09.13.09

An Ivy League Tragedy

Police have found a body in the lab where Yale grad student Annie Le was last seen—on the same day her wedding was to take place.

Perhaps it was a family’s necessary optimism in the face of possible tragedy, or perhaps it had been overlooked due to far more momentous issues, but as of Friday afternoon, a spokesperson at the North Ritz Club in Syosset, on New York's Long Island, where the groom’s family resides, told The Daily Beast that they had not heard from the family of missing Yale graduate student Annie Le, or her fiancé’s, about canceling the wedding that was scheduled there for today. By yesterday, the mood had changed. Nadeen Fotopoulos, the manager of the facility, issued a statement: “The hall will be dark Sunday morning. It is very sad.”

That cops are bothering to do tests to determine the source of the blood suggests the clothes were not a size XL and that the blood did not come from a lab rat.

The case shifted dramatically yesterday. Bloody clothes were found hidden above ceiling tiles at the Yale University laboratory where the attractive 24-year-old Ph.D. student was last seen Tuesday morning, five days before she was to be married to her fiancé, a physics graduate student at Columbia University, Jonathan Widawsky, who is not a suspect.

Officials say there's no connection, yet, between the bloody clothing and Ms. Le—but that's law-enforcement code for "we haven't had enough time to run the DNA or any other forensic tests.” That they didn't say whether they found female clothes the size of Ms. Le's body is telling. She was unusually tiny—4-foot-11, and 90 pounds—so it would have been obvious that the clothes were hers. That cops are bothering to do tests to determine the source of the blood suggests the clothes were not a size XL and that the blood did not come from a lab rat.

The entire laboratory building has been declared a crime scene, and Le's purse, cellphone, credit cards, cash, and other property were found in her office at the lab. Le reportedly entered the lab last Tuesday morning around 10 a.m., but never left—according to 75 surveillance cameras that monitor who comes and goes in a building where everyone who enters has to swipe a coded card to get in.

Not long after, a smoke alarm went off, but authorities have not made any statements linking the two. But there have been reports that detectives have questioned one of her professors. Annie was a working on her doctorate in pharmacology at Yale and was to have attended the professor’s class Tuesday afternoon. For unexplained reasons, that class, which was to have begun at about the time Annie was reported missing, was canceled—before Le was reported missing. FBI agents were seen questioning an unidentified man outside the lab—who then left in an FBI vehicle. Neither man has been identified as a subject.

Without proof that Le ever left the building, it makes sense that investigators brought blueprints into the laboratory on Saturday, indicating they feel a need to search for evidence in ventilation ducts and other hidden locations. Hence, the discovery of the bloody clothes.

Although in the first hours after her disappearance there had been speculation that she was another “Runaway Bride,” a la Georgia’s infamous Jennifer Wilbanks, those thoughts were quickly discarded. Classmates report that Le was excited about the wedding, and Le’s family have categorically said from the beginning that they were sure their daughter did not run away.

“From what I have read and heard from confidants, it would be out of character for this young woman to have just taken off,” says Joe Keenan, a retired detective who was a decorated member of New York’s elite Major Case squad. “I doubt very much that she would terrify and hurt her family, fiancé, and friends by such a selfish act."

Keenan tells The Daily Beast that this case had frightening similarities to what first was thought to be a missing-persons case in New York this summer. On July 7, 46-year-old Eridania Rodriguez disappeared from her cleaning job at an office building in New York’s Financial District. Despite a building search by cadaver dogs, it was not until four days later that police the body bound and gagged in one of the air ducts.

Keenan says he fears that the outcome of this case will be similar. “If they have found bloody clothing in the building, it’s a good bet that the clothes belong to the missing young woman. If so, it’s only a matter of time before they find the body and the person responsible.”

Keenan adds that in the Rodriguez case, the New York detectives used a somewhat different approach in going after the prime suspect. “In years past, all too often the suspect would be scooped up and taken in for questioning before the detectives had time to build a case. All too often they would have to let that person go because they did not have enough evidence.” In the Rodriguez case, they had men following their prime suspect 24/7. A few days later, they grabbed a co-worker of the cleaning woman named Joseph Pabon and charged him with murder. Keenan surmises that law enforcement, including the FBI, may be applying the same tactics in this case. A sad probability on what should have been the happiest day of Le’s life.

John Connolly is a former New York City detective turned journalist. He is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine, and is currently finishing a book called The Sin Eater on disgraced and imprisoned Hollywood private investigator Anthony Pellicano.

Wendy Murphy is a former child abuse and sex crimes prosecutor who teaches at New England Law/Boston.