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Before call, she was just Nancy

She was a high school dropout trying to get her life together. Then, her boyfriend called 911.

By CAMILLE C. SPENCER
Published April 29, 2007


Nancy McGhee went her whole life without making headlines.

She was a high school dropout. She had four children. Her rocky courtships with two live-in boyfriends are detailed in Sheriff's Office reports.

She never attended college or found a career path. She was happy when she recently landed an $11-an-hour job at Publix deli.

On March 24, she choked to death on a piece of steak in the Land O'Lakes mobile home she shared with her boyfriend. She was 37.

In a few days, her death became the stuff of front-page news and television talk shows.

People heard about her boyfriend's frantic pleas to 911 for help. They heard about the dispatcher who wasn't trained to provide Heimlich instructions, about the two supervisors who had the training but didn't want to get on the line.

Both supervisors resigned. Now Pasco officials are considering requiring all 911 dispatchers to have emergency medical training before they answer a call. And Nancy's brother, Richard McGhee, plans to push for a law that would set statewide standards for 911 dispatchers.

The fallout from Nancy's death "amazes me in a way, " Richard said. "I felt like after the obituary and all that, it would pretty much be over with. I would have never dreamed of my mother talking about it on Good Morning America."

* * *

Nancy Jane McGhee was born Oct. 7, 1969 in Hamilton, Ohio. Her mother, Martha, was a local bar manager. Her father, Memphis, worked for Ford Motor Co. Her brother, Richard, was one year older.

When Nancy was young, her parents bought a bar called The Collinsville Inn. It became a popular haunt.

Nancy lived in a three-bedroom house with a fireplace and bar. Her family took summer trips to the Grand Canyon.

Nancy's mother spoiled her. She bought her fancy dresses and brand-name jeans from Bongo and Chic. Sometimes Nancy outgrew the clothes faster than her mother bought them.

"She had (new) clothes she didn't take the tags off of, " Martha said.

Nancy's father liked to drink.

One day Nancy and her mother went shopping. Her father stayed home. He got drunk on moonshine and passed out. He died six days later of alcohol poisoning.

Nancy wasn't the emotional type. She didn't tell anyone how her father's death affected her.

* * *

Nancy's mother quickly remarried and divorced. In search of a change of scenery, the family moved closer to friends in Lake Placid in Highlands County.

Nancy was 14 when she met a 20-year-old named David Cresong. They began dating.

She dropped out of school in the 10th grade.

"She was good in school, but she didn't like it, " her mother said. "I tried to get her to go, but she wouldn't ... she was always her own person. Nobody could tell her what to do."

Nancy didn't have plans for the future. She never mentioned college. So she traded school books for a string of odd jobs.

She worked at KFC. She worked in the laundry room at a retirement home. She was a home nurse. A cashier.

Nancy had brown hair and brown eyes. She was 5-feet-3. She spoke her mind.

Nancy was 21 when she got caught shoplifting at a Kmart in Sebring. She once drove drunk with her headlights off and tried to flee from a deputy.

She moved out of her mother's home and into Cresong's place in Lake Placid. Nancy dated him for 20 years. He was a carpenter.

They went to heavy metal concerts to see Ronnie James Dio and AC/DC. They liked to drink.

Nancy sometimes went on binges. She would drink from sunrise to sunset. Once, a neighbor said, she drank heavily for three weeks straight.

Nancy and David moved to Land O'Lakes in 2002. They had three kids then. A fourth came a year later. They all lived in a mobile home with a wooden porch on Joseph Lane.

She got in a fight with David the summer of 2002. Nancy pointed a wooden-handled 12-inch knife at David, according to a neighbor. Nancy was charged with domestic battery.

The relationship went sour. At one point, Nancy left. She and the kids lived in a tent in a friend's front yard.

Three of her kids ended up in state custody. Her oldest child, a 16-year-old girl, lives with relatives.

Her 6-year-old son was spotted playing in a Dumpster near her house last May. A neighbor told Nancy. She said, "Don't bother me, " and continued drinking a beer.

Another time, her 4-year-old had lice. A neighbor told Nancy. She replied, "So?"

* * *

She was working as a grocery store clerk when she met a truck driver named Chris Cooper. They began dating. He was 43. She was 34.

Two years later, Nancy moved into Chris' tiny beige-and-white mobile home off a curvy road in Land O'Lakes.

Nancy landed the job at Publix. She was excited about the pay raise. She knew financial stability put her one step closer to getting her kids back.

She worked around her landlord's house for extra money. She washed china and painted the living room green and beige.

Nancy started going to Living Word Fellowship Church with her landlord, Alice Anton, about six months ago.

"We didn't talk about her personal life, but she was talkative and funny. A nice person, in my eyes, " Anton said.

Nancy's life with Chris rolled along. Until trouble brewed last fall.

Nancy was moving out. She returned for a few pairs of shoes. She and Chris got into a fight.

An unidentified witness said Chris got angry and grabbed Nancy by the neck and threw her off the porch.

She tumbled down three steps toward the grassy front yard. Chris was charged with domestic battery.

* * *

But they patched things up and Nancy moved back in. On the evening of March 24, Nancy and Chris started drinking bottles of Budweiser.

About 9 p.m., Chris took a shower while Nancy made steaks for dinner. When he came out of the bathroom, Nancy was gasping for air. She was choking on a piece of steak.

He tried to pry the food out of her throat. He lifted her up and tried the Heimlich maneuver. He tried to get help from 911, but the dispatcher wasn't trained to give medical instructions, and her supervisor didn't get onto the line until seven minutes after Chris called.

By the time paramedics arrived, Nancy was dead.

Chris later told deputies Nancy had 12 beers that evening. The medical examiner found her blood-alcohol level was 0.321, four times the level at which Florida law presumes a person is impaired.

* * *

Nancy's funeral was held March 30 in Lake Placid. She was buried at Oakhill Cemetery in a simple ceremony.

Left to grieve her absence are four children, a brother, a mother and a boyfriend.

But the attention generated by Nancy's death could cause changes to the 911 call system, improving life for everyone.

"It's kind of funny that this is what it takes, for her life to end, to do something good, " Richard said.

 

About this story

Editor's note

This story is based on reports from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, the Highland County Sheriff's Office, the Sebring Police Department and Pasco County government, as well as interviews with Nancy McGhee's brother, Richard McGhee; mother Martha Callahan; boyfriend Chris Cooper; friends Olivia Cresong and Tammy Boyd; and landlord Alice Anton.