A Crooked Odyssey
Convicted killer Robert E. Lee's case has been a protracted journey
When the phone rang, Dana Jones was at his desk at the mission. The caller was from Indiana parole.
“Do you take murderers?” the man asked, off-hand.“Yes,” Jones said. “We have before.”
Jones often worked with parole officials. He’s a director at Backstreet Missions, a Bloomington shelter for the poor and homeless. It also helps parolees. Sometimes, parolees struggle with bitterness and have forgotten how to relate to other people. Backstreet uses scripture to teach them forgiveness and patience. In the stairwell outside Jones’ office, a painting of Jesus hangs on the wall.
The caller from parole didn’t talk with Jones about any specific parolees who needed placement, murderers or otherwise. The two talked about Backstreet’s programs, then hung up.
Two weeks later, a chaplain told Jones some of the men at the mission were worried. They’d read a front-page article in the Herald-Times about a man who had been convicted of murdering a local woman in 1986. The man was being released from prison and returned to Bloomington at the end of the week.
Jones read the man’s name, Robert Evan Lee. He read details of the crime for which Lee been locked away. And he read that parole officials were likely to bring Lee to Backstreet.
“Really?” Jones thought.
* * *
The call to Backstreet was the prologue to Indiana’s protracted and torturous attempt to free one of its most notorious citizens. After he was escorted from prison, Robert E. Lee was hounded, demonized and dragged from one end of the state to the other. After two months of stops and starts, his story sputtered to a conclusion that seemed, in some ways, the only possible ending.
Lee’s crooked odyssey tapped into our most primal fears, revealing our confusion about punishment, forgiveness and the limits of freedom.
The fear was understandable. Twenty-five years ago, Lee was convicted of stabbing a neighbor to death, cutting her body into pieces and burying parts of her in a dirt lot not far from IU’s campus. Other parts of her body, including her head and hands, were never found. Privately, some suspected cannibalism.
Lee, 31 at the time, insisted he was innocent. But the jury found him guilty of murder and dismemberment, and the judge sentenced him to 60 years.
“There are some that should be prohibited from walking with society,” the judge told him.
Lee disappeared behind bars, swallowed up inside the prison system. Eventually he was forgotten even by many Bloomington locals.
Two and a half decades later, correction officials realized Lee’s release date was approaching even though he’d completed less than half of his original sentence. For every day he served in prison, another day had been knocked off of his term. He’d shaved off another four years by enrolling in educational programs.
It didn’t matter if officials thought Lee was still dangerous. In Indiana, early release dates are set the day someone is sentenced, and they had no review process to decide whether to let him go.
Standard procedure calls for a parolee to be taken back to the last county where he had an address. Lee was returning to Bloomington.
After the Herald-Times ran the piece about Lee’s upcoming release, the panic began. Bloomington residents called the police and newspapers, demanding an explanation. Why was this “monster” — a word used repeatedly — being set free? What if he killed again?
Reporters asked correction officials if Lee had been given a mental health assessment to make sure he wasn’t still dangerous. Can’t talk about it, they said. Inmate confidentiality.
What officials did talk about was Lee’s safety. Now that the public’s memory had been refreshed, would someone exact revenge? It was hard to imagine how Lee would convince employers to give him a job, find a church to accept him into a congregation, ride on a bus next to passengers who recognized his face.
* * *
That face appears on the Indiana Sex and Violent Offender Registry.
The site lists Lee’s alias as “Bob” and his current age as 57. It records his height at 5 feet 4 inches and his weight at 145 pounds. It reports that he’s a sex offender — he was convicted of attempted rape years before the murder. But there is no mention of him killing or dismembering anyone. No hint of his personality or history, no clue as to who he became during more than two decades of incarceration.
Long before he was sent to prison, Lee was a loner. He never married and had no children. He’d worked a series of jobs, cleaning up after students in the Indiana Memorial Union, slicing pizza at a Noble Roman’s, manning the cash register at the 7-Eleven on West 11th Street. He had been fired multiple times.
His criminal record stretched back to his teenage years. At 18, he was convicted of attempting to rape a woman at knifepoint in New York and served five years in prison. At 25, he pleaded guilty to attempted theft after trying to siphon gas from a school bus in Spencer, Ind., and served two years. At 28, he was convicted of driving while intoxicated and giving alcohol to a minor. He was sentenced to a year in jail, but most of it was suspended.
In Bloomington, Lee lived in a boarding house not far from campus. His only valuable possessions, he later said in court, were a small color television and microwave oven. He had $71 in cash and a savings account containing $26.
Daniel Grundmann, now the employee services director for the city and an IU professor, remembers Lee from that period, when they worked together at Noble Roman’s. Grundmann recalls Lee spent his days in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and mixing dough. Lee, who was shy and awkward, didn’t talk to customers. Grundmann had the impression Lee struggled with a developmental disability. Something about Lee made it easy for other employees at the restaurant to blame him every time there was a spill in the kitchen or they ran short on dough — even if he was nowhere nearby.
Decades later, the IU instructor talks about Lee in class. He discusses herd mentality in the workplace. Inside that pizza kitchen, Grundmann tells students, Lee was a classic example.
“He was the playground scapegoat,” the professor said.
What Grundmann didn’t know, back at Noble Roman’s, was that in private Lee already harbored violent and unsettling thoughts that would draw the attention of Bloomington police.
According to court records, Lee wrote down a detailed plan to rape, mutilate and murder a woman. He showed a friend a spiral notebook containing the violent blueprint and asked the friend to copy it down, memorize it and help him carry it out. As the friend copied one of the pages, Lee suddenly asked him to stop writing.
“That’s liable to get me 20 years,” the friend remembered Lee saying.
The other man went to the police. Officers visited the boarding house and questioned Lee, who reached into a dresser drawer and showed them the notebook. He admitted he’d fantasized about what was inside:
Girl or woman must be abducted, or killed in a reletivly isolated zone. If killed corpse is to be imediately moved to a place of shelter that is well screened and not traveled normally (woods, abandoned building). If abducted, girl or woman is to be tied, gagged and leg hobbled and moved to a safe area.
Police could find no grounds to arrest him. Lee had not carried out his plan, as far as they could tell, and there was no law against violent daydreams.
Three years later, the neighbor woman went missing.
* * *
Ellen Marks lived in the margins. Once a promising graduate student at IU, she was now 31 and had long since dropped out. She lived in a shanty with only three walls. Years before, she had traveled to Europe and immersed herself in English literature. Now she survived on odd jobs, mucking out a goat barn and showering at other people’s houses.
Somewhere along the way, Marks’ life had skidded off the tracks. Born into an affluent family, she excelled at Ohio’s prestigious Columbus School for Girls. She played flute in the high school marching band and won academic awards in history and science. Her photo did not appear in her senior yearbook. In its place, a line drawing of a face stared out with empty spaces where there should have been eyes. Below the drawing was a Henry David Thoreau quote.
The air is full of invisible bolts. Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.
Marks studied English at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, then moved to Bloomington with a fellowship to study English literature. Two years later, she quit. Advisers described her as brilliant but disorganized. She stopped speaking to her family. She wafted through Bloomington, finally taking refuge in her three-walled shack. The 10-by-10 wooden structure stood in a lot on the corner of 10th and Summitt streets. There was no electricity or water.
The shanty contained only a few belongings: a loom Marks had built herself, a flute she’d carved out of wood. In high school, she’d played the same instrument in a band, surrounded by people. Now she played alone.
Her neighbors worried. Marc Haggerty, who lived nearby, still remembers how sad and lonely Marks seemed. By fall 1986, the Haggertys knew her well enough to feel protective. That September, it was starting to get cold, and Haggerty’s wife gave her yarn for her loom.
A week or so later, the Haggertys realized they hadn’t seen Marks in days. Haggerty’s wife asked him to check the shanty.
When he saw Marks wasn’t home, Haggerty grew uneasy. Searching for hints to clarify her absence in the weeds outside, he saw something that made his heart pound.
A splotch of red dirt.
It was no bigger than a fingernail, but Haggerty knew something was wrong. The topsoil in that neighborhood was brownish-black. The only red dirt rested a foot and a half down, he said. Someone had been digging deep enough to unearth that speck, and recently.
When the police were summoned, they excavated the lot and found what was left of Ellen Marks’ body buried and decomposing in a shallow grave. Her torso had been cut open, and pieces were stuffed into Hefty trash bags.
It didn’t take long before someone in the department remembered Lee and his notebook, realizing the boarding house where Lee still lived was only 100 yards away from the lot.
Investigators sprayed the area near her grave with Luminol, a chemical used to find traces of iron, and discovered Marks’ blood in the dirt. When Luminol combines with iron, the reaction glows neon blue. The trail led the investigators to the back door of Lee’s boarding house, where it appeared pools of blood had dripped to the steps.
After searching Lee’s apartment, investigators removed a saw and a hatchet, some knives, a stack of porn magazines — and a box of Hefty trash bags.
Lee’s behavior shortly before the murder heightened officers’ suspicions. According to court documents, Lee had grown more quiet and irritable in the days before the murder, snapping at people who teased him. He asked a friend to sharpen the knife he usually wore on his belt, and he’d bought a small garden shovel shortly before Marks disappeared.
Officers took Lee to the police station, interrogating him for hours. Lee hung his head and mumbled that he was innocent.
* * *
The prosecution’s case was far from airtight.
The blood trail evidence was thrown out after the defense questioned whether the police knew how to spray Luminol. This case marked the first time Bloomington police had ever used it.
Lee’s statements during questioning were never heard by the jury. The police captain in charge of the investigation said the officers had used “questionable tactics” during the interrogation. They admitted to insulting Lee with foul language, accusing him of having sex with his mother and acting in a way that would have embarrassed the department if the tapes were played in court. The captain had erased most of the tapes before anyone else could hear them.
Once the case went to trial the following July, the prosecution called an expert who testified the Hefty bags found in Lee’s room were from the same box as one of the bags containing Marks’ dismembered body. That testimony, along with the murderous plan inside Lee’s notebook — “almost a blueprint,” the coroner called it — was enough for the jury to unanimously find Lee guilty.
At the sentencing hearing, Lee looked tired as Monroe Circuit Judge Kenneth Todd proclaimed the defendant had lost contact with humanity.
“He took advantage of an emotionally infirm and vulnerable victim,” the judge said. “The script and physical evidence of the body suggest the victim was tortured and treated in an inhumane manner. Atrocities were committed.”
The prosecutor later acknowledged problems with the evidence and persuaded him to not seek the death penalty. Instead he asked for 60 years, the maximum prison sentence then available. A life sentence without parole didn’t exist in Indiana until the early 1990s.
Lee was originally sent to Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison northeast of Indianapolis. Eventually he was moved to Branchville, a medium security facility south of Bloomington. He was still in Branchville when Indiana law required parole to release him.
If Lee had been convicted in another state — Michigan, for instance — a parole board would have determined whether early release was merited. The board would have weighed the violence of Lee’s crime, his behavior in prison and whether he knew how to live on his own again. In Indiana, parole does not have that discretion.
Lee took off an additional 183 days of his already reduced sentence by training as an assembly technician and another 183 for studying commercial housekeeping. He received a one-year reduction for an associate’s degree and another two years for a bachelor degree, both in business management.
Since Lee has shown little interest in talking to the press, it’s impossible to know whether he took the classes to shorten his sentence or if he genuinely thought the degrees would help him once he was out. Though who would hire someone famous for murder and dismemberment to run their business?
* * *
Only weeks before Lee would be released, parole agents knew they had to find him someplace to live. They turned to Backstreet.
In September, Dana Jones took the Herald-Times article about Lee’s history to his boss. Linda Kelley, who founded Backstreet with her late husband, knew there was no way the shelter could take Lee. She told parole that day. Though Backstreet has worked with murderers before, Lee’s earlier conviction for attempted rape made him a sex offender. Backstreet is less than half a mile from Bloomington New Tech High School, and state law prevents sex offenders from living so close to a school.
Kelley also worried about Lee’s safety. People were already posting swarms of outraged and panicked comments on the Herald-Times website, making vague threats.
“We will all walk in fear now,” one reader wrote. Another answered, “He is the one who should ‘walk in fear.’”
The state had a problem.
* * *
Lee was released Sept. 22. A GPS monitor was strapped to his ankle.
He didn’t have a driver’s license, and parole restrictions barred him from getting into someone’s car without supervision. An officer drove him from the prison in Branchville to a Bloomington apartment, but the owner changed his mind, deciding Lee couldn’t live there after he’d arrived.
Charles Bowen, a region director for the Department of Correction, said officials quickly realized they couldn’t leave Lee in Bloomington. It didn’t matter what the parole officers thought of Lee. They couldn’t put him in harm’s way.
“It’d be against everything we stand for,” Bowen said.
They made inquiries outside the city. They got multiple no’s. Finally someone said yes. Lee’s parole agent worked with convicted sex offender William Fugate, now out of prison and living in a house outside Butlerville, in Jennings County. The agent asked Fugate if he was willing to live with a murderer, and he agreed.
“Mr. Fugate gave us all a lesson on courage,” Bowen said.
Parole agents found Lee a manufacturing job in Jennings County. But the arrangement stuck for only nine days. The news coverage was mushrooming, triggering scare headlines. Reporters interviewed Butlerville residents who said they didn’t want him living there, either. People there wrote to their local newspaper, calling Lee a “sick animal.”
Lee’s next stop was far from ideal. Correction officials took him to an America’s Best Inn on the southern outskirts of Indianapolis. As the news coverage continued, Lee spent most of his time tucked away in his room. The Indianapolis Star printed a brief interview.
“People are giving me all kinds of grief,” Lee told a reporter. “I’ve been run out of Bloomington because someone did a lot of screaming and hollering. In Jennings, they’re saying, ‘Shoot him, burn him down.’”
He pulled up a pant leg to show his GPS anklet.
“I’m being watched very closely,” he said. “They know my every move.”
* * *
By now, it was late October. Parole officials looked north for their next solution and placed Lee at a work release center in South Bend. For the first time since his release, Lee was returning to a facility run by the correction department. The squat building that housed South Bend Community Reentry was encircled by barbed wire fences crowned with spikes.
Once he arrived, Lee was the only resident no longer serving a sentence. He slept in a bunk bed inside barracks with the rest of the population, woke at 5 a.m., made his bed and ate breakfast.
In an interview at the center, Superintendent Greg Cress explained that the center’s program rehabilitates inmates within one to two years of release.
“They’ve been down for so long,” Cress said, “they don’t know the outside anymore.”
On Nov. 19, the superintendent was interviewed, but Lee was not in the building. He was looking for a job. By then, he had applied for food stamps and sought help putting together his resume. He bought a two-week pass for the city buses.
Many of the inmates at the center work in the local RV industry or at other manufacturing jobs making $8-10 per hour. Lee applied for some of those positions but was turned down.
Two months after he was released from prison, it was becoming increasingly difficult to envision his future. Technically, he was free, but what kind of life could he make for himself? Almost no one wanted to hire him. He had little money and limited prospects of finding his own lodging. Across Indiana, many considered him a fiend. Some wanted him dead.
For the moment, though, he was safe. At the center, he had a bed, meals and routine that must have seemed familiar.
The news reports had started to die down. It was November, and the election pushed Lee’s mugshot off the front page. Thanksgiving was only three days away, and the center was decorated with criss-crossed orange streamers. The superintendent ordered a turkey dinner for the inmates. It’s not easy to make a work-release center seem festive, but the staff was trying.
* * *
Lee’s odyssey abruptly ended the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. Correction officials have released almost no details except to say he got into a car with a lone woman in South Bend. Though he said he was just giving her directions, getting into a car with a stranger violated his parole. Officials took him into custody at the county jail while they decided what to do with him next.
The parole board will have to review his case by the end of January. Lee’s violation could earn him up to 17 more years in prison.
Kelley has heard Lee is back in custody. She understands his story makes people angry, but what she feels, both for Lee and for Marks’ family, is a lingering sadness.
She doesn’t know why Lee got into that car. Maybe it was the simplest way to return to prison, the place where he’d spent almost his entire adult life, where the world forgot about him and left him alone.
In her mission work, Kelley has known parolees who long to go back to the steadiness and safety waiting behind bars.
“People come out and try to reconstruct their lives,” she said. “But it’s very difficult.”
Deep into a winding odyssey, the drifter searches for a way home. Maybe Lee found his.