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

An emergency call center worker in Pennsylvania misuses government database before murdering his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
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"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..."