Baltimore County Police detectives arrived at a home in the shadow of Woodlawn High School in May 2020 hoping to take a photograph of the man who lived there.
Two weeks earlier, that man had emerged from a nearby tract of woods, wearing nothing but a mask and carrying what looked like a pink child’s jacket, and chased after a horrified postal worker.
Investigators got a picture of the man — masked and shirtless — when they visited his home, but noted in police documents that they also found newspaper clippings from 1999 to January 2000 in his basement, along with pornography and empty alcohol containers.
“The majority of these items,” police wrote, “were secreted underneath a couch.”
Police records do not say what the content of the newspaper clippings are. But their owner, who lives less than 1,000 feet from the school, is the man who discovered the body of Woodlawn senior Hae Min Lee in February 1999 in the woods of Leakin Park.
Baltimore Police considered him a suspect in Lee’s death at the time, but cleared him after a pair of lie detector tests, the first of which he failed, according to court documents. Then, authorities set their sights on Adnan Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend, who ultimately was convicted of murder in 2000.
Twenty-three years later, Syed, who became internationally known due to the popular “Serial” podcast, is free and the man who found the body is one of two people city prosecutors labeled “alternative suspects” in Lee’s killing, according to public records and people familiar with the case who are not authorized to speak publicly about it. While the other suspect has strong ties to Syed and allegedly threatened Lee’s life, this one was a key figure in the original trial and investigation.
Authorities did not know during the original investigation that the man who found Lee’s body in Leakin Park had a connection to the grassy lot in West Baltimore where police found Lee’s car, prosecutors now say. Property records show the father of the man’s niece owns a home on the 10-house block that backs up to the lot.
What’s more, a relative of the man who found Lee’s body was a math teacher at Woodlawn when Lee and Syed were students.
Though his identity may be known to those who’ve followed Syed’s legal saga or listened to “Serial,” The Baltimore Sun is not naming him because he is not charged in Lee’s death. The man did not return reporters’ calls and texts, did not answer the door at his home and did not respond to a video recording on his doorbell camera.
A judge overturned Syed’s conviction in September, and city prosecutors dropped all charges in a one-minute hearing Oct. 11, citing a final round of DNA analysis they say excluded Syed. A mixture of four people’s DNA was detected on Lee’s shoes, which were recovered from her car, but it’s unclear whether prosecutors know who it points to.
The office of Democratic State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby of Baltimore would not say whether the DNA was compared with the suspects’ profiles. A spokeswoman for the office declined to comment for this article, but said separately that the office stands by its decision to exonerate Syed.
“Only a portion of our findings have been released publicly to protect the integrity of this open and pending investigation,” spokeswoman Emily Witty said.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, whose office represented the state for Syed’s appeals, and retired Baltimore Circuit Judge Wanda Keyes Heard, who presided over Syed’s second trial and sentenced him to life in prison, have raised doubts about the significance of the DNA found on Lee’s shoes. Lee’s family is arguing in an appeal that their rights as victims were violated when Syed’s conviction was overturned.
In an affidavit filed to support the appeal, Heard wrote that the jury’s decision to convict Syed was supported by “substantial direct and circumstantial evidence,” including “testimonial and documentary evidence demonstrating” Syed’s motive for killing Lee.
In their motion to overturn Syed’s conviction, city prosecutors laid out evidence they say warrants another look at the man who found Lee’s body. They said police in the original investigation acted improperly in using faulty polygraph tests to clear him in the case.
Authorities at the time said Lee was attacked in her car, and prosecutors wrote in the motion to vacate Syed’s conviction that the man who found her body had since attacked a woman in her vehicle “without provocation.”
That appears to refer to the man’s 2020 conviction in Baltimore County. He was charged with second-degree assault and indecent exposure stemming from his altercation with the postal worker in Woodlawn.
The postal worker was delivering mail along her route in a wooded area when she saw the man “naked, walking in the woods near the public roadway,” County Assistant State’s Attorney Lisa Dever said during the man’s plea hearing. The woman, who was on the phone with her boss, snapped a picture of the man.
“The man ran towards her car. He was still naked. He grabbed the door handle of the postal truck to try to get her out of the truck,” Dever said. The postal worker “panicked, rolled up her window and was screaming for him to get off of her truck and she drove away because he was trying to get into her car.”
The man pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault, got a suspended prison sentence and five years of supervised probation that included sex offender treatment. At the hearing, Dever noted that he discovered Lee’s body years ago and described the man as a “serial indecent exposurer.”
He was convicted of indecent exposure in 1996, twice in 2000 and once again in 2004, a case in which he also pleaded guilty to assault, online court records show. He was arrested and accused of streaking on at least two other occasions without being convicted, including once in 2015, when, according to the police report, residents of Northwest Baltimore nicknamed the person running naked “The Bunny Man.”
There is no evidence Lee was sexually assaulted. She was strangled and buried in Leakin Park. She was last seen leaving school after 2 p.m. Jan. 13, 1999. Typically, Lee would pick up her cousin around 3:15 p.m., but she did not pick him up that day, court records show.
At the same time, a review of police records shows that the man who found her body was working his maintenance job at Coppin State University. He clocked in at 7:30 a.m., took a 30-minute break at noon and did not clock out until 4 p.m.
He found Lee’s body in the park about three weeks later, on Feb. 9. The man told authorities he went home during his lunch break to pick up a tool, grabbed a 22-ounce Budweiser to drink on the way back to Coppin, stopped on Franklintown Road and walked 127 feet into the woods to urinate when he noticed her body. The man testified at Syed’s trial about finding Lee.
“If you’re just walking to get back in the woods to do your business, I guess you can find it,” he said of the place he found Lee.
At the time, the man drove back to campus and sought out former Coppin State police officer George Anderson.
“He said, ‘Corporal Anderson, I just found a dead body in the woods,’” Anderson recalled in a recent interview with The Sun.
The school’s police force reported the finding to Baltimore Police.
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But the man’s story never made much sense to Anderson, who questioned why someone would go so far into the woods to relieve himself.
“Most people would just pull over, act like they’re looking around and just take a leak,” Anderson said.
Syed’s attorney at trial, the late Cristina Gutierrez, tried to bring up the man’s past indecent exposure charges, telling the judge his convictions were relevant because it was strange for someone who’d run around naked in public several times to walk deep into the woods for privacy to pee.
In the days and weeks after he found Lee’s body, detectives interviewed the man on at least three occasions, including having him take two polygraph tests, according to court records. Polygraph tests are not admissible as evidence in criminal trials.
During the first test, detectives asked the man if he knew Lee, if he killed her and if he had ever been to the place where she was buried before, according to court records. He answered no, but detectives described the man as “nervous” and “time conscious,” as he repeatedly checked his watch. The official results read “Deception Indicated.”
Detectives brought him in for another test, which he passed. But prosecutors now say the type of test was flawed, even more so than regular polygraphs, and was not reliable for detecting truth or deception.
Baltimore Sun reporters Hayes Gardner and Cassidy Jensen contributed to this article.