Richard Crafts plotted the perfect crime. He murdered his wife and disposed of her body with a machine that turns tree trimmings into mulch. No body, no clues, no worries.
It seemed that his estranged spouse, Helle, a 39-year-old flight attendant with Pan American World Airways, had vanished after Nov. 18, 1986.
Enter Henry C. Lee, world renowned forensic expert.
The woman’s friends told him she had feared that her husband would try to kill her. A snowplow driver remembered seeing a man who fit Crafts’ description hauling a diesel wood-chipper in a blizzard. Crafts, it developed, had rented such a machine a week earlier.
Meanwhile, divers fished a chain saw out of the Housatonic River. Credit-card records showed that Crafts had purchased the saw.
An army of 100 detectives scoured the area and found wood chips smudged with blood and flesh. Investigators recovered 56 tiny fragments of Helle Crafts--a dental crown, a tooth, the tip of one thumb, bone splinters and hairs.
The remains recovered amounted to less than an ounce, or 1/1,000 of the body, but Lee identified her.
Human tissue on the chain saw matched that found on the mulch. The dentistry matched. Fingernail polish from a nail fragment was from a bottle of polish in the Crafts’ home; hair strands from the scene were identical to those on Helle Crafts’ hairbrush.
The result: Crafts was convicted of murder in 1989.
Credit Henry C. Lee.
“It’s not a question of whether he can walk on water--that’s an established fact--it’s how far,” said Carla Noziglia, director of laboratory services for the Las Vegas Metro Police Department and former director of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.
Lee, a native of China and former police captain in Taiwan, is director of Connecticut’s State Police Forensic Science Laboratory. At 53, he has investigated more than 5,000 homicides.
His tools are as basic as a magnifying glass, but he also enjoys the use of an electron microscope, an argon laser for detecting latent fingerprints, DNA-matching technology and an infrared spectrometer.
He has a staff of 34 and a budget of $2 million, a far cry from the single microscope in a converted lavatory he inherited when he took the job in 1978.
Forensic science is about painstaking work and long, erratic hours spent in seamy places. It’s about a warren of an office cluttered with 19 cardboard boxes full of casework, a five-inch stack of phone messages impaled on a metal spike, a bar refrigerator stocked with film for crime-scene cameras, takeout sandwiches and doughnuts.
After all the drudgery, when the clues are strung together to reveal the picture behind the puzzle, Lee can say, “Gotcha!”
“Most of the time it’s tedious work,” he said. “I don’t have to point the finger at anyone. The signs do it for me.”
Lee’s sleuthing is done mostly in Connecticut, although he has assisted investigations in all 50 states and about a dozen countries. He testifies in 100 trials a year--sometimes in three trials in a day--and 17 states recognize him as an expert witness.
He was involved in the 1980 murder case of “Scarsdale Diet” author Dr. Herman Tarnower and in the aftermath of the 1985 shoot-out between the Philadelphia police and the radical group MOVE.
He testified for the defense in the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, and donated his $4,000 witness fee to a task force investigating the unsolved murders of 12 Connecticut women.
Of the Smith case, Lee said Patricia Bowman’s black dress with the colored trim bore no grass stain, no bloodstain, no soil stain, no rips and no sign of struggle.
“There was just lack of evidence of a struggle,” he said.
The condition of the accuser’s dress convinced at least one juror who voted for acquittal.
“The dress was an issue for me,” said juror Lea Haller. “Where was the mud? Where was the grass stain? Where was the snag?”
In January, a jury convicted Tevfik Sivri of murdering Carla Almeida, a 22-year-old mother from Meriden, although her body was never found.
Almeida, a masseuse, went to the home of Sivri, a house painter, on April 18, 1988. She never was seen again.
It was a whodunit case until Lee walked on the wall-to-wall carpet in Sivri’s basement family room. Something was out of whack, it seemed to him. Tests on the carpet showed it had been soaked with blood, as much as one-fifth the amount in a woman’s body.
Samples from the carpet matched bloodstains police found in the trunk of Sivri’s abandoned car. To connect it to the victim, Lee tested the DNA--the genetic blueprint of life--of Almeida’s parents. It was close enough to show that the blood was their daughter’s.
Lee’s work, with other circumstantial evidence, won a conviction.
The youngest of 13 children, Lee fled wartime China for Taiwan with his mother. His father was killed by mainland Communists.
Lee became a scientist because the grisly aspects of detective work--his first murder involved a body cut up and stored in six jars--made him queasy.
“I was too soft-hearted to be a policeman. So I gave that up to study forensics. I’d see a body all chopped up, and I couldn’t even look at meat for two or three months,” he said.
Lee came to New York in 1965 with his wife, two suitcases, $50 and just a few words of English. He was graduated from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 1972. He worked at times as a martial arts instructor, waiter and lab technician. At New York University, he earned a master’s degree in science and a doctorate in biochemistry.
In the years since, he has compiled a resume of 38 pages: professor of forensics at the University of New Haven, lecturer at Yale and at People’s University in Beijing, editor and writer for crime journals and author of a handbook about crime scenes.
His crime-solving has taken him from Chile to China. His expertise has attracted investigators from Germany, the Soviet Union--even, appropriately enough, from Scotland Yard. Lee, like the fictitious Sherlock Holmes, relies partly on intuition and partly on logic, and sometimes uses Sherlock’s lingo.
“It’s elementary,” said Lee. “Don’t forget the basics. Use simple logic. You have to use deductive reasoning to try to put the puzzle together--not just see the tree, but the forest.”
A man of medium build and soft voice, Lee always is quizzical. On the witness stand, he captivates juries with his show-and-tell theatrics.
To illustrate a pattern of blood spatters, he dripped red ink from an eyedropper onto white paper. To disprove one man’s story that his wife stabbed him and then fatally wounded herself in a scuffle, Lee dipped a knife deep into ketchup, then into mustard. The demonstration showed the man was lying: The woman’s wound was deeper, and she had been stabbed first.
“My role is to show technical information to the jury without bias. As long as we did everything humanly possible to assess the scientific puzzle, I don’t care what the outcome is--win, lose or draw,” Lee said.
Lee’s 16-hour workday begins at 5:30 a.m. at the office. He also has a lab at home. He’s on call every day, seven days a week. Once when he was down with the flu, he was carried to a crime scene on a stretcher.
He has investigated whether a Chinese restaurant was serving dog meat, whether a state lottery ticket had been altered. Most of his work, however, is murder.
Blood spatters and a missing window shade helped Lee trip up Dr. Russell Manfredi, a West Hartford cardiologist who was convicted of manslaughter in the death of his wife in 1987.
Catherine Manfredi’s body was found in a wrecked car. Manfredi told police his wife had been spitting up blood and was driving herself to the hospital when the accident occurred. But Lee didn’t buy his story.
He found blood on the instep of the car, which would be impossible if the door were closed. So he knew the woman had been injured beforehand.
At the Manfredi house, Lee noticed one of the bedroom window shades was missing. That seemed odd in an expensive mansion.
He saw blood on the window sill and a long blood stain on the roof shingles. Lee could envision a body being dragged, then dropped to the concrete driveway.
The wife had been bludgeoned and her husband had tried to cover it by faking an accident; the jury agreed.
Asked once by a television interviewer how he could be outsmarted, Lee replied: “Just don’t commit a crime. If you don’t commit a crime, then I cannot find any clue.”