Michelle Lee was a young forensic specialist hoping to solve crimes like the ones you see on prime time police dramas... never thinking it would be her body in the middle of a murder scene.
Here's how real-life investigators found the clues that led to her alleged killer.
By Matthew Malone
It’s a Story line right out of a CSI episode
Last April 26, a young woman comes home to her Queens, New York, apartment building from a weekend trip, heads upstairs, and goes right to sleep without seeing her room innate, Michelle. The next morning, she peeks into her roommate's room to say hello and finds a horrific scene: Michelle's lifeless body, naked, hound to the bedpost by her hands. A kitchen knife sticks out from her neck. Her torso has been burned with a steam iron.
The woman reportedly runs from the apartment and down the building's three flights of stairs, screaming, "She's dead in the bed!" The Crime Scene Unit of the New York City Police Department arrives to comb for clues and soon realizes there’s another reason, beyond the grisliness of the crime, that their investigation of this homicide will be far from routine: the victim, 24-year-old Michelle Lee, is one of their own.
Michelle and her roommate both worked in the NYPD Crime Laboratory, where Michelle was a rookie criminologist analyzing evidence in narcotics cases. She had started with the NYPD nine months earlier and was just reaching the goal she named in her high school yearbook: to work in forensics, a career now cut short by an unknown killer.
The scene of Michelle's death was disturbing, even to hardened homicide detectives - so heisted, in fact, that ultimately, investigators wondered whether it was extreme to the point of being staged by the killer, with the intent of throwing them off the trail. It was one of' many indications that this murder investigation would be one in which insider forensic knowledge would come into play - knowledge that came very close to sending detectives in the wrong direction.
Anatomy of a Crime Scene
The full story of the investigation has not yet been told, because at press time, the case had not gone to trial. And while prosecutors have now charged a suspect with Michelle's murder, he hasn't been convicted. That means much of the evidence uncovered at the crime scene and in interrogations has been closely hoarded by the NYPD.
However, some details have leaked out or are in the public record, allowing the forensic experts Cosmo consulted to piece together some of the steps that led to an arrest.
As with any violent crime, the medical examiner
and members of entire Crime Scene Unit first would have collected evidence at
the scene, explains Michael Baden, MD, former
Personal items like a diary, computer, and cell
phone - which can help identify potential suspects and a motive for the
crime-were surely collected. "Crime-scene investigation nowadays, with
all the electronics involved, goes beyond the four walls of the room" says
Dr. Baden. But the New York Daily News
reported that, as it happened, one of the most important pieces of evidence
found in Michelle's room was as low-tech as it gets: diary entries mentioning
a relationship with a man named Gary McGurk, a 23-year-old student at Lee’s
alma mater, John Jay College of Criminal Justice in
Detectives pulled him in for questioning, and on the evening of April 28, McGurk sat in the interview room of the NYPD’s 108th precinct and gave a long statement, some of which was later made public. Irish-born and scruffily good-looking, McGurk was close to earning a degree in forensic psychology, training designed to give insight into the mind of a murderer. Forensic experts familiar with the case say that McGurk's statement to police reveals telltale signs of that training and suggest he tried using his knowledge to outsmart his interrogators.
Face-to-race With the Cops
Vernon Geberth, former commanding officer of the NYPD’s Bronx Homicide Task Force who is now a consultant on homicide investigations and has worked on more than 8,000 murder cases, evaluated McGurk’s statement for Cosmo. His overall impression: "He is a manipulator with everyone, and that comes through in the interview. Everything he does, he does to cover up involvement in the crime."
The investigators started, as they usually do, by asking non-threatening questions, says Geberth, to make the suspect open up. McGurk talked about his family life, then he explained how Michelle had caught his eye in the fall of 2004, when he saw her jogging at the John Jay gym. He asked her out, and they dated for a short time, he said, but the relationship didn't pan out. "It was more physical than anything else," he told investigators. "It turned into friends with benefits."
McGurk said Michelle helped him out when she could, lending him money when he was out of work (he claimed to have lent her money as well) and worrying about him when he developed health problems.
Much of McGurk's description of Michelle was furry consistent with the picture painted of her by her many friends, who created a Facebook memorial page after her death. They remembered Michelle as a caring, loving, and responsible friend who loved food -- mac and cheese with ketchup was a favorite -- window-shopping, and reality shows on Bravo.
Michelle longed to own a pug and was self-assured
enough to wear "BarBe pink" nail polish, even while working in a
tough, male-dominated profession. And she excelled in that world: her academic
performance earned her the recognition of the joint Jay faculty and of
But then McGurk began to describe a different side: of Michelle...and that, according to Geberth, is where the forensic-psychology students know how really began to kick in.
Tales of Rough and Kinky Sex
Just as interrogators always hope, says Geberth, McGurk seemed to become more comfortable and his stories started ranging further afield, making slip-ups more likely. "I had very few disagreements with Michelle," McGurk said.
We had disagreements of a serial nature: dress up, light bondage, furry handcuffs, spanking, biting. Sometimes when we did the bondage, we did the asphyxiation. She'd be on top and choke; me. I'd be on top and choke her. One time, Michelle got very angry. She forgot to tap my wrist to stop chocking her. We decided never to do that again."
What McGurk was doing, Geberth feels, was planting an alternate explanation of the crime: that an unknown sexual sadist had killed her during kinky sex gone wrong. That convinces him that the crime scene was probably staged. Based on his experience studying murder scenes, Geberth has found that when the body is staged in a sexual way, it’s for one of three reasons: to satisfy the killer's deviant fantasy, to express anger toward the victim by demeaning her, or to draw attention away from the most likely suspect.
"The third scenario is the most insidious," says Geberth. "It's done by a clever offender. The way the victim's body was presented - nude, with the knife in the neck - investigators are taught to think of this as a sexual offense. That shows a perpetrator with knowledge of law enforcement."
McGurk went on to describe the night of the murder in careful detail - his date with his then-girlfriend, including exact times, subway lines, even the cost of a boat ride - but his account became fuzzy at the approximate time of Michelle's death. Here, says Geberth, he was trying to appear helpful and cooperative, but he went too far and his vagueness about the end of the evening was a red flag.
According to McGurk, he had gone to Michelle's street late that night to collect $500 she owed him. Although it was after 2 a.m., he said they walked the block as she told him she couldn't repay him yet. "I got to her apartment door, and she said she had company and said good night and walked off” said McGurk. "At 3:56 a.m., I received a call on my cell phone from Lee. Here, look - check my phone," he added to detectives. "He couldn't wait to show them the cell phone," says Geberth, possibly because he had called his phone with hers to throw them off.
Meanwhile, McGurk was working to present himself as someone with a moral base, someone who could barely tolerate the brutality he saw as a forensics student, much less perpetrate it. During high school, he said, he had considered becoming a priest. Instead, he wound up at John Jay studying crime and criminals - work he found upsetting. "The pictures turn your stomach," he said of crime-scene photos. "It's too much to handle. I panic at needles...I find crime-scene photos and cadavers disturbing."
As they concluded the interview at 1:45 a.m., a detective asked McGurk if he'd like to say anything else. He responded with a statement that seems calculated to demonstrate that his ethics were far from those of a murderer.
"If I were to have done this to Michelle, I would not only embarrass myself but I would also embarrass my family," he said. 'Whatever happened to Michelle, whether it was an accident or on purpose does not matter. If I did it, I would deserve to be put away."
Because police had yet to process the evidence, an indictment at this point wasn't possible, so they let him go.
Waiting for the Verdict
It's still unknown whether investigators have identified a clear motive - the $500 McGurk said Michelle owed him hardly seemed enough - but motive isn't necessary for a conviction if the physical evidence is strong. So investigators event to work over the next four weeks, analyzing evidence from the bedroom (in a lab in the building where Michelle had worked), conducting more interviews, and looking at phone records. Pretrial, the D.A.’s office won’t disclose details of what was found, but the evidence convinced a grand jury in Queens County Supreme Court to hand down a six-count indictment against Gary McGurk on May 21.
He is charged with striking Michelle with a blunt instrument and stabbing her with the knife. In an attempt to cover up the crime, he allegedly tampered with blood evidence and Michelle's BlackBerry, and altered the condition and position of her body after death - possibly in the way Geberth described in his speculative scenario.
indictment was issued, police arrested McGurk at his mother's home in
Many questions remain that may or may not be answered at trial, when detectives are at liberty to detail how the evidence convinced them of his guilt and of' his duplicity in tampering with the evidence. Some of McGurk’s words to detectives about Michelle seem, in retrospect, to suggest there is much more yet to be revealed. "I get angry when people who don't know her try to act as if they do," he told them. "You know nothing. I knew Michelle like no one else. No one else."