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Detectives Learn Why a John Jay Student Brutally Murdered a Rising NYPD Criminalist
A peculiar lack of blood at the crime scene puzzled detectives trying to uncover who tortured and killed one of their own.
Michelle Lee, 24, had her whole life ahead of her as a criminalist for the N.Y.P.D.’s crime lab. But when she was found murdered in her home, one N.Y.P.D. rookie’s sharp eye would help crack the case of who killed one of their own.
It was Monday, April 29, 2009, when police officers were dispatched to Lee’s home in Sunnyside, a quiet neighborhood in the western part of Queens. There, Erica Krantzler reported finding her roommate, Lee, in what would be referred to as a “gruesome” crime scene. Lee was bound to her bed with black cord around her wrists.
According to N.Y.P.D. Detective Edward Wilkowski of the Queens Homicide Squad, Lee was discovered nude — possibly due to a sexual assault — and a knife was protruding from her neck.
“Her head, above her eye, was really crushed in,” Wilkowski told New York Homicide, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen. “And then there was an iron on the floor, and she had been burnt with the iron, so there was the imprint of the iron in between her breasts.”
Lee also sustained a slash wound to the abdomen and what appeared to be a brand mark on the inside of one of her legs, purportedly from a heated knife.
Shamal Tatum of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office cybercrime unit was then a rookie cop and aspiring detective with the N.Y.P.D. For him, Lee’s murder was his first homicide case, one he believed was a “crime of passion,” he told New York Homicide.
“It is awful,” Wilkowski continued. “You don’t want to see anybody’s body end up in the condition that her body was left in.”
A Thorough Investigation
Investigators found no evidence of a break-in, suggesting that Lee possibly knew her assailant. Lee’s roommate, Krantzler — also an N.Y.P.D. criminalist — told detectives she was away visiting her father for the weekend, and that when she returned Sunday evening, she found Lee’s bedroom door closed and assumed she was asleep.
Due to the sexual nature of the crime, detectives inquired about a romantic partner, but the roommate was unaware of any such person.
Investigators did learn, however, that Lee was a recent graduate of Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as recounted by Professor Angelique Carthals.
“Michelle made an impression on a lot of professors because she was such a forthcoming student,” Carthals told New York Homicide. “She was a force to reckon with; she definitely had that mission of justice ingrained in her.”
Upon earning her degree, Lee entered the N.Y.P.D.’s crime lab, inspecting items of evidentiary value for the same authorities now investigating her death.
“This case happened in our home,” said Tatum. “You don’t want to mess up. You want to find the bad guy.”
Back at the crime scene, police found it unusual that, despite the horrific injuries, there was little blood spatter near Lee's body. They were also surprised that no one living locally heard screams coming from Lee’s apartment.
Additionally, police found evidence at the top of Lee’s trash pail, including a tissue containing semen. The evidence was discarded alongside a receipt timestamped to the night of Lee’s murder, leading detectives to believe the semen sample was recent and that whoever left it did so around the time Lee was killed.
Sgt. Robert “Bobby” Knights, commander of the 108th Precinct’s detective squad, wondered if Lee’s homicide was a “sadistic sex act gone bad.”
A thorough investigation and a low-key boyfriend
Detectives processing the crime scene found Lee’s personal diary and hoped to glean information about the people in Lee’s life. According to investigative journalist Gabrielle Fonrouge, the pages revealed Lee was secretly dating a man named Gary.
“She’s writing about how much she loves him, how much she enjoys being with him, how much she wants to be his girlfriend,” Fonrouge told New York Homicide. “She’s just gushing about this guy in her life.”
Detectives canvassed John Jay, learning that the man whom Lee wrote about was a college senior named Gary McGurk, a “charming,” Irish-born man pursuing his forensic sciences degree in America, according to Det. Wilkowski. Both Lee and McGurk had met through their studies, drawn together by their common interests.
McGurk voluntarily spoke with investigators, explaining that he and Lee were on-again, off-again partners and that he had another girlfriend separate from Lee. He admitted to having a sexual relationship with the victim, one that included bondage, asphyxiation, and other sexual fetishes.
McGurk also hailed Lee as a giving person who’d paid upward of $5,000 to help McGurk receive cancer treatments.
When asked about the time surrounding Lee’s murder, McGurk happily showed detectives that Lee called him, indicating that he was nowhere near the crime scene. His other girlfriend also supported his alibi that he was in Manhattan when Lee was killed, putting McGurk at the bottom of their suspect list.
McGurk also volunteered his D.N.A. for detectives.
Back at square one of the investigation, police took a deep dive into Lee’s job with the force. Since Lee testified in several drug cases as part of her work, they wondered if someone was out for revenge.
“When members of organized crime groups decide to kill somebody as a form of revenge, it’s not just enough to kill them,” said Fonrouge. “There’s usually some gruesome level of torture that’s involved with it; something really depraved.”
But no one from Lee’s cases stuck out to investigators. However, the investigation shifted when detectives received Lee’s postmortem examination results.
The “Shocking” Results of an Autopsy and a New Theory
Det. Wilkowski described the “shocking” results to New York Homicide, explaining that Lee’s official cause of death was asphyxia. The wounds to the head, neck, and abdomen, as well as the burn marks, were all sustained postmortem. It was “puzzling” for investigators, who wondered who would have gone to such lengths to inflict the injuries after Lee was already deceased.
“The person who killed Michelle went through a great deal of time to stage the scene,” Wilkowski surmised. “I believe it was to see if they could throw the detective off to look in the wrong direction.”
Working under the theory that the killer was attempting to outsmart the police, homicide detectives returned to Lee’s romantic interest, Gary McGurk, taking a fresh look at his alibi. They obtained a warrant to search the boyfriend’s phone records to confirm it.
Detectives found McGurk had, in fact, taken a call from Lee just before 4:00 a.m., but he didn’t accept the call while in Manhattan, as he and his current girlfriend told police. Instead, he took the call while in Calvary Cemetery, not far from Lee’s apartment.
The lie prompted detectives to search hours and hours of surveillance footage, with up-and-coming investigator Shamal Tatum on the task.
“I was the lowest one on the totem pole, the rookie,” Tatum told New York Homicide.
An Eagle-Eyed N.Y.P.D. Rookie Cracks the Case
Tatum had to race against the clock for fear that any existing surveillance would overwrite itself with time. Tatum knocked on the doors of businesses and residences with cameras, obtaining “a ton of video,” including footage from a local pharmacy on Lee’s street. Watching the video was “daunting” and “painstaking,” according to Tatum, until he had an “ah-ha” moment when seeing Lee on the street corner.
A man appeared on-screen a short time later.
“You see Michelle walk into the frame of the camera, and she meets a male on the corner,” Tatum told New York Homicide. “They stop and talk, and then they walk towards her building.”
The man in the video was Gary McGurk, whose alibi was just now disproven, making him the police’s number one suspect.
Detectives questioned McGurk at the precinct, and he admitted to meeting Lee near the drug store. According to McGurk’s statement, he met Lee to collect more money before walking her back home. When he asked if he could walk her upstairs, Lee allegedly claimed she had company, refusing to let McGurk inside.
McGurk told police he then walked around the neighborhood when receiving the phone call from Lee.
But despite McGurk’s changing story ringing suspicious, the evidence against him was still circumstantial. For now, authorities had to let McGurk walk.
Detectives then turned back to the semen sample in Lee’s trash, which later matched the D.N.A. sample McGurk freely gave detectives previously.
“It was decided that we’d arrest Gary McGurk,” said Wilkowski.
The Arrest and Conviction of Gary McCurk
Police hoped to apprehend McGurk at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. At the time, only one final exam stood between McGurk and a degree in criminal justice, but when authorities arrived, McGurk was nowhere in sight.
Police soon found McGurk at his mother’s Forest Hills, Queens, residence, equipped with a passport and a plane ticket back to his native Ireland. They arrested him at his mother’s property and returned him to the 108th Precinct.
“It’s a relief, and there’s a big sense of pride,” Tatum told New York Homicide. “We found our family’s killer.”
McGurk admitted to detectives that his claims to Lee of having cancer were bogus, a way to weasel thousands from his sexual partner. Lee, police believed, was too trusting of McGurk’s claims, as noted in the victim’s final journal entry, which read: “Dear Journal. He’s so brave. I can’t stop crying. I love him so much. I wish he would get better. I wish I could hold him forever,” as read by investigative reporter Fonrouge.
Friends said Lee attempted to recoup the monies back from McGurk, becoming more persistent each time he didn’t pay up. According to Det. Wilkowski, Lee “wasn’t letting go.”
“It was a problem that wasn’t going away,” he told New York Homicide.
McGurk was charged with second-degree murder but ultimately pleaded guilty to lesser charges of manslaughter and evidence tampering. As part of his plea deal, he was required to make a full confession in court.
McGurk admitted that he and Lee had “rough” sex that included him strangling Lee and rendering her unconscious. McGurk then wrapped her head in saran wrap — owing to why there was so little blood at the crime scene — and hit Lee on the head with a hammer, causing her skull to collapse.
McGurk’s girlfriend admitted to lying about his whereabouts on the night in question.
“He did a pretty good job of not leaving anything to lead us back to him,” said Wilkowski.
McGurk was sentenced to 29 to 37 years behind bars.
Today, a scholarship in Michelle Lee’s name — created by Lee’s closest friends and family — exists at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, according to Professor Angelique Carthals.
“This was seen as a way to remember the spirit of Michelle, whose life and career was cut so tragically,” said Carthals.
Watch all-new episodes of New York Homicide, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.