Brittany Zimmermann's murder
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The campus and city were shaken when University of Wisconsin junior Brittany Zimmermann was found stabbed to death in her apartment on April 2, 2008.
Her death prompted many changes to the Dane County 911 Center, which came under fire following her death due to the mishandling of a phone call placed from her cell phone that afternoon. It also lead to several lawsuits, including a wrongful death lawsuit by the family against the county, another by several local media outlets against the county, city and state, and one by the family against the landlord of their daughter’s apartment.
Almost two years later, the police are still working on her case but have yet to find her murderer.
April 2, 2008
Around 11:30 a.m. on April 2, 2008, Zimmermann’s fiancé Jordan Gonnering saw her for the last time alive as he talked to her on his cell phone atop the Van Hise balcony looking down at her below on the ground floor.
About one hour later at 12:20 p.m., the Dane County 911 Center received a call from Zimmermann’s cell phone that was disconnected after “the sound of a woman screaming and…background sounds of a struggle for a short period of time.”
Dispatcher Rita Gahagan answered the call, but failed to call the cell phone back. Approximately 48 minutes elapsed until Gonnering called the 911 Center at 1:08 p.m. after finding Zimmermann dead in her apartment at 517 W. Doty St. Police arrived within seven minutes and found Gonnering crying and trembling in shock with Zimmermann lying on the ground dead next to him.
Zimmermann died from “complex homicidal violence including multiple stab wounds and strangulation.” The stab wounds were determined to be caused by a weapon with a blade between two and five inches with a width of 1.5 to two centimeters. However, no weapon was left at the scene.
At the scene of the crime, investigators found DNA on Zimmermann that was not hers. They took a total of 23 swabs of DNA, 10 fingerprints, nine partial footwear prints, 18 blood samples, a pair of bloody women’s slippers and computer paper with apparent blood spots.
At the beginning of the investigation, the Madison Police Department refused to release search warrants which included police statements that described the 911 call from Zimmermann’s cell phone as well as other detailed information regarding what happened the day of her murder.
The warrants had been sealed and resealed by judges at the request of police and the Dane County prosecutors in order to protect the investigation. However, on Dec. 2, 2008, the Wisconsin State Journal discovered the latest deal had expired a week prior and no request had been made to extend the seal.
While the district attorney’s office and police said the intended to seek a judge’s order to extend the seals, the motion was never filed, thus leading to their retrieval and publishing.
Media outlets sue Dane County
On May 13, 2008, several media outlets including the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel filed a lawsuit against the Dane County Public Safety Communications Center and MPD to have access regarding the 911 call.
After Zimmermann’s murder in April, media outlets filed more than 20 open records request to obtain documents with information related to the investigation and the mishandling of the 911 call, none of which were granted. On Dec. 3, 2008, following the expiration on the warrant seals, the media outlets filed a motion requesting official release the audio file of the call made from Zimmermann’s cell phone to the 911 Center.
On Dec. 11, 2008, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Richard Niess ruled to seal the audio tapes of the call made from Zimmermann’s cell phone until a private hearing, after which the tapes remained sealed. He also ruled to release four pages from the internal investigation and the release of calls made by Gonnering as well as calls made immediately after the call from Zimmermann’s phone, which caused police to investigate the wrong suspects for two weeks. On April 8, 2009, media outlets filed a motion seeking an award of reasonable fees and the actual cost they incurred in pursuing their lawsuit. They also demanded the county award attorney fees, damages of less than $100 and other costs acquired since they refused to release the audio tapes from Zimmermann’s cell phone to the 911 Center and redacted information from those calls made by Gonnering.
More than three months later on July 18, 2009, the media outlets won their lawsuit and Niess granted them the right to litigation fees while seeking the documents.
Zimmermann family files wrongful death lawsuit
Another lawsuit filed in the wake of Zimmermann’s murder was one filed by her family and Gonnering against Dane County, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and 911 dispatcher Gahagan on Jan. 13, 2009 for negligence concerning her death.
In March 2004, MTG Management Consultants sent Falk a reformation plan advising her to update the 911 Center’s outdated equipment. The Zimmermann family said in their lawsuit that Falk ignored the request and their daughter died as a result of the outdated equipment. They also said Dane County officials and Falk furthered the emotional distress by publicly denying Zimmermann called the 911 Center prior to her death, then saying nothing was heard in the phone call.
However, on June 2, 2009, the judge ruled the Zimmermann family cannot sue Falk or Dane County for the alleged mistakes of the 911 Center, but the lawsuit against the 911 Center went forward.
On Aug. 25, 2009, the Zimmermanns filed to settle their lawsuit for the amount of $49,999 per person, just under the $50,000 municipal limit on local government liability. The offer was not accepted. On Sept. 8, 2009, the lawsuit filed against Dane County was consolidated with another lawsuit filed by the family against Wisconsin Management, Inc. and its insurer General Casualty saying the locks on Zimmermann’s apartment was not up to city code. This led Zimmermann’s murderer to be able to force his way into her apartment to murder her.
The case was later dismissed saying Gonnering did not qualify for such damages as that right is only reserved for family members. On Jan. 20, 2010, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said they would not intervene in the dispute, sending the case back to the appeals court where it remains today.
Changes to 911 Center
See 911 Center
Family offers up reward
Soon after the death of their daughter, the Zimmermann family established a $5,000 reward fund on Sept. 5, 2008 to help further the investigation and as of March 2010, the fund has now reached $15,000.
The family accepted donations through the Marshfield Medical Center Credit Union, which brought in about $7,000. The other $8,000 came directly from the Zimmermann family.
The Zimmermanns have recently advertised this reward fund by renting a billboard on West Washington Ave. in memory of Brittany Zimmermann’s 24th birthday on Nov. 15, 2009. They also bought advertisements on every Metro Bus, which contains her picture and the total reward money.
Scholarship created in Brittany’s honor
The family has also created an annual scholarship in honor of Brittany Zimmermann which goes to a Marshfield High School senior—Brittany Zimmermann’s alma mater—who will attend the UW. In 2009, the award totaled $1,000 and went toward an anonymous student who intends to study medicine at UW, which was Brittany Zimmermann’s field of interest.
The next scholarship winner, who will be announced on May 26, 2010, will receive $1,500.
Investigation to this day
In March 2010, MPD said investigators are still working hard on the case, following many leads and solid forensic evidence. MPD also stressed that not any point in time has the case gone cold.
There are also people within the Madison community which MPD suspects to have more information about the case, but have not yet come forward.
MPD also has a Crime Stoppers reward fund of $1,000 and have been working closely with the family regarding their private reward fund, in hopes that a reward will help those in the Madison community come forward with information.
Overall, MPD told The Badger Herald they are confident they will find Zimmermann’s killer.