Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)
June 1, 2003
Why didn’t they put the pieces together soon?
Time and again, evidence pointed to Derrick Todd Lee. But in a series of missteps, the serial killer task force overlooked key clues that could have helped capture the suspect sooner.
Author: Steve Ritea
and Stephanie A. Stanley
In 1998 when Randi C. Mebruer became the second woman to disappear from Zachary’s Oak Shadows subdivision, there already were rumblings of a serial killer on the loose. In fact, police already had their eyes on a chief suspect: Derrick Todd Lee.
A St. Francisville cement finisher and truck driver, Lee was long known to officers as a local burglar and peeping Tom -- crimes a serial killer typically commits as dry runs to scope out potential victims and practice entering their homes, said Robert Keppel, a lead investigator in the Ted Bundy case and author of "Signature Killers," widely considered the textbook for catching serial murderers.
At the time, Lee also was a suspect in the slaying of Connie Warner, who was abducted from her Oak Shadows home in 1992 and dumped in a Baton Rouge drainage ditch.
So it only seemed natural, when police in nearby Baton Rouge connected three murders in their city to a serial killer last summer, to check Lee out. Zachary police said they were quick to tell investigators working on the serial killings what they knew about Lee. And victims groups urged them to look more closely at the slayings of Mebruer and Warner.
But the smooth-talking father of two escaped scrutiny from the team of serial killer investigators, who seemed to miss, if not ignore, all the clues that would eventually lead to his arrest Tuesday. That gave the suspect a chance to kill and kill again, critics now believe. This week, Lee was charged in the slayings of five women from the Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas, including two killed since Zachary police say they gave Lee’s name to a task force investigating the serial murders.
Lee, arrested Tuesday in Atlanta, now sits in the East Baton Rouge Parish jail while prosecutors prepare his case for a grand jury. District Attorney Doug Moreau vows to seek the death penalty, and police departments across the state, including New Orleans police, are re-examining unsolved cases for links to Lee.
But while the serial killer task force celebrates the capture of a suspect, a tough question is haunting the discussion of the case: Could the killing have been stopped earlier?
Criticism of task force grows
In the wake of Lee’s capture, a mounting chorus of victims’ families, the country’s top criminologists and seasoned investigators who have scrutinized the case on their own say the task force commissioned to catch the serial killer made a series of missteps that may have prolonged his time on the streets. Chief among those, they say, were the task force’s overreliance on DNA evidence, its release of a serial killer profile that often was vague and in at least one case inaccurate, and its lack of communication with other local police and sheriff’s offices.
A spokeswoman for the task force this week declined to comment for this report.
Task force members faced an arduous task of sorting through some 20,000 tips and a multitude of unsolved case files. But some critics say that had Lee gotten more attention, investigators could have noticed a pattern with striking similarities that may have led to his capture sooner.
"The huge flaw was they said the only cases they wanted to look at were ones with a DNA match," said Peter Scharf, a University of New Orleans criminologist who has been working with victims’ families. "But there were a lot more bodies out there than they wanted to admit."
Baton Rouge Mayor Bobby Simpson during a Wednesday news conference declared the dragnet led by his city’s police department "one of the most competent task forces that has ever been put together" and condemned criticism of it as "unfair and unwarranted."
Comments like that made Ed Piglia "sick."
"I look at that as damage control," said Piglia, a Kenner resident and the brother of Pam Kinamore, the third victim linked to Lee by DNA. "We felt these guys may have been incompetent to handle something of this magnitude."
Look in own back yard
Keppel said a serial killer can be a lot for most police departments to manage. "These cases are usually unprecedented for the law enforcement agency handling it," he said, and that makes for inexperience. Members of the FBI and State Police were on the task force, but it still fell to Baton Rouge police to run the investigation, Keppel noted.
Perhaps the greatest sin investigators can commit, he added, is not looking in their own back yard.
"If you have a task force effort, you cannot bury your head in the sand and not go 20 miles away and say, ‘Who are your suspects in some major cases?’ "
Although task force officials insist they first heard Lee’s name on Sunday when lab tests linked his DNA to the serial killings, Zachary police say they told task force investigators last summer that Lee was a suspect in the cases of Warner and Mebruer.
"There was a roundtable discussion with a number of agencies . . . in the infancy of the formation of the task force," said Zachary Police Chief Joey Watson. "Our detectives opened up our files and presented our suspects in our open cases."
Lee figured prominently in the discussion. Zachary, a city of 12,000 that averages fewer than 10 homicides in a decade, had only two unsolved cases on its books, and Lee was a suspect in both of them.
Lee also was the prime suspect in a bloody 1993 machete attack in a cemetery not far from the subdivision where Mebruer and Warner lived.
"Two high school kids on a Saturday night parked in the cemetery, and a black male walked up," Watson said. "He opened the door and started hacking on them. . . . He hacked them up pretty good. She almost had her foot cut off."
However gruesome the details, the Zachary cases had not been analyzed for DNA, leaving them outside the task force’s immediate focus. "We drew a line in the sand, because of DNA evidence, that we would only link the ones that we have DNA evidence," Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade told The Associated Press. But, he added, "it’s not that we were overlooking anything else."
Watson declined to pass judgment on the task force’s tactics, but made clear that Zachary did not have the luxury of excluding cases lacking DNA evidence. "If we get the DNA match, that’s icing on the cake. That’s not going to deter us from the day-to-day drudgery of good police work," he said. "That’s just my philosophy. But I’m from the old school."
DNA tunnel vision
Some say that if task force investigators had looked more closely at the Zachary slayings early on, they would have had Lee’s name as a suspect.
Gene Fields, a former chief of detectives with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office who now works as a private investigator and assisted Kinamore’s family, observed of the task force: "It looks like they just focused on the technology and the DNA and they were just waiting for another victim to pop up."
Comparing the Zachary cases with the Baton Rouge murders, in fact, reveals some striking similarities.
Both Mebruer and Warner were abducted from their homes, and there were no signs of forced entry.
Similarly, all four of the Baton Rouge serial murders yielded no signs of forced entry at any of the women’s homes. Two of the four victims, Kinamore and Carrie Lynn Yoder, were abducted from their homes.
Police found large amounts of blood at the home of Charlotte Murray Pace, another Baton Rouge victim. Mebruer’s home in Zachary also had been blood-soaked.
The task force says its investigators spent countless hours searching crime databases for similar cases in the Baton Rouge region, and around the country, that might have provided a clue to finding the killer.
They touted their full-time FBI crime database specialist, who spent her time combing through and cross-referencing cases in the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or ViCAP, the federal database that stores information about convicted violent criminals and unsolved violent crimes throughout the country.
But Gregory M. Cooper, who managed the FBI’s ViCAP database before co-founding the Institute for Investigative Science several years ago, said that while the system is "potentially a very effective tool, . . . as in any database, it’s only as good as the amount of information in it."
And not all police departments feed their crime data into ViCAP. "I’d be surprised if we had 10 percent of the cases in there" that should be in there, Cooper said.
Watson said he is unsure whether his department entered information about the Zachary killings into ViCAP. But even if the Warner and Mebruer cases had been logged in, ViCAP would have contained no reference to Lee in connection with them, because federal law prohibits filing the name of a mere suspect.
Keppel said some states and local communities -- Seattle and Orange County, Calif., in particular -- have developed localized databases that include suspects’ names. If Baton Rouge had such a system, "they would have had this guy’s name months ago," he said.
"This is a wake-up call for the state," said Scharf, the UNO criminologist. He’s convinced that Louisiana’s crime-solving technology needs enhancing. "If the (Washington-area) sniper case had happened here, we never would have caught him."
Profile off the mark
Last September, two months after Baton Rouge police linked three of the murders to a serial killer, the task force released key details from a six-page profile of the suspect developed by the FBI. It matched Lee in some respects -- describing a 25- to 35-year-old-man (Lee is 34) who is physically strong (as Lee is) -- but it was often vague and was woefully off-base on at least one key point.
It presumed, for example, that the killer’s "level of sophistication in interacting with women . . . is low. Any contact he has had with women he has found attractive would be described by these women as ‘awkward,’ " the FBI said.
If Lee is proved to be the killer, just the opposite was true. He is described by those who encountered him -- and lived to tell about it -- as "disarmingly charming" and "easy to get along with." These traits seem to have been the keys he used to enter his victims’ homes.
An overarching problem, experts say, was that the FBI profile was too vague and generalized. That leads to "an overabundance of useless tips," said Keppel, who helped catch Ted Bundy and has been an adviser to dozens of serial killer task forces. "You never want to let the public interpret what the information is. What is ‘awkward around women’? We don’t know what awkward means."
Although the FBI profile did not address the race of the killer, the task force announced they expected him to be white or Hispanic because, they said, statistically serial killers usually are.
As it turns out, Lee is African-American.
Serial killer stereotype
Cooper, who supervised the FBI’s profiling unit during the Oklahoma City bombing, said it’s a outdated assumption that serial killers are white or Hispanic.
"What we’re finding more and more is that serial offenders are going across racial lines," he said. "It is a generality of the past, since now we’re seeing more integration of society than ever before."
Nonetheless, the task force clung doggedly to its assumption, releasing a sketch of a Caucasian-looking man -- who bares no resemblance to Lee -- and declaring him "a person of interest."
Meanwhile, neighbors of victim Charlotte Murray Pace had been reporting that a man with very different features lingered around Pace’s townhouse the day of her murder. When police refused to prepare a composite sketch based on their descriptions of the man, the neighbors engaged a Millsaps College criminology instructor and prepared their own -- one that bears at least some resemblance to Lee.
The task force advised neighbors not to release their sketch, said the criminology instructor, Ann Williams. "They said he needed to have been seen going in or coming out of the townhouse," she recalled of a conversation with a representative of the task force. Otherwise, he said, the man they saw could not be considered "a strong lead."
Baton Rouge Police Cpl. Mary Ann Godawa, spokeswoman for the task force said last month that they would not release that sketch because: "We have no proof he had any connection to Murray Pace’s homicide. . . . We don’t know why he was in the area."
The neighbors’ composite sketch, however, resembled one that had been circulated in Breaux Bridge, less than an hour’s drive away, not long after the task force was formed in July 2002.
The Breaux Bridge sketch was worked up by local police from a description provided by a 45-year-old woman who was nearly beaten to death during an attempted rape that month. Local media publicized the sketch alongside a picture of the gold 1997 Mitsubishi the man was seen driving when he fled.
St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Detective A. Butch Dupuis said investigators also quickly learned the suspect, an engaging and good-looking man, talked his way into the home by asking to borrow a phone and a phone book.
Seeing the sketch in the media last summer, two other Breaux Bridge women came forward to report the same man had approached them in a suspicious way.
When the task force was formed a month later, St. Martin officials said, they notified the group about the Breaux Bridge suspect, his sketch, the car he was driving and his method for getting inside his victim’s home without using force.
Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office Lt. Craig Stansbury, whose department assisted in the investigation of the Breaux Bridge crimes, confirmed that task force investigators were made aware of them during discussions between the agencies by last fall. At the time, however, the task force was looking for a white man in a white truck, not a black man in a gold compact car.
Had task force investigators followed up on St. Martin Parish officials’ tip last summer, they might have been able to find Lee through a 1997 Mitsubishi registered in his name, according to motor vehicle records.
Task force officials, however, insist they first learned of the Breaux Bridge crimes on April 2 and argue that if they had known earlier they would have "jumped feet first" into a closer examination of the cases, Godawa said.
Break in the case
Ultimately, information from the Breaux Bridge incident provided a pivotal break in the case. Trace DNA evidence collected from the attempted rape seemed to tie that attack to the as-yet-unidentified suspect in the serial killings. That prompted task force officials on May 23 to release the Breaux Bridge suspect’s sketch as that of a "possible suspect" in the serial killer case.
Independent of the task force, three weeks earlier Zachary police and an investigator with the state attorney general’s office had secured a court order to take a swab of Lee’s saliva and subject it to DNA analysis. When those investigators saw that the Breaux Bridge sketch closely resembled Lee, they immediately called the crime lab, where the sample still was awaiting analysis, and urged technicians to speed up the process. Late last Sunday night, tests revealed that Lee’s DNA matched the DNA collected from the serial murders.
Ironically, the attorney general’s investigators who cracked the case were not part of the task force; they weren’t even investigating the five murders linked by DNA to the serial killer. Instead, along with the two Zachary cases, they had been trying to solve the Christmas Eve abduction and disappearance of Mari Ann Fowler, wife of former state Elections Commissioner Jerry Fowler, and the fatal stabbing in January 2002 of Louisiana State University graduate student Gerilyn DeSoto.
In the court order seeking the sample of Lee’s DNA that was taken in early May, attorney general’s investigator Danny Mixon called Lee a "viable suspect" in the Zachary killings and a "possible suspect" in the serial killings in Baton Rouge and the Lafayette area.
Connecting the dots
In a detailed account of Lee’s criminal record, Mixon listed the suspect’s convictions, his sentencings and the dates he was behind bars.
"Investigators have discerned . . . that Lee was not incarcerated during the dates of the homicides" of Warner, Mebruer, Gina Wilson Green, Pace, Kinamore, Treneisha Dene Colomb or Yoder, Mixon wrote in the document. He went on to say the DNA sample he sought would be compared to the DNA collected at the serial murders.
It’s unclear when attorney general investigators had the information presented in the court documents, but the office said this week that a file on Lee as a possible serial killer suspect was passed on to the task force in late March or early April.
Regardless of who knew what when -- criticism that has been mounting this week -- victims’ families, law enforcement types and the public as a whole are relieved a suspect is behind bars.
Even the task force’s most vocal critics acknowledge that investigators worked long hours hunting down the killer. Serial murders are also among the toughest crimes to solve, experts say.
"It’s easy to sit back after the game and say you should have thrown it to the open man instead of the man who was well covered," Watson said. "But nobody knew it was him until Sunday."
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