 Center.
A review of Shelton's personnel records, obtained by The Post and Courier through a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed few warning signs regarding mishandled calls, aside from an April 24 incident in North Charleston for which she earned a verbal warning for not sending an ambulance to a call involving a vomiting youth. Instead, she sent police only, records indicate.
More often, she was earning effusive praise, such as in December 2012 when she was named one of the center's top achievers. “You rock at this. ... Excellent Job!” another note in her file read.
But the records also show Shelton was increasingly drawing scrutiny from her superiors for failing to show up for work and not responding to their calls to check on her.
If her issues with absenteeism continued, she likely would have been terminated for that reason, according to protocols in place at the center.
On July 31, 2012, Shelton was issued a one-day suspension after she volunteered for a shift, but did not report to work without notifying her superiors, according to personnel records.
Other issues with absenteeism and tardiness appear in her employee record, resulting in verbal and written warnings. Shelton was issued another one-day suspension on Aug. 1 for violating on-call procedures and a sick-leave issue, records show.
Most of Shelton's absences dealt with health issues, according to Burrell.
To her superiors, Shelton seemed like a high-performing call taker who had some issues with tardiness and absenteeism.
Between September 2012 and August 2013, Shelton answered about 18,350 calls, which includes 911 calls and non-emergency calls on the administrative line.
The April 24 call for which Shelton received a warning for failing to dispatch paramedics to a Walmart in North Charleston would not have been a cause for much concern, officials said.
“With not having anything else at that point, no, that wouldn't have necessarily been a red flag,” she said.
The problems with Shelton, who had been a call taker since 2011, appeared to have begun in January, according to investigators.
In those 45 problematic calls, Shelton would take the call but not alert dispatchers to send help, officials said. In some, she put the call address into the system, but then would delete the address from the entry before anyone noticed, according to Burrell.
Since the call wouldn't go to the dispatcher, they wouldn't know the call even existed, Burrell said.
Shelton's superiors had no reason to suspect her, Burrell said.
“It wasn't ever thought that a call taker would not do their job,” Burrell said. “I've been in this field for 18-plus years and I've never seen anything like this occur. You just don't think this would happen.”
What still haunts Burrell and others at the 911 center is why Shelton allegedly turned her back on the emergency calls.
Shelton has not addressed the charges, and it was unclear last week whether she had legal representation. She declined a request from The Post and Courier to interview her at the Al Cannon Detention Center.
The Sheriff's Office is still investigating the case. Chief Inspector Chris Brokaw said there is no new information as to what might have motivated Shelton.
“That's the million-dollar question,” Burrell said. “We continue to hit our heads against the wall. When you look at her overall performance it was really good. What would cause someone to do this? Nothing makes sense to us.”
Brought to light
The investigation began after the newspaper began asking questions about why Mount Pleasant police were not notified about two calls Ira Lewis and his wife made to the 911 center on Aug. 25 to report a group of burglars trying to break into his neighbor's home in the Cooper Estates subdivision.
Both times, Lewis said, he was told that help was on the way. Both times, no one came. Police later said the 911 center never told them about the calls.
Investigators said they identified dozens of calls mishandled by Shelton, but no other 911 center employees were found to have been involved or associated with the incidents.
Shelton was placed on paid administrative leave Aug. 26, the day county officials learned of the botched Mount Pleasant calls, authorities said. She remained there until she was fired.
Checks and balances
Burrell said Shelton's alleged actions have harmed the public's perception of and trust in the 911 center, a trust that workers there hold sacred.
“I think to some degree, our credibility has been damaged. We have a lot of integrity in this industry,” she said.
Following Shelton's arrest, Charleston County Administrator Kurt Taylor said “it is crucial that the public have confidence that when they call for help, it will be sent immediately.”
The county implemented new controls since Shelton's arrest, and Burrell is confident they will prevent future problems.
Two means of auditing are now being used, according to Burrell. A report is produced and emailed to supervisors and includes any calls for which addresses were not input. Those calls are now reviewed at the end of every shift.
“I'm thankful we have done that,” Burrell said. “That gives me peace of mind and I hope that gives the public some peace of mind, too.”
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5 or Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.
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