CPJ concerned by lack of progress in Larry Lee murder investigation

New York, November 9, 2001—In a letter sent today to Guatemalan attorney general Adolfo González Rodas, CPJ expressed deep concern about the lack of progress in the investigation of the 1999 killing of Larry Lee, Guatemala correspondent for the financial wire service BridgeNews.

While the motive for Lee’s killing is unknown, it is quite clear that the murder investigation has been deeply flawed. Because Guatemalan authorities have not determined who killed Lee, or why he was killed, CPJ cannot rule out the journalist’s work as a motive.

On December 28, 1999, a friend found Lee’s body on the bed of his apartment in Zone One, a downtown district in Guatemala City. Lee had been stabbed in the throat, back, and side, and the apartment door was open. According to local press reports, newspapers were strewn on the floor of his apartment, suggesting that a scuffle had taken place.

A financial and economic reporter, Lee began free-lancing for BridgeNews in August 1998 and became a full-time reporter five months later. Born in 1958, he had worked as a free-lance and staff reporter and editor for several U.S. newspapers, including the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the El Paso Herald-Post, the San Antonio Express-News, and the Dallas Morning News.

Although Lee was not known to have received any threats for his work, he was said to have been working on a sensitive story about human rights abuses in Guatemala.

The investigation into Lee’s killing has been a tragedy of errors and would probably have stalled completely had the journalist’s family not fought to keep the limping inquiry alive. Fingerprints taken from the crime scene were never identified. Police conducted only cursory interviews with Lee’s friends and quickly lost touch with at least one individual who had been identified as a potential suspect. It took nearly two months for an autopsy report to be issued.

Guatemalan authorities kept Lee’s apartment sealed for nearly four months. When Lee’s brother Scott finally gained entry, he found a towel with bloodstains that did not match Lee’s blood type. Only three months later was the blood shipped to Colombia for DNA tests. The results have still not been received in Guatemala.

Whoever murdered Lee apparently stole his cell phone and used it to make calls, but authorities have made no effort to obtain a record of calls that might have been made after his death. Lee’s family acquired a copy of Lee’s phone bill from BridgeNews and had a private investigator make a cursory check of several of the numbers called, but Guatemalan police have not followed up this lead, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A special prosecutor has been appointed to handle the investigation, along with the cases of seven other U.S. citizens murdered in Guatemala since December 1999.