Serial killer suspect returns to Louisiana

Thursday, May 29, 2003

BATON ROUGE, La. -- The capture of the man wanted in the serial killings of five women in Louisiana was met with relief Wednesday -- as well as questions about whether investigators missed or discarded clues that could have saved some of the victims.

Ultimately, it was not the task force in charge of the 10-month investigation that zeroed in on Derrick Todd Lee as the suspect. Instead, it was an investigator working on two seemingly unrelated slayings who obtained the DNA that implicated Lee.

Lynne Marino, the mother of the killer's third victim, Pam Kinamore, said Lee's history of arrests in neighboring towns for stalking, attempted murder and peeping into homes should have made police check out his DNA years ago.

"Just think how many lives we could have saved if somebody had put these pieces together and gotten this monster years ago," Marino said. "That's my child. Do you think I'm going to be a good sport about how many mistakes they made?"

Lee, 34, was arrested Tuesday outside an Atlanta tire store and was flown back to Louisiana on Wednesday after waiving extradition.

Baton Rouge residents had been on edge for nearly a year since news first broke that a serial killer was on the loose. Women put guns and pepper spray in their purses, took self-defense classes and set up elaborate phone trees to make sure their friends and relatives were safe.

"Now, I can go out in the evening. I was putting on the dead bolts. I put a chair against the door. Now, I don't have to do that," said Vesna Karaman, a graduate student in biology at Louisiana State University.

The task force held a congratulatory news conference Wednesday to recognize those who worked on the case, but the display angered Marino.

"It was solved in spite of the task force," she said.

Wiping away tears, Baton Rouge police chief Pat Englade, who heads the task force, said he was proud of the work by the team of local, state and federal law enforcement officials. He refused to respond to specific criticisms by the victims' families.

Mishandling charge

Mayor Bobby Simpson said the task force's elation over the capture of Lee moved from "unbelievable relief to anger" when it was suggested that the investigators mishandled the case. Simpson said the criticism of the task force is unfair.

During the investigation, the task force cast a huge DNA dragnet, taking genetic samples from more than 1,000 men. It also fished for tips by releasing details about a white truck, the killer's shoeprints and items apparently taken from the victims. Investigators sent dogs sniffing through neighborhoods and went door to door, looking for leads.

But it was a separate probe of two cases in nearby Zachary, a suburb of Baton Rouge, that led an investigator not connected to the task force to seek a DNA sample from Lee and eventually link him to the five known slayings by the serial killer.

Lee has not been charged in the two cases in Zachary -- the 1998 disappearance of Randi Mebruer, 28, and the 1992 slaying of Connie Warner, 41 -- but Zachary police said they suspect he is responsible.

On May 5, the same day Lee voluntarily submitted the DNA, he abruptly pulled his two children out of school, saying he was moving to Los Angeles. Authorities said they do not know the whereabouts of Lee's wife and children.

Lee was also named in a warrant in St. Martin Parish on Tuesday with attempted murder and attempted rape in an incident in July, before three of the serial killer's victims were slain.

"It just breaks my heart. These women should still be alive. This guy should have been behind bars a long time ago, and the police let us down a long time ago," said Geri Teasley, who has organized monthly rallies in Baton Rouge to remember the victims.

Marino said she believes police relied too heavily on an FBI profile that said the serial killer was probably white and had trouble interacting with women. Lee is a black man described as charming with women.

The police chief has said the task force was not contacted by St. Martin Parish about the attack there until April. The task force had told investigators working other cases to let them know about evidence that seemed to point to the serial killer, he said.

Women in Baton Rouge called Lee's arrest good news, but some said they were not ready to let down their guard.

"I hope it's the right guy. I'm not totally relieved," said LSU student Stacey Raymond, 21. "Baton Rouge is kind of crazy."

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