He's not the only one asking that question. A top official in the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office told The Advocate in January that he suspected "more than one" serial killer had been at work in the area since 1985. And after the arrest of Lee, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington urged NOPD to re-examine the unsolved murders of some 18 prostitutes here in the early 1990s -- homicides initially investigated by the now-defunct Jefferson Parish-based serial killer task force.
Robert Keppel, an author and expert on serial killers, told us recently that by the time he left New Orleans in the mid-'90s some 60 cases were under investigation. "I thought there could be as many as four separate [serial killers] at work," Keppel said.
Especially troubling in the Baton Rouge case is the tortured course of the separate investigations into what authorities now believe are related murders. The capital city's serial killer task force, which formed July 22 after three cases were linked by DNA, focused primarily on DNA-related cases and resisted offers of free help from outside serial killer experts such as Keppel and Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans. Most troubling of all, Gambit Weekly has learned that the task force months ago also snubbed an offer of some three dozen experienced criminal investigators from Attorney General Richard Ieyoub's office. In the end, Ieyoub's office -- and law enforcement outside the task force -- solved the serial killer mystery.
Scharf's theory of the serial killer case -- which now appears prescient -- was that the murders began with the 1992 slaying of Connie Warner, who disappeared from her home in Zachary and was found dead. In 1998, Randi Mebruer, who lived a block away from Warner in the same subdivision, disappeared from her home after an apparent struggle and was presumed murdered. Her body was never recovered.
At the request of the Mebruer family, Scharf and Ronnie Black, chief investigator for Ieyoub's office, consulted on the Zachary cases in 1998. After Pam Kinamore was abducted from her Baton Rouge home and murdered last July, the professor told anyone who would listen that the task force should broaden its focus beyond DNA-confirmed cases -- and outside Baton Rouge. Following the murder of Treneisha Dene Colomb in Lafayette on Nov. 21, Scharf suggested that the FBI profile of a white male suspect might be "way off." He noted then: "This guy operates in white and black areas." The task force did not adjust for the possibility of a black suspect until late March, after Carrie Yoder had been killed.
The big break in the case came on May 5, when Ieyoub investigator Danny Mixon, acting on a recent tip about the Mebruer case, obtained a court-ordered sample of Lee's DNA. On May 23, a Breaux Bridge police sketch of a suspected rapist alerted Zachary police, who were working with Mixon and expedited requests for the DNA from the state police lab. Mixon's action broke the serial killer case wide open. The task force, for all its efforts, was effectively bypassed.
While we all are glad this case appears to be closed, the truth is that many more cases remain unsolved. At the same time, authorities at all levels should learn from the task force's experience -- particularly its mistakes -- so that future task forces will function more effectively. At a minimum, every significant agency should have a seat at the table. In this case, Ieyoub's office clearly should have been invited to be part of the task force from the get-go. Ieyoub declined comment, but it has been clear for months that the Baton Rouge task force was too concerned about "turf" and too narrow in its focus. That kind of attitude only aids the killer. "They got tunnel vision," Scharf said. "They could have solved the case sooner. They should have caught him much earlier than they did. No doubt."
Authorities should continue to re-evaluate the cases they have amassed. Crime labs should look for evidence of other serial attacks. Scharf points out immediate needs: a statewide computer crime data system; better analytical skills among officers; and a new "culture of candor" in law enforcement. In short, we need a complete autopsy on the serial killer investigation. The case won't really be closed until that happens.