Zachary Police Chief David McDavid on Thursday recalled his department’s long history with Derrick Todd Lee before he was identified as a serial killer suspect.
Eventually, they did link Lee to the death of Randi Mebruer, whose body has never been found. She disappeared from her Zachary home in April 1998, leaving behind a sleeping toddler, and a bloody trail through her house that ended with a pink garbage bag just outside the door — a garbage bag they later determined contained semen linked to Lee’s genetic profile.
“I was hoping before either he was executed by lethal injection or before his death he would give some closure to her family and say, ‘Yeah, I killed her’ and tell us where her body is.”
By the time McDavid arrived at Mebruer’s house that day in 1998, Zachary police, including McDavid, had a six-year history with Lee that began with the murder of Connie Warner in 1992, McDavid said.
Warner lived in the same subdivision as Mebruer, the Oak Shadow subdivision. She disappeared between Aug. 23 and Aug. 24, 1992. Hurricane Andrew swept through the area on Aug. 26 and her body was found seven days later near the state Capitol.
“All evidence washed away,” McDavid said. “We believe in our hearts that he killed Connie, but we can’t prove it.”
Over the next six years, Zachary police officers’ and Lee’s paths would cross, again and again. McDavid said Lee would park his car on one side of three cemeteries — Buhler Plains, Azalea Rest, and a public cemetery which are all next to each other on Old Scenic Highway — and cut through them to get to the Oak Shadow subdivision and nearby area.
In 1992, a father of two daughters, who were not at home at the time, walked into his house on East Eagle Drive, across from Oak Shadows subdivision, and found Lee inside. The man asked Lee what he was doing. Lee was arrested, but it’s unclear what happened to the case, McDavid said.
In 1993, Michele Chapman, 15 at the time, and another teenager were parked in the cemetery when they were attacked and “cut up pretty bad” by a man wielding a “bush blade,” McDavid said. The attacker ran away when a police officer pulled up behind the teens, who both survived the attack.
After Mebruer’s murder, McDavid showed Chapman a photo lineup that included Lee.
“She picked him right out,” he said. “But it was too late. The statute of limitations had run on that, so I couldn’t arrest him
In February 1997, a Zachary officer saw Lee walking near the Oak Shadow subdivision. The officer asked him what he was doing and Lee said he was looking for someone. He told the officer his vehicle had broken down. The officer told Lee he would give him a ride back to his vehicle. He found Lee’s vehicle parked near a bar, across from the cemeteries.
Five months later, Zachary Police received a complaint from a teacher about a peeping Tom at her house. The officer, who had found Lee in February, heard the call about the peeping Tom. He told the other officers he would show them where Lee’s vehicle had been parked. When the officers arrived at the spot, they found Lee walking out of the cemetery, McDavid said, and arrested him.
“We caught him coming right out of that cemetery,” McDavid said.
Mebruer disappeared on April 18, 1998, after her 3-year-old son wandered over to a neighbor’s house to see if anyone would play with him. The mother of the children said she would check with his mother, McDavid said, but when she opened the door to her neighbor’s house, all she saw was blood.
McDavid said he was at a softball game when he received a call that Mebruer was missing. He drove an hour to get back to Zachary to investigate.
What he found was blood: from the bedroom, where a struggle took place, through the dining room and living room, he saw blood. There were drag marks where Lee had dragged her through the house.
“We found her contact lenses in bloody pools in the dining room,” he said,
Surveying the scene, McDavid told the other officers there, “You know this has got to be Derrick Todd Lee.”
As they searched the house for evidence, they found a pink garbage bag.
“That pink garbage bag had his semen, his DNA on it. He must have used it to drag her through the house,” McDavid said, but Lee’s DNA would not be identified until he was arrested in Atlanta in 2003.
“At that time, we didn’t know anything about DNA,” McDavid said.
Officers in 1998 went to Lee’s house to talk to him, McDavid said, and he told them they could search his home.
“I went to his closet and started to search. His side of the closet was neat, his wife’s side was different,” McDavid said.
Lee’s wife didn’t say much during the search, McDavid said.
“It was pretty common knowledge at the time that Lee had girlfriends,” he said. “We weren’t surprised that she didn’t have much to say. There was even talk that he had a baby with another woman.”
As McDavid searched through the closet, looking for evidence, he said, “the hair suddenly stood up on the back of my neck. Lee was standing right behind me. It bothered me that he was that close. I pushed him away.”
After that, Lee reneged and ordered the officers to leave, McDavid said.
“It didn’t matter,” McDavid said. “He was playing with us. He knew we didn’t have the body.”
McDavid said during the search he was looking for car keys. He believes that Lee took a souvenir, car keys, from each of his victims, at least the Zachary victims. The killer had taken Warner’s car and Mebruer’s keys were missing.
“And it was a stormy night when those kids were cut up in that cemetery,” McDavid said. “But he reached in their car before he left and took their car keys.”
McDavid said because of the pressure officers put on Lee, he moved out of Zachary, expanding into Baton Rouge.
After Gina Wilson Green was killed in Baton Rouge in 2001, McDavid and other Zachary officers met with Baton Rouge police to swap case information. That meeting occurred at the Baton Rouge Fraternal Order of Police Hall a month before the task force that would search for a suspect killing women was put together.
“We gave them our case and told them then that Derrick Todd Lee was our man,” McDavid said. “They discussed Green’s case.”
McDavid said when Lee was arrested in Atlanta in May 2003, he was on the phone with the FBI.
“I was helping them locate Lee,” McDavid said. “But I told them to please do a DNA test on that pink garbage bag.”
Prosecutor Dana Cummings, who handled the DNA and opening statements at Derrick Todd Lee’s capital murder trial, said if anyone deserved the death penalty it was Lee.
“It is an available option reserved for only the worst murderers. Derrick Todd Lee certainly fit the bill,” she said.
“ For over eleven years these families have been waiting for the sentence … to be completed. No matter how one feels about the death penalty, this is certainly cruel treatment to victims’ families,” Cummings added. “It is hard to imagine that they would ever completely heal, but how can they really even begin to heal, until the case is resolved.
“Well, this case is now finally resolved and I hope that the families feel the only relief that the judicial system can provide, the knowledge that they have received justice.”
Former East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Doug Moreau, whose office prosecuted Lee, was reserved in his comments about Lee’s passing, saying he did not wish to gloat over the death. He said Lee is now in God’s hands.
“There’s no doubt he ruined many, many people’s lives,” Moreau added.
Moreau said he’s always believed the death penalty is reserved for egregious cases, such as Lee’s.
“Sometimes God intervenes,” he said.
Tony Clayton, who prosecuted Derrick Todd Lee in the 2002 death of 21-year-old Geralyn DeSoto in Addis, said he hoped Lee’s death would begin to help the families of victims find closure.
“What’s disappointing to me was that he never really showed any remorse or owned up to what he did. A jury of his peers had to convict him,” Clayton said.
Both Clayton and John Sinquefield, who was part of the prosecution team in East Baton Rouge Parish, noted how the killings Lee was eventually linked to created widespread fear in the metropolitan area.
“For a period of time, you had 600,000 people in South Louisiana that were terrified. People afraid to go out of their homes, taking extra security precautions,” said Sinquefield, who handled the death penalty phase of Lee’s trial in the death of Charlotte Murray Pace. Lee was sentenced to death in that first-degree murder.
“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.