In the end, all West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Mike Cazes was seeking from Baton Rouge serial killer Derrick Todd Lee was the location of Mari Ann Fowler’s body.
But that wish was dashed Thursday morning when Lee died from natural causes at an area hospital.
For years, Cazes’ investigators had Lee as their prime suspect in Fowler’s disappearance and apparent abduction from a Port Allen-area shopping mall on La. 415 around 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve 2002. But they never felt they had enough evidence to bring a case to prosecution.
Cazes and his investigators said Friday they had collected some tantalizing bits of evidence pointing to Lee but, in retrospect, nothing definitive that could prove a case in court:
— the fact that Gross Tete and St. Gabriel cell towers hit on Lee’s cell phone in the general location of Fowler’s disappearance the night she was abducted;
— a fake nail found at the scene of the abduction that turned up no DNA;
— the pickup truck Lee once owned that seemed, possibly, to match one visible in surveillance video from the night of Fowler’s abduction, though the truck also had no DNA from Lee; or
— the fact that Lee sold a maroon Chevrolet pickup just days after sheriff’s investigators disclosed in the media that they were looking for that kind of pickup in Fowler’s case.
“We had a circumstantial case, at best,” Bryan Doucet, sheriff’s chief of detectives, said Friday.
Fowler, 65, was the wife of now deceased Elections Commissioner Jerry Fowler. Her apparent abduction came during the height of fear over the then-unknown serial killer at work in string of brutal murders of women in the Baton Rouge area. A special joint task force had already been formed and, one day before Fowler disappeared, authorities announced four slayings had been tied to the same DNA profile.
A former career education advocate and a former state secretary of education, Fowler was on her way to visit her husband at a Beaumont, Texas, federal prison for the holidays the night she disappeared. Jerry Fowler, who died in 2009, had been serving a five-year prison sentence in a bribery and kickback scheme involving voting machines.
Sheriff’s deputies searched for Mari Ann Fowler for 12 days after she disappeared, covering 500 miles. A court declared her legally dead in May 2004.
Lee was arrested a year earlier in Atlanta after he had been linked through DNA analysis to several slayings, though not Fowler’s.
Well after Lee was convicted in two of those murders and received the death penalty in one of them — the 2002 slaying of Charlotte Murray Pace, 22, in Baton Rouge — Cazes said he would visit Lee as he waited on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a sentence that would never be executed.
But even when Cazes said he promised not to prosecute Lee for Fowler’s murder if Lee would just say where her body was so the sheriff could bring some the closure for Fowler’s grandchildren, Lee not only would not relent but would also go into a tantrum.
“He would just go nuts,” Cazes said. “He just he would like snap when I asked him that.”
Lee, 47, of St. Francisville, was taken from Angola on Jan. 16 for an undisclosed medical condition.
State corrections officials have not released details about Lee’s health problems, citing federal medical privacy laws.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office conducted Lee’s autopsy Friday morning on behalf of the West Feliciana Parish Coroner’s Office.
“At this point in our investigation, with the collected evidence, it is our belief that Mr. Lee passed from natural causes,” West Feliciana Coroner Dr. Chaillie Daniel said in a statement Friday afternoon.
“We will continue to await final reports regarding post mortem examination.”
Elizabeth Bourgeois, office manager for Daniel’s medical practice, said the coroner told her it would likely take two to three weeks to get final pathology reports.
While John Pritchett, the son of Mari Ann Fowler, has few kind words for former Baton Rouge Police Chief Pat Englade over his early role in the serial killer investigation, Pritchett said he believes Cazes and West Baton Rouge sheriff’s investigators did the best they could in his mother’s abduction.
But anger with Derrick Todd Lee burns fiercely in Pritchett over what he believes Lee did to his mother, him and his family.
Thoughts of the suffering his mom may have endured at Lee’s hands, memories of Pritchett’s last irritated call with his mom on Christmas Eve because she was going to visit his stepfather, Jerry Fowler, and not visiting friends with him, and the constant reminder that Pritchett has no grave to visit his mother in death, all haunt the 56-year-old to this day.
He said he harbors thoughts of wishing he had killed Lee himself and welcomed his death Thursday.
“I could care less about him or his family or anybody else. I have no sympathy, nothing for him or his family,” said Pritchett, who works as a plant operator and lives in Brusly.
Pritchett said a friend said he was going to pray for him so Pritchett could find forgiveness for Lee and the burden in his heart could leave him.
“I just don’t see it happening,” Pritchett said. “Maybe I’m wrong for that. I got so much hate. I just don’t see it happening.”
West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Capt. Kevin Cyrus said the surveillance video that captured the apparent abduction was shot from inside a liquor and tobacco store two strip mall store locations away from the Subway restaurant Fowler had visited moments before she disappeared.
Fowler’s Mazda and what investigators think was Lee’s pickup can be seen parked outside through the liquor store’s windows.
Though enhanced by the FBI, the VHS videotape shows, Cyrus said, some kind struggle of two people between the pickup and the Mazda after Fowler leaves the Subway. But Cyrus said it is hard to say if the figure is definitively Lee or if the pickup in the video is his.
At the scene, Cyrus said, detectives found Fowler’s car and her purse and items from it, including the fake nail, thrown about in an open parking space where the surveillance appeared to show a struggle.
After Lee’s arrest, detectives tracked Lee’s former Chevy pickup to the current owner and searched it for DNA but found nothing, Cyrus said.
Cazes said the owner worked in construction, and mortar and sand in the truck hindered any chance for DNA.
“We’d like to say we did bring justice for her. We did everything we could trying to get it,” Cazes said.
Cyrus and Doucet explained that sheriff’s investigators also made a calculation through the years. With Lee already convicted and facing the death penalty, it did not make sense to bring a prosecution that could fail when they had what appeared to be time on their side. They held out, they said, that one day they might find a key link or even Fowler’s body to tie Lee to her death.
Cyrus added that even with Lee’s death, he has no regrets over that strategy because he would have wanted Lee convicted on Fowler’s death and not on Lee’s reputation from prior convictions.
Cyrus and Doucet said the case against Lee is not closed.
Land clearing for a new subdivision, high water in the swamp or hunters in the woods might one day find that conclusive link, Cyrus said.
”Until a body is found, no, it’s still considered to me, in my professional opinion, an open case,” he said.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.