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Larry Lee
December 27, 1999

Case: Larry Lee

His throat had been slashed twice, in sloppy strokes.:

July 1, 2000
Ana Arana

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Guatemala City—Few in the United States know that on the morning of December 27, 1999, an American reporter was brutally stabbed to death in this city. Larry Lee, 41, a correspondent for the New York-based Bridge Financial News, was apparently attacked in his apartment after working late on the Guatemalan presidential elections.

December was to be Lee’s last month at work. After a year and a half in Guatemala reporting on financial stories, he wanted to try other things and was moving to Mexico City in late January. Lee filed his last election story by midnight. Throughout the night he sent three e-mails to, an old friend in New York City. His last e-mail read, "I’m going to bed." It was sent at 12:37 a.m. the morning of December 27. It was Lee’s last message to his friends in the United States—with whom he maintained a daily communication via e-mails. That morning, a neighbor heard thumping noises coming from Lee’s apartment.

Lee’s body was found 36 hours later, in the afternoon of December 28th. His throat had been slashed twice, in sloppy strokes. He was also stabbed in the back, the chest and had deep wounds on both wrists, as if he had resisted his attacker.

The Lee case received a lot of attention in Guatemala at the beginning. At least 50 journalists have been killed in this country in the last 20 years, and the murder of an American reporter is big news. But interest in the case waned, once preliminary findings were released, indicating Lee could have been killed in a homosexual love triangle, and not because of his work as a journalist. A careful evaluation of the Lee case files and in interviews with friends, relatives and colleagues, showed that once it was determined Lee was killed because of his gay relationships, his case stopped being top priority.

Homosexuality is legal in Guatemala, but there is considerable discrimination against gays. In fact in major human rights violations, rumors of homosexuality are often used to make the crimes seem less serious. And there are several cases of gay bashing which have never been solved.

Nine months after the Lee murder, there are no suspects in jail, his friends and lovers have not been properly questioned, and key evidence has been overlooked. "From looking at the documents, his death has the same importance to investigators as that of a prostitute," said a former government official familiar with criminal investigations. For instance, prosecutors continue to hold the idea that a male prostitute killed Lee, although pathology tests completed two months after the murder proved he had not had sex before his murder.

International press organizations have protested the lack of progress in the investigation. The Gay and Lesbian Journalist Association in the United States wrote the State Department shortly after the murder, expressing concern that delays in the investigation would be dangerous because of Lee’s sexual orientation. "We have urged them not to let the Guatemalan government brush this case under the carpet," said Robert Dodge, president of the group. But the group is not convinced Lee was killed because of his sexual lifestyle, but because of his work, so they have not pursued a strong advocacy.

Lee’s family has been in shock since his murder. His younger brother, Scott Lee and his younger sister, Janine Zerger have represented the family throughout the investigation. Scott has traveled twice to Guatemala to meet with prosecutors and a lawyer he hired to represent the family. And both times he was astounded at the prejudice and lack of knowledge about gay men he found among people connected to the investigation. Even a private investigator the family hired asked him whether Larry wore women’s clothes.

Lee’s siblings have kept details connecting his murder to his sexual life a secret with their parents and other relatives. Lee had never told his family he was gay. And Scott agrees that "it would be difficult for some of our relatives to deal with the fact that Larry died under those circumstances." But as his brother and sister see new opportunities to solve the case slip by with each month that transpires, they have become more determined to talk about how Lee’s sexual orientation has become a determinant cause of the sloppiness surrounding the case. "We want to look at the fact that as a journalist he could not separate his being in Guatemala to work as a journalist with the fact that he was gay," says Scott.

Every person involved with the investigation in Guatemala was reticent to talk about the case straightforwardly. It is as if by engaging in a lifestyle that is taboo for most Guatemalans, Lee was the criminal instead of the aggrieved party. Even Victor Hugo Garrido, the Public Ministry prosecutor handling the Lee case is embarrassed by some of the explicit sexual details included in the evidence. It would seem he should be used to most gritty details, with his two decades handling criminal investigations. Garrido, works out of a cramped office on the sixth floor of a chaotic building in downtown Guatemala. The elevator to get to his office is small and smelly. A sign pasted on the door warns against allowing more than four people at once in the elevator, to avoid getting stuck between floors. Garrido is a man in his 50s with a short beard and slicked back graying hair. His calm demeanor paints a stark contrast with the turmoil in his office. Heaps of documents are everywhere. "Lee’s case is hard to solve because there could be a number of suspects," he ruminated.

The Lee case file is an inch thick pile. It includes pictures of Lee’s body and inside his apartment. Investigators also made a video of the crime scene aware that the US Embassy would be very interested in the case. But even continuous interest form the U.S. consul has not moved the case one inch closer to solution.

On June 9th, sixth months after Lee’s murder, US Ambassador Prudence Bushnell wrote a letter to the Guatemalan attorney general, expressing her concern about the investigation. "I share the Lee family’s frustration over what appear to be several inexplicable delays and lapses in the criminal investigation," she writes.

Garrido won’t advance any hypothesis on the case. He says they have been able to piece together Lee’s life through the e-mails he sent friends in the United States. He points to a batch of e-mail messages where Lee talks about his love affairs.

The police say robbery was not a motive for the murder. Lee’s laptop, cash and other valuables were not taken. Only the VCR, a camera and Lee’s cellular phone were missing. Still, investigators initially fixed their attention on a gay prostitute who lived in Lee’s building, after the man, a Costa Rican named Freddy Campos, moved from his apartment a couple of days after the murder. Campos turned himself in and presented an alibi, which cleared him of all suspicion from the police.

The investigators have inexplicably failed to follow many leads. The pathology exams, which proved Lee did not go to a gay hangout and picked up a stranger for a night of deadly sex, were only completed two months after the murder. The apartment was dusted for fingerprints but nothing has been done with them. The prosecution also has not obtained an official cellular phone usage to track down numbers dialed after Lee was apparently dead.

But the biggest bungle in the case was the evidence left behind in the apartment right after the initial investigation. In April, Lee’s brother Scott entered the apartment to clean it up, and to his surprise found bloody clothing the police had overlooked. The clothes are the prosecution’s best lead to identify the killer. The blood is type O, while Lee was type A positive.

Lee’s life in Guatemala was low-key. The homosexual world in Guatemala is hidden and many men are married and lead a double life. Lee’s connection to this world did not include the traditional gay bars, because he did not drink nor smoke. Most of his gay friends were workers he had met around his apartment house. Lee was a kind and respectful man and he liked living among regular Guatemalans.

Paradoxically Lee seemed to feel more comfortable being gay in Latin America than in the United States, his friends said. Reared in a Southern Baptist home, he first told friends and acquaintances he was gay in 1995, when he was 36-years-old, and worked for the Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee.

Shortly thereafter, Lee changed his life around. He had won several journalism awards for his writing on social issues early on in his career, but had grown disillusioned with U.S. journalism. And after revealing his sexual orientation to others he became a vegetarian, went to Guatemala to learn Spanish and decided to move to Latin America, said David De Witt, a friend who worked with him at the News Sentinel.

After language school in Antigua, Guatemala, Lee lived in Honduras for three years. He moved back to the U.S. in 1997, but when Bridge Financial News offered him a job in Guatemala, he jumped at the opportunity. He didn’t mind that Guatemala was not exactly a hot spot for American reporters. "Larry didn’t care about money, he just wanted to help people and didn’t want to live the 9 to 5 life style," says Kathy Sheppard, who corresponded with Lee every day by e-mail.

Lee arrived in Guatemala in late 1998. Rather than finding an apartment in a wealthy, and safer neighborhood, as most foreigners do, he settled in the funky historic downtown area, where he rented a comfortable apartment in a rundown building, called Edificio del Centro--or downtown building. A sprawling gray cement structure, with 18 floors and cavernous hallways, the building was home to many foreign journalists during the Guatemalan civil war years. Today, however, the building is used as offices by some news agencies, lawyers and doctors, and is home to many odd characters. Lee was one of two foreign reporters living in the entire building. And neither knew each other.

The area near the building is flanked by the historical central square, a colonial park, the grand National Palace and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The streets are narrow with small sidewalks, that burst with people and energy during the day, and are disputed daily by street vendors and pedestrians. A central nerve for the government, courts and other agencies are located in the area. By night, the area is desolate and grubby, as street children, prostitutes and criminals wrestle for control of the area. Lee was not intimidated by his neighborhood. He walked everywhere and jogged on the streets in the morning.

Jorge López García, a young agronomist who had befriended Lee a year ago and became his boyfriend, found the body. García lived in another city, and could visit Lee every Tuesday afternoon. Worried because Lee did not answer both his cellular phone and his office phone, and the office answering machine was off, García expected trouble when he showed up at Lee’s doorstep. Newspapers were piled under the door and the apartment was in disarray.

The day Lee’s body was found, four other men besides García showed up at Lee’s apartment. Interviewed by the police they said they met Lee at the gym and at the two X-rated movie theaters. None of the stories were doubled checked by investigators, especially the story told by Manuel Santizo, a friend Lee dated for a long time until he met García. Lee’s family believe Santizo and the other friends should be investigated closely.

Lee had told friends he had hard time with Santizo, who was obsessed with him and often threw jealous fits. When Lee told Santizo he was leaving, he went crazy, Lee said in an e-mail he sent to Kathy Sheppard. Lee wanted to let go of that friendship but felt guilty. Santizo, a vendor at a local supermarket, had grown up in a home for trouble boys, and Lee he could help him get on with his life. Santizo was the last friend who saw Lee alive, they had spent Christmas Day mountain climbing at a nearby park. Nobody knows how that encounter went because Kathy Sheppard, a friend who wrote to Lee every day, and was his confidante, was out of reach for most of the Christmas holidays. "I never liked that guy, but I don’t know if he is guilty," said Sheppard.

The Lee family continues to pull at every straw on the investigation hoping to unravel it. "It is frustrating for us to try to get the investigation to move forward from here," says Scott, who lives in Minneapolis. "The pace is excruciatingly slow. We have been attempting to cause pressure to be applied to the Guatemalan government to get the investigation resolved, but we have also been concerned that too much pressure may cause the police to blame someone who may be innocent just so they can close the case."

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