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Serial killings suspect described as charming

Lee had history as peeping Tom

Lee and his wife pulled their children from school after he gave a DNA sample.
Lee and his wife pulled their children from school after he gave a DNA sample.

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Suspected Louisiana serial killer Derrick Todd Lee spent part of his time on the run but made friends quickly. CNN's Jason Bellini has the story.
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CNN's Art Harris reports on the extradition of Derrick Todd Lee from Georgia to Louisiana.
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Derrick Todd Lee is described by those who recently encountered him as a charming man who started a Bible study class at a motel in southwest Atlanta, worked construction jobs for cash, barbecued for his neighbors and liked to court women.

But authorities say Lee -- a married father of two young children -- had a much darker side, smooth-talking his way into the lives of unsuspecting women and then killing them.

He is now accused of five serial killings in Louisiana, and authorities across the United States are reviewing unsolved murders to see if they might be connected.

At the Lakewood Motor Lodge in Georgia, where Lee stayed the last week for $135, residents seemed stunned by his arrest, recalling a gentler man who was easy to get along with.

"He was my friend. He said he was from Mississippi and he and his wife were having problems," said motel resident Vallerie Ann Thwaites. She described him as "a very handsome black dude."

Just last Sunday, Lee manned the grill at a birthday party for motel manager Bob Idicalla.

"He is a good preacher. He made friendships with everyone and everything," said Idicalla.

Lee also liked to invite women to his room for cognac.

Motel residents said he was attracted to Tammy Hill, who spurned his advances.

"He scared me," Hill told CNN. "He actually asked if he could come visit me a couple times over here. I was like, 'No.'"

Lee was talking to another woman at a tire store when he was arrested late Tuesday.

Until he was handcuffed, the prime suspect in the Baton Rouge serial killings of five women had spent three weeks a step ahead of the law.

He went on the run after voluntarily giving a DNA sample to authorities investigating two other slayings of women in the small Louisiana town of Zachary, just north of Baton Rouge.

Authorities say Lee criss-crossed the country by bus, from Louisiana to Chicago and back again, before heading to Atlanta where he was finally caught.

Rap sheet fueled detective's suspicion

Lee has long been familiar to Zachary authorities, with a rap sheet that includes arrests for burglary, stalking and "peeping Tom" incidents. He spent two years in prison for a 1992 home burglary.

It was the Zachary Police Department and a few lucky breaks that helped bring the serial murder investigation together.

Detective David McDavid told CNN he considered Lee suspicious for years because of his arrest record. But McDavid said investigators never had enough evidence to connect him to two women's killings in 1992 and 1998 -- both unrelated to the serial killer investigation.

It wasn't until May 5 that Zachary police got a court order to take a sample of Lee's DNA.

While Zachary authorities waited for the DNA test results, police in nearby St. Martin Parish released the composite sketch last week of a man suspected in the attack and attempted rape of a woman there.

Zachary police believed the sketch looked like Lee -- but his DNA sample was just one of many waiting to be tested by the Louisiana state crime lab, sources close to the investigation told CNN.

Zachary police then huddled with the serial killings task force, urging that Lee's DNA analysis be moved to the head of the line.

On Sunday night, Mike Barnett, the chief criminal deputy for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Department, said he got the news of a DNA match to the five woman killed in the area.

"We were elated," he told CNN.

But Lee was nowhere to be found, having begun his travels by bus to Illinois and Georgia.

School officials said Lee and his wife pulled their children -- a 13-year-old boy and 7-year-old girl -- out of school soon after his DNA test. His wife and children are believed to be safe but in hiding, police say.

Lee and his wife -- who works at a local post office -- filed for bankruptcy in November 2002. According to court records, they were almost $85,000 in debt. At the time, Lee drove a truck for local construction companies.

Wednesday, Lee was extradited to Louisiana for the five serial killings that had terrified the Baton Rouge community beginning in September 2001. (Full story)

More than two dozen unsolved murder cases in the Baton Rouge area are being re-examined, as are several in the Atlanta area.

"What will happen now is we'll try to identify every city, every place that this individual has been. Try to link any unsolved murders that may have been accomplished by this individual," said FBI special agent Charles Cunningham.

-- CNN Investigative Correspondent Art Harris contributed to this report.


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