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Sun Investigates

Man considered alternative suspect in Hae Min Lee’s killing was known to authorities, had close ties with Adnan Syed

The man Baltimore prosecutors are now labeling a suspect in Hae Min Lee’s death, because he allegedly threatened her life, has long been known to authorities and had close ties with Adnan Syed.

Officials are not publicly identifying the suspect, but his name and a threat against an unnamed woman, who city prosecutors say is Lee, appear on a handwritten note in the original prosecutor’s files, according to multiple people familiar with the document who are not authorized to speak publicly.

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That note, along with the revelation of the man as one of two alternative suspects in the homicide, were critical components to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office’s motion to overturn Syed’s murder conviction in Lee’s 1999 death. For 23 years, Syed, whose case became known internationally due to the popular “Serial” podcast, remained behind bars for a crime he maintains he did not commit.

Had Cristina Gutierrez, Syed’s original attorney, known about the note and seen the threat prosecutors said the man made against Lee, she might have been able to use it at Syed’s trial, casting doubt on the original prosecution’s version of events.

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While present-day prosecutors and Syed’s current attorney say Gutierrez did not know about the note or the threat, the suspect was no stranger to Gutierrez: She represented him when he testified before the grand jury investigating Lee’s homicide — he answered their questions for four days — and her law firm handled his divorce, which exposed his arrest after police found him in a sexual situation with a minor from the same mosque Syed attended, court documents show.

Baltimore County Police in October 1999 found the man, who was 27 at the time, in the back of his van with his pants down next to a teenage boy, police records show, with the man admitting to officers he had engaged in sexual contact with the minor. When officers found the man, he was carrying a picture of Syed. The man was arrested but not charged.

Kevin Urick, the lead city prosecutor assigned to Syed’s murder case decades ago, disclosed the man’s arrest to Gutierrez the same day because the man was listed as a potential witness at trial. Reached by phone, Urick declined to comment.

The Maryland Office of the Public Defender, which now represents Syed, declined to comment through a spokesperson.

Gutierrez died in 2004, but her representation of clients with potentially conflicting interests raises questions about whether Syed received effective legal representation, experts said.

“If a person is on trial for murder and you’ve also represented a witness, that raises real, real issues,” said William Brennan, an attorney who regularly represents Maryland lawyers accused of wrongdoing on the job.

The now-suspect was never called to testify at Syed’s trial, despite purchasing a cellphone for Syed, then aged 17, and counseling him about “friendships between members of the opposite sex,” as Syed’s relationship with Lee unraveled, court documents show.

The Baltimore Sun is not naming the man prosecutors now say may have killed Lee because he has not been charged in connection to the case. The man could not be immediately reached for comment, as he is in prison for a series of sex crimes.

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Between 2010 and 2014, after the man became a medical professional, he sexually assaulted five male patients in Washington, D.C., after administering anesthesia, according to a U.S. Department of Justice news release. In December 2017, he was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison.

While Mosby’s prosecutors laid out details of why they consider the man to be a credible suspect in Lee’s killing, they did not elaborate on the suspect’s close ties to Syed. A spokesperson for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this story, saying the agency does not discuss ongoing investigations.

The suspect was a leader at Syed’s mosque who personally mentored the honors student and helped Syed hire Gutierrez as his attorney after authorities charged him with murder, according to court documents. Syed called the man from jail and the man visited Syed multiple times while in custody.

In March 1999, the now-suspect testified before the grand jury investigating Lee’s homicide, with Gutierrez serving as his attorney while he answered the investigative body’s questions, according to court documents. The suspect testified about his relationship with Syed and the Islamic faith, according to a letter the man later wrote to a judge.

“Specifically,” the man wrote about his testimony, “I consider myself to be a religious teacher; that I gave religious advice to Mr. Syed; I explained to Mr. Syed the religious principles of the ‘Koran’ and the Prophets concerning friendships between members of the opposite sex; and I co-signed (with Mr. Syed) a contract for a cell phone for Mr. Syed, with the consent of his mother.”

Prosecutors at the time saw Gutierrez’s representation of the man and Syed as a conflict of interest and sought unsuccessfully to disqualify Gutierrez from being Syed’s lawyer, according to court documents.

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State law codifies a lawyer’s ethical obligation to solely advocate for their client’s best interest and to avoid situations where there are conflicts.

Defense attorney Warren Brown said representing a potential witness in a current client’s case is a good example of why the rules exist.

When questioning the witness, Brown said, the lawyer “is either going to reveal attorney-client information, between him and the witness, or he’s going to deprive his client of effective assistance of counsel because he can’t attack this witness because it would violate attorney-client privilege.”

The law allows for people to waive a potential conflict of interest. In Syed’s case, both he and the now-suspect wrote the judge to say they weren’t concerned about any potential conflict, with the man waiving his attorney-client privilege. Gutierrez also represented another man associated with Syed for that man’s grand jury testimony, court records show.

“There are no facts in dispute with what they said, they did not ‘testify against me,’” Syed wrote to the judge in July 1999.

The now-suspect also wrote to the judge that prosecutors in the case assured him that he was not the target of a criminal investigation, although he suspected he might be. In his letter, the man said he initially asserted his right to remain silent when subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury “because police investigating this case suggested that I might be guilty of some crime.”

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“At a hearing on my request to quash the grand jury subpoenas, the state’s attorney stated that I was not a ‘target’ of any criminal investigation, and that the state does not believe and/or intend to assert, based on any information that it now has, that I am guilty of any crime,” the man wrote in 1999.

Now, more than two decades later, Baltimore prosecutors said they believe the man had a possible motive to kill Lee. He was one of two “alternative suspects” they cited in the motion to dismiss Syed’s guilty verdict. Prosecutors did not distinguish between the actions of the two suspects, citing their ongoing investigation.

However, The Sun has been able to identify the suspects through sources with knowledge of the case and public records.

“A person provided information to the state that one of the suspects had a motive to kill the victim, and that suspect had threatened to kill the victim in the presence of another individual. The suspect said that ‘he would make her [Ms. Lee] disappear. He would kill her,’” prosecutors wrote in the motion to toss Syed’s guilty judgment.

Lee was strangled to death and buried in a shallow grave in Leakin Park. She was last seen Jan. 13, 1999, and her body was discovered Feb. 9 of that year. Authorities believe she was in a struggle with her killer. Syed had been in a relationship with Lee, his Woodlawn High School classmate. Authorities at the time suspected Syed was enraged after Lee broke up with him.

At trial in 2000, prosecutors put on a case that included witness testimony, cellphone evidence and Syed’s own statements. A jury found him guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping, robbery and false imprisonment. The judge sentenced him to life plus 30 years in prison.

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He had been behind bars for 23 years before walking out of the courthouse Sept. 19 after a Baltimore Circuit judge granted prosecutors’ request to vacate his conviction. In addition to alternative suspects, Mosby’s prosecutors said some of the evidence used against Syed at trial had since been deemed unreliable and that the star witness’s testimony was not credible.

Prosecutors also wrote that one of the alternative suspects “engaged in aggressive/violent acts toward a woman known to him and forcibly confined her. It was also alleged that this suspect made threats against the life of this person. These events happened prior to the trial in this case.”

Those allegations draw from the 1999 divorce papers of the man now considered a suspect. In the papers, the man’s ex-wife said he was “cruel” and “excessively vicious,” alleging that he attacked her with a knife twice, forcibly confined her to their home and made threats against her life and the lives of her family members.

Despite earlier efforts to disqualify Gutierrez, the prosecutor did not mention that Gutierrez’s law firm represented the suspect in his divorce, which included allegations of violence that would be referenced decades later in the state’s attorney’s office’s motion to vacate Syed’s conviction.

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The ex-wife did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Her divorce lawyer also did not.

The suspect’s former wife left him Oct. 19, 1999, after he was caught in a “compromising situation” with a 14-year-old boy, according to court documents.

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A private investigator the woman hired to look into her husband’s activities led Baltimore County officers to his van in the early morning of Oct. 14, 1999. Once there, officers shined a light into the van and saw the man and the boy lying next to each other under a blanket, according to the police report. Officers wrote it was obvious the man had his pants down.

Detectives took the man in for questioning and called the sex crimes unit to investigate. Police said the man admitted to repeated sexual contact with the teen, and that he had bought him several gifts since his family immigrated to the United States.

Police found a photo of Syed in the man’s possession and showed it to the teen, who recognized Syed from the mosque, according to the report. The teen told authorities the man had taken him to the jail to visit Syed while he awaited trial, the report said.

Perplexed about why the man was carrying Syed’s picture around, county police called the city detectives assigned to investigate Syed to report the incident, according to the report. But city Detective Bill Ritz told them the man wasn’t a suspect in Lee’s death and disappearance.

“Ritz advised that [the man] was a ‘mentor’ for Syed as well as other young [Muslim] men who attend the mosque,” the report reads.


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