Murder Deep Within the Woods

Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

The following is an excerpt from my book ‘Deep Within the Woods: True Crime Murders Committed in Dark Woods’ and contains descriptions of murder. Reader discretion is advised.

Baltimore, Maryland; the subject of a smash-hit musical (Hairspray) and home to over 600,000 people. This city would probably feel like an endless concrete jungle if it weren’t for Leakin Park, the largest park in the city and, according to some, Baltimore’s largest open-air cemetery.

The local government has tried its best to make the park seem less attractive to those looking for dark and secluded places perfect for hiding bodies. They’ve done this by investing in hiking trails, helping set up sports teams, and even a nature preservation center.

But no government intervention will ever stop Leakin Park from being an enormous wooded area filled with hundreds of places that are perfect for burying bodies. One such body was that of Hae Min Lee, a high school student and Korean immigrant who was killed in 1999.

Her ex-boyfriend was arrested and convicted for her murder, but more than 20 years later, her case was dug back up by the enormously popular podcast ‘Serial,’ an offshoot of ‘This American Life.’

The podcast discovered enormous success in re-examining Hae Min Lee’s case and calling into question the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed. Since then, public interest has sparked a new trial and a HBO mini-series.

Here is the story of how Hae Min Lee was discovered in Leakin Park and the circumstances surrounding those accused of her murder.

February 9th, 1999. Alonzo Sellers drove his truck along a long and lonely road beside Baltimore’s largest park. He was on his way to work and drinking a Budweiser when he decided that he couldn’t hold back his pee anymore.

Sellers pulled his truck to the side of the road and walked 127 feet into Leakin Park, where roughly 80 bodies have been discovered since 1946. Once he found a place to relieve himself in private, he looked down and saw what he thought might be human hair.

He wondered to himself for a moment before seeing what could only be a human foot in the corner of his eye. He had only left his truck to pee and had somehow stumbled upon a hastily buried body.

The body was that of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. Family members had been looking for Lee for nearly a month before Sellers found her body. This discovery opened a murder case that would rock the local community and change hundreds of lives forever.

Hae Min Lee was born in South Korea in 1980 and immigrated with her family to Baltimore in 1992. She was a bright and athletic student who attended Woodlawn High School, where she had formerly dated Adnan Syed.

When Lee first went missing, the police interviewed her friends, boyfriend, and former boyfriend (Syed), trying to find her. When police called Syed, he said he hadn’t seen her since school had let out at the end of the school day.

Police may have launched a thorough investigation into who had killed Lee but felt they didn’t have to after receiving an anonymous phone call three days after her body was discovered. The caller told the police to focus on Syed for their investigation. We still have no conclusive evidence on who made that call, although some have speculated that it was one of the leaders at the mosque where Syed prayed and may have confessed.

This anonymous call led police to interview Jay Wilds, a friend of Syed’s, and the person that would provide critical testimony that would lead to Syed being convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment plus thirty years.

It all started when Syed and Wilds started hanging out more often and smoking weed together. According to Wilds, they weren’t great friends, but they smoked and got to know each other. Wilds was known in the local area as a drug dealer; according to some sources, he was small-time, but others say he dealt in large quantities.

According to Wilds, during one of their smoking sessions, Syed was mad because Lee was dating someone new. Even though they had broken up, Syed felt cheated by Lee and reportedly said something along the lines of “I’m going to kill that bitch”.

Syed disputes that claim, saying that he knew about Lee’s new boyfriend and was supportive of her continuing to date others after their relationship. He said that, like any teenage boy, he wasn’t very attached to any one girl, and wanted to date as many girls as possible. Wilds disagrees with this, saying that she was Syed’s first love, and her dating someone else besmirched his honor.

Jay said that he didn’t take Syed’s threat against Lee’s life seriously, thinking that Syed was blowing off steam. He thought it was said in a hyperbolic way, but he since regrets taking it this way.

Lee had been dating someone new for some time, and Syed recounted having “caught her” with this guy as though it were a secret.

According to Wilds, Syed ditched the last period of school on the day of Lee’s murder, then called Wilds and asked him to come and pick him up from Best Buy. When Wilds arrived, Syed reportedly said, “Oh shit, I did it,” Wilds replied, “did what?” To which Syed finally admitted, “I killed Hae.”

The two teenagers then smoked weed before Wilds returned to his grandmother’s house, where Syed met him that evening in Lee’s car. Wilds came outside to meet him, and Syed popped the trunk. When Wilds looked inside, he saw Lee’s body, confirming that Syed had been telling the truth and had killed her just as he’d promised.

He remembers Lee looking purple and blue but not looking beaten. He also recalled seeing her with her clothes on, implying that nothing sexual had happened. The cause of death was reported as manual strangulation.

Wilds went on to say that while he wouldn’t touch Lee’s body, he did agree to help Syed dig the hole. He was worried because, being an “inner-city black guy” and a drug dealer who sells to high school students, Syed had too much leverage over him. He was worried that not obeying Syed would result in him being turned in to the police, and since he ran his drug operation from inside his grandmother’s house, an arrest would ruin her life too.

For this reason, while he wouldn’t agree to touch Lee, he decided that he would help dig the hole. Syed then left and returned later that night, asking if Wilds had any shovels. They went into the house and collected shovels before getting into the car and driving out onto the road. Wilds asked where they should go, to which Syed remarked, “Didn’t you say everyone gets dumped in Leakin Park?”

This has been an excerpt from my brand new book ‘Deep Within the Woods: True Crime Murders Committed in Dark Woods’ available on Amazon.

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