Post Mortem

updated 01/22/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/22/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

IT'S A LONG WAY FROM THE CELEBRITY overkill of the O.J. Simpson case to investigating deaths in remote Bosnia—but then again, maybe it isn't. As far as Dr. Henry Lee is concerned, both come down to matters of science, of tissue, bone and bodily fluids. Which is why, on the day before New Year's Eve, when he could have been relaxing at his waterfront home in Branford, Conn., one of. the world's most renowned forensic scientists was in the ravaged town of Kupres, west of Sarajevo, helping identify the remains of 37 war victims, both Muslims and Croats, recovered from a mass grave. As always for Lee, 57, the satisfaction is in solving a mystery—in this case so that the loved ones of the dead will no longer have to wonder about their fate. "I do not feel my New Year wasted," says Lee in his stilted English. "I truly, truly enjoy—deeply—what I do."

That should be plain enough from his catalog of cases—many of which have made headlines. Although his title is director of the Connecticut state crime lab, Lee is more like a forensic consultant extraordinaire, traveling the world to work at crime scenes and disaster sites. In addition to his labors in Bosnia and at the Simpson trial, where he testified as a witness for the defense, he consulted on the investigation of the disastrous 1993 fire at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and in 1991 was a defense witness in the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, which ended with an acquittal. On the plane en route to Bosnia with his wife, Margaret, 56, Lee examined documents pertaining to the suicide of White House aide Vincent Foster and read up on a vexingly complicated case in Connecticut involving four murders. "When people come to me, they have exhausted every remedy," says Lee. "But if I can review the case, look at it from a totally objective angle, maybe turn up something."

His experience with crime scenes notwithstanding, Lee has encountered unique difficulties in Bosnia. For one thing, many of the dead, mostly victims of Serb attacks or atrocities, have been buried for several years. What's more, many of the victims' relatives, who might identify them or provide blood samples for DNA matching, have fled to far-flung refugee camps. Worse still, in mass graves like the one at Kupres, badly decomposed bodies were intermingled. The classic methods of forensic identification—tattoos, photographs and dental records—failed, and pathologists at the Clinical Hospital in Split, Croatia, needed sophisticated equipment for DNA analysis and, even more important, instruction on new techniques. Under the auspices of AmeriCares, a nonprofit relief organization, the doctors have now received a $25,000 up-to-date DNA testing apparatus, along with Lee's invaluable training and advice.

It is all slow, gruesome work, but aided by Lee, the doctors have identified some 950 bodies. For that, residents in Kupres are grateful, even if the news is bad. Vuatico Couc's daughter, Ivanica, 32 when she died, had been a teacher until she joined the Croatian Democratic party and was fired by Serbian town officials. The Serbs were further angered when she became a journalist for Croatian newspapers but, until Lee identified her remains, the family was unsure if she was a prisoner or dead. "I just want to thank Dr. Lee for helping identify my daughter," says Couc, 61, a former migrant worker now trying to survive as a peddler. "We wanted to know."

Lee's fascination with crime goes back to his youth. The youngest of 13 children, he was born in the Chinese village of Ruga, across the river from Shanghai. His father, Ho-Ming Lee, was a wealthy businessman; his mother, An-Fu, a poorly educated but formidable woman who demanded excellence from her children. When Henry was about 6, the family fled the Communist revolution in China for Taiwan. At 18, he was accepted into the elite Taiwan Central Police College, and four years later became one of the country's youngest police captains. His life changed one day in 1961 when Margaret Song, a student at Taiwan Normal University, was brought before him with a visa problem. "It was love at first sight, I guess," says Lee. "People meet in all kinds of different occasions, and everything is fate."

Four years later, with $50 between them, they joined family in the U.S., where Margaret got a teaching job. Lee hoped to earn a medical degree, but soon discovered that his Taiwanese college credits would not be accepted. So he struggled as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, a stock boy and a groundskeeper, while earning an associate degree at City College of New York. He won a scholarship to John Jay College of Criminal Justice, then decided to blend his passion for science and police work by getting a doctorate in biochemistry at New York University School of Medicine and pursuing a career in forensic science.

His first job was teaching at the University of New Haven, where he caught the eye of Connecticut state officials. In 1979 they asked him to take charge of the state's rather rudimentary forensic lab. Since then, Lee has worked tirelessly to transform it into one of the top facilities in the country. Not that his efforts have satisfied his mother, now 97 and living in New York City. "She still says, after all these years, 'You have to work harder,' " says Lee with a laugh.

In fact, the key to his success is not just hard work, but a genius for sifting and evaluating clues. From the start, he amazed many law enforcement colleagues with deductions that seemed worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Scott O'Mara, recently retired as a master sergeant with the Connecticut State Police, recalls a case in the town of Bristol that Lee worked on soon after taking over the forensic lab. A 15-year-old girl had been bludgeoned to death, and police were searching the banks of a stream near the murder scene. Lee retrieved a few strands of hair from the stream. After an examination, says O'Mara, Lee predicted that the hair sample would probably turn out to be from someone of Indian extraction. "Maybe a month later, when we actually identified our suspect," says O'Mara, "we sat down and were making small talk with his parents when his mother mentioned that her father was a full-blooded Canadian Indian." After the suspect, Michael Joly, was arrested in the killing, says O'Mara, "it made me a believer that Dr. Lee certainly knew what he was talking about."

Among Lee's most celebrated cases was the Woodchipper Murder. In 1986, Helle Crafts, a flight attendant living in Newtown, Conn., disappeared. Police suspected her husband, Richard, a pilot for Eastern Airlines, of killing her, but without a body they couldn't even prove that the woman was dead. Then someone reported having seen a man out in a snowstorm with a large woodchipper shortly after Helle disappeared. Lee examined evidence scattered by the Brush Bandit woodchipper, including pieces of bone, tissue, hairs and teeth. In 1990, based largely on forensic evidence, Crafts was convicted of killing his wife.

If the Woodchipper case brought him fame, the Simpson trial resulted in much unwelcome publicity. It was Lee who questioned the Los Angeles Police Department's handling of evidence at the crime scene, summarizing his findings with the memorably blunt assessment, "Something wrong." Even today, three months after the verdict, Lee, noting that he donated his $50,000 fee to the University of New Haven and the state forensic lab, remains perturbed about being labeled a "hired gun" for the defense. "I really did not even get opportunity to keep the check in my pocket," he says.

Lee estimates that he has participated in about 5,000 cases, in part because he gets by on little sleep and spends nearly every waking moment studying evidence. He even has a lab in his basement. "He comes home to eat, then he works," says wife Margaret, mother of their two grown children and now a computer programming analyst. "I try to keep up with him, but I can't."

Although Lee talks about retiring in three years, that doesn't mean he intends to curtail his schedule. His continuing zeal is such that he sees trips to Bosnia in the dead of winter not as work but as a chance to study new techniques. "I have a selfish reason for going," he says. "I have the opportunity to learn again."

JOSEPH HARMES in Kupres and LORNA GRISBY in New York City

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