?Published: Jan. 21, 2016; 6:59 p.m.
Derrick Todd Lee — sentenced to death in a five-year killing spree that claimed the lives of seven women and terrified an entire region during the hunt for the killer — died quietly Thursday at a hospital instead of inside Louisiana’s execution chamber.
While the news left some victims’ relatives feeling they have been denied justice by a glacial legal system, others said that while Lee’s death does little to ease their pain, they are relieved the case is over.
Lee died shortly before 9 a.m. Thursday of undisclosed causes at a hospital, where he’d been taken from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Saturday, said Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. An autopsy will be performed by the West Feliciana Parish Coroner’s Office.
The 47-year-old murderer’s death brings to a close a painful period in Baton Rouge. Although authorities now believe Lee killed women between 1998 and 2003, anxiety about a serial killer in the city and surrounding area built after evidence began to connect the killings in 2002. Lee was arrested in Atlanta in May 2003, shortly after police matched a genetic sample from the killer to evidence from several murder scenes.
In October 2004, Lee was sentenced to death in the slaying of 22-year-old Charlotte Murray Pace in her Baton Rouge home. Just a couple of months earlier, he received a life sentence in the murder of Geralyn DeSoto, 21, of Addis. But authorities say DNA evidence connects Lee to five other deaths, much of which was presented in court testimony.
Throughout his trials, Lee maintained his innocence. A sister contacted on Thursday declined to comment about his death.
After the trials came the long appeals process. Lee last fall finished his unsuccessful state appeals but would then move on to seeking relief from the federal courts. Over the years, Lee had not only sought a new trial but also to bar the state from executing him by saying he was mentally disabled.
Ann Pace, the mother of Charlotte Murray Pace, said Lee’s death robbed her of the justice she sought.
“The sentencing had a true feel of finality. We simply did not understand that the jury’s decision, the close of the trial, none of that would matter in the convoluted system that passes for justice,” Ann Pace wrote in an email. “The capital offender has what seemed to be limitless appeals. Appeals so frustrating, so lengthy, that some of us died before we could get to the end of it all — including, now, the killer himself.”
Ann Pace’s frustration with the lengthy appeals process was echoed by Lynda Yoder, whose daughter, Carrie Lynn Yoder, was abducted in March 2003. Carrie Lynn, a Tampa, Florida, native working on a doctorate at LSU, was found dead 10 days later near Whiskey Bay.
But while Lynda Yoder described the appeals process as difficult, she was pleased to see it end. “It’s over, and we couldn’t be happier,” she said.
Michael Mebruer, the ex-husband of suspected Lee victim Randi Mebruer, said any hope of finding her body disappeared with Lee’s death.
“We always felt there was that 1 percent chance that he might say where he put her. This morning, that died,” he said. “To have no hope at all is incomprehensible, really.”
The first murder?
Randi Mebruer, a nurse and manager at a home health company, was a 28-year-old mother of a young son when she was abducted on April 19, 1998, from her home in the Oak Shadows Subdivision in Zachary. A neighbor called police after finding Mebruer’s 3-year-old son wandering in the street. Police found signs of a bloody struggle inside the home but never located her body.
In 2004, months after Lee was arrested, Zachary police announced that semen found at the scene matched Lee’s DNA and booked him on first-degree murder in Mebruer’s slaying.
Although Mebruer’s 1998 slaying is the earliest known killing to be directly linked by DNA to the serial killer, Zachary Police Chief David McDavid believes Lee killed at least one other woman: Connie Warner, abducted from the same subdivision in 1992. Her body wasn’t found until seven days later, after Hurricane Andrew swept through the area.
Surveying the bloody scene at Mebruer’s home, McDavid said Thursday he told the other officers there, “You know this has got to be Derrick Todd Lee.”
Zachary police had long focused on Lee as a peeping Tom, noting him as someone who prowled around three cemeteries near the Oak Shadows Subdivision, McDavid said.
After Gina Wilson Green was found strangled to death in Baton Rouge in 2001, McDavid and other Zachary officers met with Baton Rouge police to swap case information.
“We gave them our case and told them then that Derrick Todd Lee was our man,” McDavid said. “They discussed Green’s case.”
Tracking down a serial killer
It would take law enforcement years, though, to link the slayings of young women in the Baton Rouge area and begin closing in on Lee as a suspect.
Months following Green’s death in fall 2001, law enforcement in West Baton Rouge Parish would find DeSoto stabbed to death in her home in Addis, hours after registering for graduate school at LSU.
On May 31, 2002, Charlotte Murray Pace was found in her Sharlo Avenue home, where she’d moved two days before her death. The 22-year-old recent MBA graduate was stabbed 81 times with a knife and screwdriver, her throat was slashed, and a clothing iron was used to bludgeon her head, fracture her skull and crush her eyeballs.
Diane Alexander, a Breaux Bridge woman attacked by Lee in her home on July 9, was severely beaten but survived. Alexander would later testify against Lee at both trials, helping ensure his conviction.
Three days later, Pam Kinamore, a 44-year-old interior decorator who ran an antique store in Denham Springs, was abducted from her Baton Rouge home. Lee is accused of slashing her throat and dumping her body near Whiskey Bay.
Then, on July 29, 2002, authorities announced a breakthrough: DNA tests by the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab linked Kinamore’s killing to the slayings of Green and Pace.
That revelation touched off a frenzy of fear and anxiety in the Baton Rouge area as authorities focused the hunt on a serial killer.
A multiagency homicide task force investigating the killings spent eight months concentrating largely on white males, a move officials later said was prompted by witness statements, including one recounted under hypnosis after Kinamore’s abduction.
The task force held daily briefings on the progress of the investigation, although there was often little new to report. Investigators took saliva swabs from more than 1,000 men in the Baton Rouge area, most of them white, in an effort to match their DNA with the killer.
“Those are the tips that were coming in,” then-Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade said after Lee was identified. “We were on white males at that point, because people were calling in white suspects.
In the meantime, authorities say Lee kept killing.
On Nov. 21, U.S. Marines prospect Trineisha Dené Colomb disappeared near Grand Coteau, north of Lafayette. Colomb, who died from head injuries caused by blows to her forehead that fractured her skull and injured her brain, was found three days later in Scott.
Then, on March 3, Lee is accused of attacking Yoder in her home south of LSU in Baton Rouge and dumping her body in a secluded area near Whiskey Bay, where it was discovered 10 days later. Evidence from both murders linked them to the still-unidentified serial killer.
A break in the case
The big break in the case came when an investigator with the Attorney General’s Office, working with Zachary police detectives, identified Lee as a suspect in the Mebruer and Warner killings, which, at the time, had not been linked to the other cases. On May 5, 2003, after obtaining a court order, investigator Dannie Mixon swabbed Lee’s cheeks as he stood in the driveway of his home. When the State Police Crime Lab tested the swabs on May 25, the DNA results matched Lee to the genetic profile of the serial killer.
Two days later, he was arrested in Atlanta and quickly returned to Baton Rouge to face charges.
Even without the Zachary break, the task force likely could have closed in on its suspect. A DNA analysis by a Florida lab revealed several rare markers in evidence collected in the Green and Pace murders that indicated the suspect might be black, according to a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling. And on May 23, four tipsters contacted the task force about Lee after a sketch based on Alexander’s description of her attacker was released to the media.
Lee, a married father of two from St. Francisville, had worked off and on in construction and as a truck driver. He had a history of run-ins with the law. He spent two years in prison, from 1993 to 1995, after a startled resident came back to his home in the Fenwood Hills neighborhood in Zachary to find Lee in the bedroom. In 2000, he again spent time in prison for aggravated battery after kicking and stomping a girlfriend in a West Feliciana Parish bar.
Yet, those who knew him described him after his arrest as well-dressed and an incessant flirter who was gregarious and friendly. He wore cowboy boots and drove flashy pickup trucks. In newspaper profiles following his capture in 2003, he’s regularly described by those who met him as charming.
But the two murder trials, held in rapid succession in 2004, would be tough. Prosecutors hammered away at Lee with graphic and blunt descriptions of his crimes, saying he not only raped victims but killed them in brutal fashion. Tearful testimony from friends and relatives of the victims was offset with Alexander’s chilling account of being attacked by Lee in her home.
DNA evidence, linking Lee’s blood and semen to five of the victims, was introduced in Pace’s trial.
John Sinquefield, who as an East Baton Rouge Parish assistant district attorney helped prosecute Lee, said he hoped the murderer’s death Thursday morning might bring “some closure and some relief to the family” of his victims.
“I’ve been prosecuting for over 40 years in the state of Louisiana, and some of the most horrible things I’ve ever viewed … were committed by Derrick Todd Lee,” Sinquefield said.
Lee’s conviction, though, was just the beginning of an extensive appeals process that ended only with his death Thursday morning.
This past September, the Louisiana Supreme Court denied Lee’s request for a new trial, ending his final appeal in state court.
“We were still facing years in federal courts to see that the East Baton Rouge Parish jury’s death sentence was upheld and we’d be allowed to carry out the death sentence,” said Sinquefield, now senior counsel to Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Melanie Barr, the mother of DeSoto, said she found no joy in Lee’s death. Now, she said, “he goes to meet the Lord and the Lord will pass the true sentence against him.”
“His sentence here on Earth is nothing compared to what he’ll suffer when he goes before God if he hasn’t made his peace,” Barr said.
Advocate staff writers Maya Lau, Danielle Maddox Kinchen and Sandy Davis contributed to this report.