How small-town cops and a senior sleuth ignored the experts and caught the Baton Rouge serial killer by CHUCK HUSTMYRE
On April 19, 1998, Zachary, La., police detective David McDavid was playing in a softball tournament in New Iberia when he got a call about the disappearance – and likely murder – of Randi Mebruer. One of just three detectives in the small department, McDavid made the 100-mile drive to Zachary in just over an hour. At the scene, McDavid learned that Mebruer had been snatched from her home while her 3-year-old son, Michael, slept in his bed just a few feet down the hall.
Inside the house, police found the hallway streaked with blood. Someone had attacked Mebruer in her bedroom, then dragged her down the hall and into the kitchen. On the floor of the hallway, detectives found Mebruer’s contact lenses. They were side by side, just inches apart. “She was hit hard enough, face down, to knock her contacts out,” Sgt. Ray Day recalls. Day was a Zachary patrol officer at the time and assisted with the crime-scene investigation. Drops of blood were splattered from the kitchen to the carport. “It was like she was picked up,” Day says.
Beyond the carport, all traces of the 28-year-old Mebruer ended. In the kitchen, McDavid found a bouquet of fresh flowers stuffed inside the garbage can. A pink trash bag lined the can. Outside in the carport, detectives found a roll of pink plastic garbage bags. Stuck to the outside of the roll were a drop of blood and a trace of semen.
Mebruer’s house was located in the Zachary subdivision of Oak Shadows. The house sat close by one where Connie Warner used to live. In 1992, six years before Mebruer disappeared, 41-year-old Warner had also vanished from her home. Eleven days later, a truck driver discovered Warner’s body lying in a ditch near the state Capitol building.
After examining the Mebruer crime scene, McDavid was pretty sure that the murder of Warner and the disappearance of Mebruer were connected. He was also pretty sure of something else. McDavid looked at one of the other Zachary officers and said, “You know it’s going to be Derrick Todd Lee.”
Derrick Todd Lee was 23 years old when Connie Warner was murdered. Three months after Warner’s death, Zachary cops arrested Lee near Oak Shadows subdivision after a local man came home and caught Lee inside his house. Two months later, police arrested Lee again for breaking into a house and beating and robbing a 74-year-old man.
Then, on a rainy night in April 1993, Zachary police officer Troy Eubanks spotted a car parked in the cemetery next to Oak Shadows – a couple of kids making out, probably. Eubanks pulled his patrol car behind them. He shined his flashlight into the car. It was a couple of kids all right, but they weren’t making out – at least not anymore. They were covered in blood, but they were still alive. A 3-foot-long cane knife lay on the ground beside the car. The attacker had fled at the sight of Eubanks’ police cruiser.
Later, the female victim worked with a police sketch artist. The drawing of the man who attacked her that night in the cemetery looked a lot like Lee. Years later, she picked Lee out of a photo lineup.
Lee served a year in prison for burglarizing the home of the man who lived in Oak Shadows. Then in September 1995, cops in Lake Charles picked him up for peeping in windows. He was fined $200 and placed on two years’ unsupervised probation. In July 1997, the Zachary Police Department started getting a lot of complaints from women about a peeping Tom around Oak Shadows subdivision. Outside of one woman’s bedroom window police found footprints in the mud.
McDavid was called in to help find the peeper. One night on surveillance, McDavid spotted Lee running across the highway that fronted Oak Shadows subdivision. McDavid and the other police officers chased him, but Lee cut across the cemetery and escaped.
McDavid checked the parking lot of the bar on the other side of the cemetery. Lee’s pickup truck was there. The police officers backed off and watched the car with a pair of night-vision goggles. It wasn’t long before they saw Lee poke his head out from behind a nearby shed. When the police tried to seize him, Lee disappeared into the woods. The police followed him with human-tracking dogs they borrowed from the Department of Corrections. The dogs found Lee, and the Zachary police officers arrested him, charging him with trespassing and peeping-Tom charges – all misdemeanors. He was fined $400 and placed on city court probation for two years.
But Lee wasn’t going to let a little thing like probation stop him. In August 1999, just a year after Mebruer disappeared, Lee was picked up on stalking and peeping-Tom charges in nearby West Feliciana Parish. He received a $300 fine and two more years of probation.
In the meantime, the Mebruer case went cold. Zachary police asked the state attorney general’s office for help, and they sent a couple of investigators, including a veteran named Dannie Mixon. At 60 years old, Mixon was a throwback to the days when police operated mainly on gut instinct. A police officer for 40 years, Mixon had solved many high-profile cases.
In April 2000, a judge in West Feliciana Parish sentenced Lee to nine months in prison for beating his girlfriend in a bar and attempting to run over a deputy while trying to avoid arrest. Lee was released from prison in January 2001. In September, the bodies started piling up around Baton Rouge.
THE SERIAL KILLER STRIKES
Gina Wilson Green, 41, lived on Stanford Avenue just off LSU’s picturesque, oak-lined campus. She was a nurse who specialized in infusion therapy. She drove a BMW convertible and doted on her nieces. On Sept. 24, 2001, police found her strangled body inside her home.
Just across the Mississippi River from downtown Baton Rouge, 21-year-old Geralyn DeSoto lived in a mobile home off La. Highway 1. She was a couple of months away from beginning classes to become an occupational therapist.
DeSoto had a job interview scheduled for 2:30 on the afternoon of Jan. 14, 2002. She never made it. Just before noon, someone broke into her mobile home. The intruder hit her in the head with a telephone and stabbed her three times. But DeSoto was tough. She ran to her bedroom and grabbed a shotgun. When she tried to turn the gun on her attacker, though, he managed to jerk it out of her hands. Then he cut her throat from ear to ear and stomped on her body with his boots.
Five months later, on May 31, police found the body of 21-year-old Charlotte Murray Pace in her south Baton Rouge home. She had been stabbed more than 80 times, beaten with a clothes iron and had her throat cut. Her death was so brutal it turned the stomach of one veteran crime-scene investigator. “It made me sick,” the investigator later testified. “The body had been so violated.”
In early July, 44-year-old Pam Kinamore disappeared from her Baton Rouge home. Four days later, her body was found floating 30 miles away in Whiskey Bay, dumped off Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. Her throat had been slashed.
People in Baton Rouge were terrified. A serial killer was on the loose.
THE TASK FORCE
In July 2002, the Baton Rouge Police Department hosted a meeting of local law-enforcement investigators. The purpose of the meeting was to find out how many of their unsolved murders were linked to the person whom people were starting to call “the Baton Rouge serial killer.” Zachary detective McDavid attended the meeting. He presented three cases to the group: the murder of Connie Warner, the abduction of Randi Mebruer and the attack on the couple in the cemetery. McDavid told the group of law-enforcement professionals that he and Mixon were looking closely at a man named Lee.
The lead agencies, the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, disagreed. According to the FBI profile, they believed the serial killer to be a white male. And since Lee was black, that was the end of the story. The Baton Rouge agencies formed a task force to hunt down the serial killer, but they didn’t invite the small Zachary Police Department to participate. “It bothered us,” McDavid admits. The newly formed task force began taking DNA samples from hundreds – eventually thousands – of white males.
The serial killer struck again, this time outside Baton Rouge.
Trineisha Dene Colomb, 23, was visiting her mother’s grave in St. Landry Parish on Nov. 21, 2002, when she disappeared. Police found her car near the cemetery but found no sign of Colomb. Three days later, a hunter found her body dumped in the woods 20 miles from the cemetery. She had been beaten to death. DNA the killer left at the scene positively linked Colomb’s murder to those of Gina Wilson Green, Charlotte Murray Pace and Pam Kinamore. Guns, pepper spray and alarm-systems sales soared in Baton Rouge. Women took self-defense classes. Police saturated south Baton Rouge. Detectives combed through sex-offender records, reinterviewed witnesses, surveilled neighborhoods around LSU and kept swabbing white males.
Tips poured into a special hotline the task force set up. One caller said they saw a white man driving a pickup truck along Interstate 10 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette. The caller said the woman in the passenger seat looked dead. The truck had a so-called “Jesus fish” on the tailgate. The task force focused on white men with pickups.
Meanwhile, in Zachary, McDavid and Day – who had been promoted to detective – continued to focus on Lee. Mixon
wasn’t part of the task force but kept abreast of the serial-killer case through news reports.
Even with the highly publicized task force on his trail, the serial killer didn’t stop. Carrie Lynn Yoder disappeared on March 3, 2003. The 26-year-old LSU graduate student lived just south of the LSU campus. She was unloading groceries from her car when she was abducted. Ten days later, a crawfish farmer discovered Yoder’s body floating in Whiskey Bay just a mile and a half from where Kinamore had been found. Yoder had been beaten and strangled. The blows to her body fractured her ribs and lacerated her liver. Like the other women, she had also been raped. The killer’s DNA linked Yoder to the other known serial-killer victims.
In April 2003, the Zachary police began receiving complaints from a woman in Oak Shadows subdivision. Someone was stalking her on early morning jogs. The police began searching for clues. They found boot prints outside a window. Their peeping Tom was back. Dannie Mixon started digging into Lee’s criminal history. He worked up a timeline for Lee, documenting the dates when Lee was in jail and when he was out of jail. Then Mixon compared the timeline to the dates of the murder of Connie Warner and the disappearance of Randi Mebruer. He also compared it to the dates of the murders linked to the Baton Rouge serial killer.
The formula proved successful. Lee’s freedom coincided with every single attack. “When I worked this all up, I thought Derrick Todd Lee was the most viable suspect on the streets,” Mixon later said.
The AG investigator wanted a DNA sample from Lee. Mixon wrote a six-page application and persuaded a judge in East Feliciana Parish to issue a subpoena duces tecum, a court order that allowed Mixon to take a DNA swab from Lee.
On May 5, 2003, Mixon and the Zachary detectives set up surveillance on Lee’s girlfriend’s apartment in Jackson, La., and on the house he shared with his wife just south of St. Francisville. They spotted him at the St. Francisville house. As the investigators approached him, Lee seemed calm. Then when Mixon explained why they were there, the suspected killer demanded to see the court order.
The police officers gave it to him. Whether Lee read the order or understood its significance is anyone’s guess. “He held it like he was reading it,” Day says. Lee glared at the Zachary detectives. They had been hounding him for more than a decade. “I don’t want nothing to do with Zachary,” he said.
A subpoena for physical evidence is not the same as an arrest warrant. A certain amount of finesse is required to get a saliva swab from the mouth of an alleged murderer. Day and McDavid didn’t care who took the swab, just so long as someone got it. They backed off.
Mixon patted Lee on the shoulder. “Rather than do this in front of God and everybody, let’s do it inside.” While the Zachary police officers waited outside, Mixon and a couple of AG men walked Lee into the house and got the sample.
Mixon sent Lee’s saliva to the Louisiana State Police crime lab. The Zachary detectives and attorney general investigators waited, but the crime lab was backed up. The serial-killer task force had priority. Meanwhile, police in St. Martin Parish released a sketch of a black man whom they said had broken into a woman’s house and attempted to rape her. The attacker ran off when the woman’s son came home and surprised him. McDavid saw the sketch in the newspaper and thought it resembled Lee. The Zachary police officer asked the crime lab to hurry.
On May 25, the results came back: Derrick Todd Lee was the Baton Rouge serial killer. The scientific confirmation of what they’d long suspected still stunned the investigators in Zachary.
Ray Day was at a Harley-Davidson rally in Mississippi when he heard the news. “It was overwhelming,” he says. McDavid was cutting his grass when he got the call. He jumped in his car and raced to the task-force office in Baton Rouge. Now that the task force investigators knew Lee was the serial killer, they had to find him and arrest him. McDavid wanted to help.
There were already 50 people at the task-force office when McDavid walked in. Ten months earlier, they had told him to go home. Now they were shaking his hand and thanking the Zachary cops and attorney general investigators for cracking the case. One of the agency heads – McDavid can’t remember which – said to him, “We just want to congratulate you on solving the serial-killer case.”
Derrick Todd Lee tried to escape, first to Chicago and then to Atlanta, where U.S. Marshals captured him.
To date, Lee has been convicted of the second-degree murder of Geralyn DeSoto and the first-degree murder of Charlotte Murray Pace. Lee is currently on death row at Angola. Months after Lee’s arrest, then-Louisiana Attorney General Richard Ieyoub dragged a reluctant Dannie Mixon to a press conference and presented him with an award. Mixon avoided questions and the spotlight. He described himself as “just another flatfoot doing my job.”
It took until 2004, but the state police crime lab finally compared Lee’s DNA to the DNA found at Randi Mebruer’s house in Zachary. They matched.
Mebruer’s body has never been found. Her disappearance still haunts Ray Day. After Lee’s arrest, tips and leads about Mebruer’s whereabouts flooded in. Day and his colleagues dug up Lee’s yard near St. Francisville; they busted up the driveways of houses where Lee was known to have stayed and where witnesses had seen him pouring concrete late at night; they even pumped 15 million gallons of water out of a pond where Lee fished.
Day believes that Lee killed Mebruer. “But where is she?” he asks. It’s a question he wishes Lee would answer. “I want to talk to him just for my own peace of mind.”
McDavid isn’t a psychologist, but he knows a lot about human nature, mainly the bad side. Of all of the investigators, McDavid probably knows Lee best. He has a theory about Lee’s behavior. “He was a lady’s man,” McDavid says. “He tried to be slick, but once he got into that peeping, I think he just got progressively worse.” •