POSTED: Thursday, January 23, 2014 - 1:33pm
UPDATED: Thursday, January 23, 2014 - 1:44pm
AUSTIN, Texas — A gruesome murder in a Texas hotel room and a 9-year-old’s futile effort to call 911 has sparked a national petition — and prompted federal officials to seek a legislative remedy.
On Dec. 1, Kari Rene Hunt arrived at a Marshall hotel with her three young children for a visitation with her estranged husband, Brad Dunn. The meeting took a violent turn: Authorities say Dunn attacked Hunt in the bathroom of his hotel room, stabbing her multiple times before fleeing the scene. He has been charged with murder.
During the fray, the couple’s 9-year-old daughter did what she had been taught to do: dial 911. But her four calls for help never went through because the hotel’s phone system required callers to dial 9 to reach an outside line.
A guest in a nearby room eventually called for help, but it came too late. By the time authorities made it to the Baymont Inn and Suites, Hunt was unresponsive. She was later pronounced dead.
Hank Hunt, Keri Hunt’s father, was heartbroken, both over the loss of his daughter and the trauma his grandchildren had experienced. “A few days after the funeral,” Hank Hunt recalled, “I told my granddaughter, ‘You know you’re a hero for dialing 911, right?’ And she said, ‘I tried, Papa, but it didn’t work.’ I’m mad at myself as an adult for not making sure these children that we teach to dial 911 can do it when they need help.”
In the weeks after the murder, Hank Hunt started a campaign on Change.org, an online petition platform, to enact “Kari’s Law,” a requirement that all hotel and motel chains across the country ensure their phones may direct-dial 911 without a prefix. In the last month, more than 420,000 people have signed the petition. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, and at least one member of the Federal Communications Commission have said they’re seeking a nationwide solution. And Gov. Rick Perry's office said Wednesday night that it could be a matter for the state Legislature.
Today, whether or not there’s a prefix on a hotel phone depends on the programming of the hotel’s switchboard, technology that can be dated and difficult to reprogram or modify.
Justin Bragiel, general counsel for the Texas Hotel and Lodging Association, said that in cases where reprogramming the switchboard isn’t an option, “research so far has shown that the only way to get around that is to actually replace the motherboard, which varies in cost. It could be $10,000 or less, depending on the size of the property.”
Bragiel said the THLA has begun working with its member hotels in an effort to educate them on short-term fixes, like making sure directions for contacting authorities are clearly displayed on the phone. Earlier this month, the American Hotel and Lodging Association announced it was creating a task force to develop recommendations for steps its member hotels could take.
While any industry recommendations would be voluntary, action by the FCC or by Congress would be mandatory.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has expressed support for creating a uniform industry standard; he sent letters to 10 of the largest hotel chains in the country on Jan. 13 surveying them on how their guests reach emergency services and whether they’re considering making changes. He asked for a response by Feb. 14 so the FCC can discuss how it wants to proceed.
Hank Hunt’s Change.org petition called on Gohmert, who represents the congressional district where the murder occurred, to draft the legislation. In a Dec. 28 phone interview with the Marshall News Messenger, Gohmert said he would begin researching ways to implement the measure.
“I’ve talked to other congressmen interested in helping get something done. We’ve been looking at the law and talking to carriers,” Gohmert told the newspaper. He added that he would look into solutions that would effectively solve the problem “without overburdening businesses.”
Gohmert’s office did not respond to a Texas Tribune reporter’s request for further details.
Hank Hunt said he feels humbled by this near-immediate mobilization. He was hoping for 100 signatures, he said, and is shocked that his campaign has already amassed more than 400,000.
“I’m not doing this for my daughter,” he said. “I’m doing it on behalf of her, and on behalf of my granddaughter and all the other 9-year-olds out there who need help. That’s all we’re looking for.”