Calming down a murderer

On Feb. 14, Michael Joseph Anderson called 9-1-1 to say he had brutally killed a man.

Anderson said he overdosed on pills and shot his roommate, Stephen Starr, three times before mutilating his body with an axe.

“I did some things to the body that you don’t want them to see,” he said during the phone call.

Tammy Saunders, a Catawba County 9-1-1 telecommunicator, was on the other end of the call throughout Anderson's disturbing confession.

Saunders' handling of the homicidal call has earned her recognition as the state's top telecommunicator. She was recently selected as the 2011 Telecommunicator of the Year by the North Carolina Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

Saunders coached Anderson into putting down a gun he was still holding.

She then talked the man into going to another room to wait for officers to arrive.

Minutes later, officers arrived and successfully arrested Anderson without incident. He was later charged with first-degree murder and is awaiting trial at the Catawba County Detention Center.

Saunders said the call was unique, but one her training prepared her for.

“I have taken many suicide calls, along with shootings and stabbings that have unfortunately turned into homicides but have never taken a call with this extent and detail of the crime,” Saunders said. “We’re trained to handle any type of emergency call that could possibly come into the communications center, and each call is truly different, with many levels of difficulty and challenges.”

During the call, Anderson revealed details about the murder and his relationship with the victim that forced Saunders to consider different aspects of the case.

Anderson said he had overdosed on Mucinex DM and revealed gruesome details of how he killed Starr. He described his relationship with the victim and referred to their complex domestic situation.

But throughout the call, Saunders stayed focus and tried to keep Anderson calm. First directing him to put down a gun he said he was holding, then instructing him to sit in a chair near the front door of the Ruth Drive home, where Anderson apparently lived with Starr.

“OK, I need you to stay on the phone with me until they get there. OK?” Saunders said during the 9-1-1 call. “We're going to get you some help. All right? I promise.”

In his letter nominating Saunders for the NENA award, Catawba County 9-1-1 Administrator Jerry Boggs said Saunders helped protect the lives of officers responding to the scene.

“She did a remarkable job, and the outcome was that the subject waited for instructions when officers arrived, then came out of the home with his hands up and surrendered. No one else was hurt,” Boggs said. “With her years of experience, Tammy played a role of telecommunicator, social worker, and mental health worker and stayed with this call until the subject surrendered and officers were OK.”

Saunders, a Conover native, began 9-1-1 dispatch work after graduating from St. Stephens High School in 1984. She worked in Hickory Police Department’s Communications Center for three years before working as a supervisor with Iredell County Emergency Services.

She returned to Catawba County in 1989 and is now Third Shift Supervisor for Catawba County Communications.