Retired Baltimore surveyor retraces steps of 'Serial' murder investigation

Serial case: Retired city surveyor revisits site where Hae Min Lee's body was found 17 years ago.

Seventeen years after being called into the investigation of Hae Min Lee's murder, Phillip Buddemeyer still remembers where she was found, buried, in West Baltimore's Leakin Park.

The 74-year-old retired city surveyor retraced his steps — 127 feet into the woods, through the snow and thickets — on a recent February afternoon and recalled the adrenaline rush of bracing himself for a sight he would never forget.

"Of all the jobs I've done, hundreds, nothing can top this," Buddemeyer said.

The case became world famous in 2014, when the podcast "Serial" re-examined the evidence that led to the first-degree muder conviction of Lee's ex-boyfriend and Woodlawn High School classmate, Adnan Syed.

Syed, who is serving a life sentence, was granted a five-day hearing earlier this month during which his attorney argued he should be granted a new trial, presenting an alibi witness who said she saw him in a library at the time he was alleged to have killed Lee. It's unclear when a retired Baltimore circuit judge will make his decision on the matter.

Unbeknownst to Buddemeyer, part of his recorded testimony from Syed's 2000 trial was heard by millions who downloaded what became the most popular podcast of all time.

He found out about the podcast last summer, when he was on vacation at the beach with his granddaughter. Sitting on the boardwalk, he asked her to do an internet search for him on her smartphone — "Phil Buddemeyer, surveyor" — just for kicks, to see what would come up.

The results were full of "Serial"-related links: a transcript of his court testimony, an annotated transcript of one of the podcast's episodes and a character list of the series on reddit.

Buddemeyer was astounded people were still talking about the old case.

That last page of the series character list, they were surprised to see, referred to him as "city surveyor who visited burial spot, died 2010."

Buddemeyer thinks it must have been a mix-up. His uncle, Philip, died that year.

"That was a mistake," he said, with a grin. "I didn't. I'm here."

Buddemeyer grew up within view of Memorial Stadium in North Baltimore's Waverly neighborhood and was hired as a city surveyor in 1960. He eventually became the unit's supervisor, but eshewed formal clothes and joined his crews in their work.

He walks with a measured gait and keeps his handlebar mustache perfectly trimmed.

In 45 years as a surveyor, Buddemeyer said he worked on so many jobs around the city that when he points them out now to his grandchildren, they joke that it would be easier to count the ones he didn't.

He'd crawled through storm drains and deep inside train tunnels, ducking into cubby holes when an airhorn announced an oncoming train. He measured the sagging 26th Street retaining wall and submitted a report on its deterioration years before it collapsed onto the train tracks below.

He'd even been called to a homicide scene, where the victim had been shot from a second-story window, to measure the bullet's trajectory for investigators. The street still had blood on it, but the victim's body already had been removed.

That wasn't the case on Feb. 9, 1999.

Buddemeyer got a call from the Baltimore Police Department. A body had been found in Leakin Park, and police wanted a surveyor to provide official measurements. Buddemeyer didn't have a crew available, so he went by himself.

A police officer diverting traffic let him through, and he parked his city vehicle on the side of the road and followed a detective, stepping over a concrete road barrier and into the woods. Heart racing, he walked through the brush to where a group of detectives stood, on the other side of a 40-foot log lying parallel to the road.

Buddemeyer recalled that day on a recent visit to the site. He said he stepped over the log and looked around, but saw only undisturbed ground. He took a few more steps along the edge of the log, until the detective shouted at him: "Stop!"

He looked back down, bewildered.

"I don't see a body," he remembers telling the detective.

"It's right in front of you," the detective responded.

The detective pointed out a softball-sized clearing in a raised section of earth next to the log. He looked closer. What he had taken for a rock or some other natural debris was actually an ankle.

No one had told him the body was buried. He was almost standing on top of it.

"I would've never guessed it was a burial site," Buddemeyer said. "I would never have known that until he pointed it out."

Syed was convicted of the killing by a jury in 2000. Jealous and ashamed that Lee was dating someone new, he strangled her in the parking lot of a Best Buy in Woodlawn, prosecutors said, then buried her with the help of a friend who would later testify against him.

The testimony of the friend, Jay Wilds, and cellphone records were central to the state's case against Syed. No physical evidence tied him to the killing and no eyewitness emerged.

Lee's body was found nearly a month after she went missing by a passerby who said he had stopped in Leakin Park to urinate on his way to work.

Police questioned the man's account, but during the investigation they ultimately discounted him as a suspect.

Buddemeyer still thinks it was "fishy" that the passerby stumbled upon the body, which was 95 percent buried and nearly invisible to Buddemeyer, even when he knew what he was looking for.

"That part never sat right with me," he said.

At Syed's post-conviction hearing earlier this month, his attorney, C. Justin Brown, argued that Syed's original attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, was negligent in wrongly overlooking a crucial alibi witness and questionable cellphone records. The state attorney general's office argued that the decision by Syed's attorneys not to follow up on the alibi witness' account was strategic.

Buddemeyer said Gutierrez struck him as sharp. She accompanied him on a trip out to Leakin Park before the trial to see where the body had been buried and asked him questions on the stand, he said.

"She knew what she was doing," Buddemeyer said. "She was in control, total control. I came out here; it was all business. She asked me all the right questions."

Buddemeyer has not been a part of the recent proceedings, and he said he doesn't know whether Syed is guilty or innocent. But he thinks a jury should hear the alibi witness and have another chance to decide.

"I think he should be given a new trial," he said.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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