A man suspected in the serial slayings of at least five Louisiana women was arrested outside a Georgia tire shop Tuesday night, two days after authorities matched his DNA to the cases through a combination of shoe-leather detective work and pure luck.
Derrick Todd Lee, 34, a truck driver from St. Francisville, La., was arrested by two police officers after the FBI received a tip that he was “wandering” outside the tire shop about 8:30 p.m., said Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington. Lee was alone, was not armed, showed the officers his identification and was arrested without incident, Pennington said.
The chief characterized Lee’s mood as “very somber” but declined to reveal any information Lee might have shared with the officers. It was unclear how Lee, who abandoned his home in Louisiana last week and fled on a bus, wound up in front of the northwest Atlanta shop, officials said.
“He probably was still running. He knew we were looking for him,” Pennington said at a news conference.
Lee has been charged with the rape and murder of a Louisiana State University graduate student, who in March became the fifth woman tied to an alleged serial killer. Lee is also a formal suspect in the deaths of the four others, three in Baton Rouge, La., and one near Lafayette, law enforcement officials said Monday.
Atlanta officials hope to transfer Lee to Louisiana as soon as today, though Pennington said he did not know whether the suspect intends to fight extradition.
The string of violent deaths kept southern Louisiana in a vise of fear for more than a year. Sales of guns and pepper spray soared, many women strayed from home only in large groups and officials at LSU, one of Louisiana’s most cherished institutions, said the crimes darkened the notion of a carefree college experience.
DNA samples lifted from the bodies confirmed that the same person killed the five women, officials have said.
“He took these women at the prime of their life,” said Lynne Marino, 66, whose 42-year-old daughter, Pamela P. Kinamore, was found dead in July, making her the third woman linked to the serial killer.
Lee is also a suspect in the 1998 disappearance of a Zachary, La., woman and the 1992 death of another woman, who lived in the same subdivision.
Lee is not believed to have family in Atlanta, and he apparently fled to the city merely because he could find day-laborer work that paid cash, and because he believed he could blend into the sprawling metropolitan area, said Joe Parris, an FBI special agent in Atlanta.
Still, though Lee appears to have little connection to Atlanta, Pennington said that with Lee’s arrest, the Police Department would reopen the unsolved cases of several prostitutes who were murdered there in the early 1990s. And there are an estimated 60 women listed as missing in southern Louisiana where authorities have raised the possibility that Lee could be connected to more deaths.
“I’m thrilled -- ecstatic that he’s been caught,” said Sheree Bryant, 46, of Natchez, Miss., whose sister Gina Wilson Green, 41, was killed in September 2001, becoming the first of the serial killer’s victims. “We’ve been waiting for this day for 20 months. But I knew it would happen. I always knew this murderer would be caught. We just had faith. We had to.”
Lee left his home in St. Francisville, La., about a week ago, days before detectives learned that a DNA sample taken in a swab of his mouth -- a sample taken in connection with an unrelated case -- matched samples lifted from the bodies of five women. Lee fled to Chicago, then Atlanta, by bus, authorities said Tuesday.
For a week, Lee had stayed at a motor lodge in southern Atlanta, officials said, where he entertained neighbors and prayed with several new acquaintances in recent days.
Lee checked out of the motor lodge Monday, two hours before a squad of U.S. marshals swooped in. Lee had also come close to being caught at a homeless shelter, Pennington said.
A woman who identified herself as Lee’s sister, reached at a St. Francisville home Tuesday night, declined to comment.
In Louisiana, it was clear that after 10 months of investigation and more than 22,000 tips from the public, it had taken a stroke of luck to identify the man authorities say is the killer.
One morning in the spring of 1998, 3-year-old Michael Mebruer toddled over to the neighbors with a puzzling claim: “My mommy is lost.” Next door, a different tale emerged. His house was stained with blood. His mother, Randi, hasn’t been seen since, and her disappearance remains one of two unsolved, major crimes in tiny Zachary.
Three weeks ago, investigators dusted off the case after receiving a tip: Lee, a notorious flirt who had been accused in the past of burglary and peeping through women’s windows, had talked recently with an acquaintance about Mebruer’s disappearance. The investigators took a swab of Lee’s mouth, submitted his DNA sample to a crime lab and waited.
The answer arrived last weekend, authorities said: The detectives had unwittingly identified an alleged serial killer.
“When we heard, it was just shock,” said Joel Odom, an East Feliciana Parish, La., sheriff’s detective and one of the investigators who requested the subpoena to take Lee’s DNA. “We knew he was a good suspect. But ... whew.”
Police in Zachary are waiting to hear whether their DNA sample will link Lee to the disappearance of Randi Mebruer, who was 28 when she disappeared. Zachary Police Chief Joey Watson said investigators there are operating under the “strong suspicion” that Lee is responsible for Mebruer’s disappearance and the death of Connie Warner, 41, who lived in the same subdivision as Mebruer and whose body was discovered in September 1992.
“I’ve said it all along: it takes diligence, old-fashioned detective work and a little luck,” Watson said. “That appears to be the situation here. Certainly there is a tremendous amount of relief -- just having a name and a face to go along with this mess.”
Odom learned recently that Lee had chatted about the Mebruer case with an acquaintance. Over lunch, Odom told an investigator from the state attorney general’s Office, and the pair questioned the acquaintance, whose account raised their suspicions, Odom said.
“We had suspected [Lee] on and off for several years,” said Watson, the Zachary police chief. “This guy has frequented our area and has committed crimes in our area, in very close proximity to where these victims lived. In the last couple years, certainly it was hard to ignore the similarities in the serial cases and the cases we had. We just didn’t have the physical evidence.”
Armed with the acquaintance’s account and a description of Lee’s criminal history, which includes a burglary conviction and several accusations that he had been a peeping Tom, the pair persuaded a district judge to sign a subpoena ordering them to take a sample of Lee’s DNA.
On May 5, detectives found Lee near his home and swabbed the inside of his mouth.
They sent the results to the Louisiana State Police crime lab, but heard nothing for three weeks. The delay was apparently due to the fact that investigators have taken similar samples from 1,000 other men in their search for the killer.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Odom said when asked about the sense of relief that has pervaded his department and others in the law enforcement community. “I’m glad we know who he is. We’re halfway there now.”
On May 5, the day detectives took the DNA sample from an agitated Lee, he sent his wife, Jacqueline Denise Lee, to withdraw their children from school, Odom said. Jacqueline Lee and the children -- a 13-year-old boy and a 10-year-old girl, both described as good students -- are believed to be en route to California, possibly the Los Angeles area, Odom said.
Lee’s girlfriend, who lives in the Baton Rouge region, has also been questioned, but she has not been seen in several days, the detective said.
Gold reported from Houston, Ellingwood from Atlanta.