‘This was personal’: Former MPD chief reflects on Zimmermann investigation following killer’s sentencing

MADISON, Wis. — Despite nearly 15 years of investigation, the Madison Police Department says the Brittney Zimmermann homicide “was never a cold case” — and that rang even more true for Noble Wray, who looked back on the murder that happened four years into his time as police chief.

“This was personal, to not only the community, to the family, but also the Madison Police Department,” Wray said.

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He said when he heard David Kahl was sentenced to life without the chance for parole, “my thought was, you know, for, for the family that was that was, first and foremost, the Zimmermann family have been really unbelievably supportive and helpful, and us being able to solve this, it was a very stressful and painful time for them.”

Wray was Madison’s police chief from 2004 to 2013, but from 2008 on the Zimmermann case hung like a shadow, unsolved — especially when he’d sit down with her parents

“And they are looking at you across the table, and they are experiencing extreme hurt, extreme loss, what you want to do is to do something to help resolve some of that you can’t resolve all of it, because they lost, they lost a child. And there’s, there’s nothing that can replace them,” he said.

At the time it happened, he said his investigators were stretched thin working on three unsolved homicides.

“Some of them were literally exhausted at times, and were in tears in my office,” Wray recalled.

But they never gave up – despite public mistrust and a complex case.

“It was also very difficult, because we had a recording of her voice and the struggle, and the community could hear that. And at one point in time that was played over and over again,” Wray said, “that created a sense of anxiety.”

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Zimmermann called 911 when someone followed her into her apartment, but the dispatcher said they didn’t hear any struggle and hung up.

“It was a difficult time, mistakes were made,” Wray admitted. “Make no mistake, I don’t hold back. I’m very transparent about that.”

“I think at the time, no one thought for a moment that this was something intentional by a call-taker, but having that you know, on your conscience, that this is what happened,” he said.

And they worked hard to make sure nothing like that happened again.

“In 2018, they were able to acquire technology where they would be able to record or check back and see if the person that was calling in had hung up,” Wray said.

“I recall discussions about adding additional staff, I recall discussions about, you know, everything from … their headsets to, you know, removing distractions in the communication center,” he added.

Wray said the case changed how the department searches for and handles DNA going forward. “there’s a whole host of things that grew out of this.”

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According to Daniel Nale, now a captain of investigative services with MPD, the Zimmermann case “had us reimagine the detective bureau as a whole.”

“So, we ended up going to more of a specialized unit approach to homicides for example, and the creation of the violent crime unit,” he said.

But Wray says what was most pivotal was the family’s support and determination.

“This stayed in, and for lack of a better term, in the DNA of the department to make sure that this was resolved,” he said, “but the Zimmermanns never allowed for us to forget, and that was important.”