Long before he became an internationally known forensic scientist sought out by the likes of the Kennedys and O.J. Simpson, Henry Lee began his career in a converted bathroom at the Bethany state police barracks.

Virtually a one-man operation with a microscope and some camera equipment to analyze black and white photographs, Lee set about to keep a promise he made to Gov. Ella Grasso the day she officially made him a state employee in 1979 — to build the best forensic laboratory in the country.

Now nearly 35 years later Lee is retired from state service but still working on examining evidence from criminal cases from around the country at the forensic institute at the University of New Haven that bears his name.

In Meriden the state police forensic laboratory that he begged and borrowed to get built with the help of four governors is 74,000 square feet of laboratories in multiple buildings with all the latest in technological advances in everything from DNA analysis to investigating computer crimes.

All started by a man who arrived in Connecticut from Hong Kong with $65 in his pocket to teach at a small university in New Haven.

"Connecticut has always had state-of-the-art forensic facilities, and that is a credit to the criminal justice system and state leaders for wanting to be on the forefront on this, but there is no doubt that none of it would have happened without Henry's tireless work and his vision,'' said former Appellate Court Justice Anne Dranginis.

Dranginis was the prosecutor on the losing end of the first Connecticut case on which Lee testified, not long after he took a job as professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven.

Lee was a witness for the defense.

"In 1975 when I come here, I volunteer my services to the state and to most prosecutors, but they turn me down," Lee said during a recent two-hour interview in his office at the Henry Lee Forensic Institute on the campus of the University of New Haven.

The walls of his office are adorned with plaques and awards he has picked up over the years. There are photos of him with famous attorneys he has worked with and one on his desk of his wife, Margaret, and their two children.

"Then a public defender, Charlie Gill, contacted me and ask for help with a sexual assault case in Litchfield," Lee said. "At that time whatever the police said you had to accept because there was no way to check."

The legend of Henry Lee was about to be born.

Panties In The Tree

"Somebody at UNH told me about this Chinese guy who was a Ph.D. who knew about forensics that was teaching there," Gill said. "I went to see him and I could barely understand a word he said the first time I met him."

Gill, who went on to become a Superior Court judge, wanted Lee to testify about the "panties in the tree" case, in which Gill was defending a man accused of sexually assaulting a woman he and a friend had met at a bar.

Gill said it became known as the panties in the tree case because the woman's underwear was found in a tree near where the two men had picked her up in their car.

"Henry told me to get the panties so he could examine them," Gill said. "I got them from the court and drove them down to UNH, and Henry was waiting for me. His wife and kids were sitting in the car because he was about to go to New York to be grand marshal of some parade, but he wanted to examine those panties first."

Gill said Lee showed up to testify and "of course he was dramatic" and tore apart the state's case. Gill said Lee found seminal evidence from at least four or five other people on the panties. Lee also criticized the initial examination that was done of the woman after she made the allegations, Gill recalled.

The two men were acquitted. The case led police to establish rape kits for all detectives and later hospital personnel to use when collecting evidence in potential sexual assault cases.

"Henry was well ahead of his time even then," Gill said.