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Virginia man dies after 911 call dismissed as 'butt dial'

Michael Paulus, left, and Robert Paulus. (Photo courtesy of the family)

The 911 dispatch center in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is now under an internal investigation by its own police department after a 7 ON YOUR SIDE investigation found that a man recently died after calling the emergency number and no one responded.

"My dad was a very simple man," remembered Michael Paulus as he opened a cardboard box filled with his father's belongings.

For Paulus, this was a day he knew was coming.

"It's like a keepsake box. My grandmother's obituary is in here," said the Manassas resident.

When his father, Robert Paulus, was diagnosed with heart disease, their time ran short.

"I was lucky; I got 28 years with him."

Paulus died in late April in his Fredericksburg City apartment. Even though his family knew it was coming, the news was obviously devastating, especially after they learned what happened just hours before his passing when Paulus used his iPhone to make the last call of this life. It was to 911.

"There was one final cry for help and nobody responded," said Paulus.

To find out why nobody responded, Paulus reached out to 7 ON YOUR SIDE.

"I might have been able to see my dad one more time. I might have been able to say goodbye. And at least know he didn't die alone, either," he lamented. "That's the thing that kills me."

According to Paulus' iPhone the 911 call was made at 11:46 p.m. on April 23. AT&T confirmed the call. Now, 7 ON YOUR SIDE had to find it.

The I-Team first contacted Fredericksburg City Dispatch, which should have received it. But there was no record of it. The closest call centers in Stafford and Spotsylvania Counties didn't have it, either. We expanded our search to call centers in Prince William, Fauquier, Culpeper, Orange, Caroline, King George and Charles Counties. Nothing.

We spoke to Apple, area hospitals and local 911 experts looking for leads. Again, nothing. We were just about to call the family and apologize for failing to help. Then...

"We did find the call," said Sarah Kirkpatrick, spokeswoman for the Fredericksburg Police Department.

Fredericksburg City, the first place we contacted, found the call.

During the 18-second call, the dispatcher tried three times to make contact with Paulus. After hearing nothing except an unidentifiable sound, the call was labeled a pocket call, or butt dial, where no call back is required. Hours later, Paulus was found dead.

"I think this was an oversight," added Kirkpatrick when asked if this could be seen as a failure in the 911 system. "I think the police department is taking it very seriously by opening an internal investigation."

And that investigation could change policy. 911 protocol is not centralized. Every call center is different. Had Paulus dialed 911 in Fairfax County, for example, the dispatcher would have called back.

"If I hadn't called 7 ON YOUR SIDE, I'd still be waiting for answers and being pushed off," said Paulus. "If you're in a medical situation where you can't respond, that's not a butt dial, that's a cry for help."

Paulus will never know if a call back could have prolonged his father's life and given him a chance to say goodbye.

"I'm glad I know the truth now. But it makes me very angry that there's nothing in place to help him," concluded Paulus. "I want things to change. I want policy to change."

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