What disturbed me most was that he had cried.
What right did he have to tear up? I had needed a casual devil, and here he was: a mere mortal crying in front of the courtroom, apologizing for all of the pain that he had caused.
You cannot fake that, and there was no longer any reason to — Connecticut does not grant parole for convicted murderers.
Many unanswered questions still surround the murder of Annie Le GRD ’13 on September 8, 2009. What we know is that Le was reported missing on the afternoon of September 9. Three days later, investigators discovered bloody clothing in the 10 Amistad St. building where she had worked. Four days after, they found Le’s body. And then, on September 17, authorities arrested Raymond Clark III.
In March 2011, Clark pled guilty to homicide, as part of a bargain between his defense team, state prosecutors, and Le’s family. But that is not the whole story: as part of that deal, Clark also pled guilty to the charge of attempt to commit sexual assault under a court precedent called the Alford Doctrine. This means that he officially recognizes that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of attempted sexual assault, but he refused to admit that he was guilty of this crime.
I first reported on Clark’s March 17 plea hearing in my capacity as the Yale Daily News’ “Cops and Courts” reporter. Although other reporters had been in charge of the story in the past, the Le murder and its legal proceedings now fell to me.
Through a lucky relationship with his defense attorney, Beth Merkin, I had learned two days before Clark’s court appearance that he would officially change his “not guilty” plea and announce the 44-year bargain. Knowing this outcome, I reported on the event with Harrison Korn ’11, who had originally covered the story when Le first went missing nearly two years ago. And there Clark was, in his first public appearance in over a year, pale and wearing a blue button-down shirt and black pants, winking at his family as he walked past them. He was easy enough to dislike.
After the hearing, Clark’s father, Raymond Clark II, stood outside of the courthouse and read a statement to the press and onlookers. “My family and I extend our deepest sympathy to the Le family,” he said. “I want you to know that Ray has expressed extreme remorse from the beginning. I can’t tell you how many times he sobbed uncontrollably, telling me how sorry he is.”
But how could he expect anyone to believe this?
During the plea hearing that day, co-prosecutor David Strollo told the court that Le’s body had been found upside down, partially decomposed inside a wall in a basement locker room in 10 Amistad St., the building where both she and Clark had worked. When her body was discovered, Le’s bra had been pushed up, and her underwear hung around her ankles. Seminal fluid marked the inside of these undergarments, but not enough to conduct a conclusive DNA test, Strollo told the court. Still, another area of the crime scene contained a semen sample, which was positively identified as Clark’s. There had been a struggle. Examiners had determined, Strollo said, that Le sustained a broken jaw and collarbone while she was alive.
Clark had tried to cover up his tracks, Strollo said. Using a fishing line, he had attempted to remove evidence from behind the wall. He had scrubbed a drain clean and used air freshener in an effort to conceal the odor of the decomposing body. Clark had also tried to fabricate an alibi, drafting notes to co-workers that would clear him of police suspicion; police found these letters in one of Clark’s socks. This is the stuff of monsters.
How could a man who had sexually assaulted a young doctoral student, beaten her, strangled her to death, and stuffed her body upside down behind a wall — as Strollo said the evidence showed — be capable of remorse? It would be useful for my own psyche, and I believe more convenient for everyone, if Clark were not. It was easy enough to imagine this remorselessness when I reported on his legal deal-making, or interviewed faculty who had known Le — all of whom were shocked at the relatively light 44-year prison sentence, but deferred to the Le family’s judgment. (That family has now filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Yale).
And then he cried.
Hovering over my cellphone in a midtown New York restaurant, I breathlessly awaited text message updates from a News freshman attending Clark’s June 3 sentencing — the final appearance for Le’s killer before he is put behind bars until 2055. More than a brief ceremony before incarceration, the sentencing was a final moment for the many victims to address the man who had caused them so much grief.
Prosecutor gives context as to what 44 years of prison will mean for clark, one text message read.
Mother to clark. You took away my only daughter, said another.
Advocate reading father’s statement. We hope there will be greater security for all students on campus. That one might turn into a good story if anyone would talk to me, I thought.
Raymond clark tears up throughout reading of the statements delivered by Le’s family. I put my phone down.
Clark’s ensuing address to the court confirmed my worst fear about the murder of Annie Le. “I stand here today taking full responsibility for my actions,” he said in the final moments of the hearing, struggling through tears as he read his prepared statement. “I am truly, truly sorry for taking Annie’s life.”
There was no legal reason to apologize, and certainly no chance that his words could alleviate his prison sentence. And so, as I followed the sentencing, I concluded that Clark really meant his apology. I wanted to be negative about the whole thing, and I would have loved to be callous, but I couldn’t help but reel at the thought that Clark was something approaching a normal guy.
Yet if Clark had really “expressed extreme remorse from the beginning” as his father claimed, why did he run Yale police, New Haven police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation through nearly two weeks of frantic searching? And why did he originally plead not guilty, only to admit fault a year later when he had been given an agreeable deal?
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In my obsession with his tears, I sent a letter to his prison address.
Dear Mr. Clark,
My name is Everett Rosenfeld and I am a junior at Yale and a writer-reporter for the Yale Daily News. I saw your sentencing and was overcome by a desire to write to you. You seem like a normal guy, and when you expressed your sorrow at your sentencing, I realized that you hardly fit your portrayal in the media.
I know there are a lot of things you probably don’t want to talk about, but I was just wondering if you might ever want to talk about anything. A lot of people have a lot of perceptions, and I wanted to give you the opportunity to share your story.
I never heard back.
And so I turned to Jim McGee, a former Director of Psychology and Director of Law Enforcement and Forensic Services at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore and a man who has acted as the chief psychologist and criminal profiler for the Baltimore County Police Department. McGee dismissed the notion that Clark’s shift in plea showed of any change of heart. Rather, he said, Clark was almost definitely following his attorney’s instructions. “Once he got in the hands of the attorney he was doing whatever the attorney told him to do in terms of pleas.”
“Obviously it’s very easy to be sorry for behavior that you get caught doing,” McGee continued, adding that the evidence that Clark went to such great lengths to conceal his crimes further suggested that his apology may not have been perfectly sincere. It is true that Clark did not immediately turn himself in and, after enough time for reflection, even went back to cover his tracks. But could a year of incarceration have allowed him to gain some perspective on his deeds?
McGee argued that Clark’s tears may have been more about his imprisonment than anything else. “It’s not rare for people facing nearly a lifetime of incarceration to be upset by that,” he said. “Even though the explanation for the tears was related to the crime itself, it’s equally likely that his sorrow and tears were about, ‘Oh shit, I’m about to be put in prison for basically the rest of my life.’ That’s enough to make anyone shed a tear in their beer.”
This opinion could assuage the popular sentiment following Clark’s plea; many Yale community members voiced their discomfort with what they viewed as a light sentence. “It just bothered me — 44 years,” one member of the medical school faculty who had known Le, said in March. “How do you compare years to Annie’s life? And then you have this added component [of attempted sexual assault]. I just feel terrible for her family.”
McGee’s answers somewhat allayed my fears that Clark may be just a regular guy like me.
But this confirmation didn’t make Le’s murder any easier to comprehend. So I turned to another aspect of the plea hearing about which many Yale community members had voiced their opinions on the News’ website: motive. Some had postulated that the graphic details of sexual assault provided a clear motive for the attack on Le. A motive is scary for some, but comforting for others.
“If he had a motive, then I feel more comfortable that some random stranger isn’t going to kill me,” said Evan Wilson-Wallis, a research assistant at a medical school laboratory. “I feel safer around campus.”
But McGee says the facts of the case do not necessarily suggest a libido-driven motive. Not familiar with any details of the incident prior to our discussion, McGee immediately asked if there was any known prior antagonism between Le and Clark when he heard about the sexual assault evidence. Rather than an act of lust, that type of assault is often the result of pent-up rage, he said.
“With the violent nature of the crime and the sexual assault and degradation of the victim, you can plausibly suspect that part of the motivation was that he was really angry,” he said. “There seems to be a very hostile component about what he did with the body — you would have to wonder about some anger or resentment in the context of whatever relationship they may have had.”
No details have ever been publicly released about the relationship between Le and Clark.
As much as I could guess at Clark’s reasoning, it still did not help explain the enigma of his tears. Despite the release of some facts of the case, Le’s murder has been marked by more questions than answers for all levels of investigation: from Yale’s administration, to the police, to the New York tabloids that quickly descended upon the campus.
These questions also motivated every staff member of the News from the first word of a missing graduate student on the afternoon of September 9 through Clark’s arrest on September 17.
The Editor-in-Chief at the time, Thomas Kaplan ’10, says he vividly remembers receiving the first email from the Office of Public Affairs on his BlackBerry as he left lecture. It was sent only to him, requesting that the News post a bulletin about the missing girl on its website as soon as possible. Kaplan complied, but he did not think much of the notice at the time. “Sure it was certainly weird, but no alarm bell went off that this would be a huge tragedy,” said Kaplan. “The next day we ran it big but not scary big [on the front page].”
At the time, I was a sometime-Production and Design contributor, which meant that I had absolutely no idea what writing an article was all about. What I did get to do, however, was stay late at the building and watch the editors navigate a campus-wide crisis. It was entrancing to see: Kaplan and Managing Editor Bharat Ayyar tore about the editors’ room in a whirlwind of paper, emails, and phone calls, somehow leading an army of eager junior and sophomore reporters to produce the best coverage of the entire incident. Although Kaplan insisted that his and Ayyar’s response was simply the product of experience, even he admitted that the News outperformed the myriad of television stations and tabloids covering the story. “The one thing we were really pleased about in the long run is that we went through this entire story and were never once wrong — there were so many false reports,” he said. “There were a lot of totally insane tabloid stories and inaccurate TV reports throughout the two weeks, a lot of alarmingly sensationalized coverage.”
Although I would like to attribute this perfect track record during the Le coverage to the superior journalistic ability of News reporters and editors, the fact is, members of the Yale community simply possessed a level of sensitivity that other media sources lacked. This involvement was the defining characteristic of the two-week- long investigation for Kaplan; the only memory he could recall from that time was the moment when the News finally confirmed Clark’s name — other news agencies had already run it, but no administrators or police officials would confirm or deny any details on suspects.
Two sources had already anonymously given Clark’s name, but Kaplan said he did not feel comfortable publishing the detail unless a third person could confirm. Then-reporter Victor Zapana ’11 was on the phone with a third person as Kaplan and other reporters and editors surrounded him, listening in. As everyone craned their necks to hear, Zapana made a deal with the anonymous source that he would provide the initials of the suspect and he or she would either confirm or deny. Zapana said Clark’s initials, Kaplan recalled, and the person on the other side of the phone was silent for a second.
“Anything else?” the source asked.
“The third,” Zapana said.
This moment of journalistic success, Kaplan said, made the long hours worth it. Although I only witnessed Kaplan and his contemporaries building front pages at 2 a.m., he was actually working 18-hour days on the story: Kaplan and Ayyar not only coordinated regular online updates and daily print exclusives, but they also did “dozens and dozens” of television interviews. For better or worse, Kaplan became the face of the Yale student body during the incident, as he regularly appeared on nightly newscasts, Nancy Grace, the Today Show, and Inside Edition to give updates on the case.
Two weeks of this schedule eventually took its toll on Kaplan: he dropped two classes that semester. “Journalistically for me, and for almost all of us, it was the most challenging two weeks that I’ve ever experienced, and nothing since has ever come that close,” said Kaplan, who now works at the Metropolitan desk of the New York Times.
Yet despite his complete immersion in the investigation of Le’s homicide, Kaplan said he was able to “keep [his] reporter hat on” throughout the two-week marathon. His responsibilities did not allow for him to attend any of the vigils or the memorial for Le, he said, admitting that covering that component of the story would have been more emotionally trying.
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If I couldn’t gauge Clark, and neither McGee nor Kaplan could help explain his actions, I wondered about those who were able to go where Kaplan couldn’t — those who had collectively mourned Clark’s crime. And so I contacted University Secretary Linda Lorimer, who led the Yale response to the crisis.
“I will never forget the week of Annie Le’s disappearance. First, there were the incredibly anxious days of trying to determine where Annie might be and hoping she was safe,” Lorimer said in an email. “Then there was the growing dread that something dire might have happened: was she kidnapped? Was she seriously hurt? Was she still alive?” Lorimer said she had attended both the vigil and the memorial, and that both of these events were some of the most enduring memories of the incident for her. “I will also always remember the candlelight vigil on Cross Campus and the memorial service for Annie, and what those events teach us all about the strength and closeness of our community,” she said. It was when Lorimer emailed me this recollection, just before I sat down to write this piece, that I realized I had been wrong all along.
When the case first broke and I was a freshman, new to the campus and to the world of journalism, I was struck by the closeness of the Yale community without even knowing it. The 10 Amistad St. building seemed impossibly far away from me, and the killing seemed so clearly a calculated act that I felt no immediate connection to the story. But despite this, I saw my colleagues on the News scramble to report the real truth of the incident and my peers on Cross Campus gather in hope and later in sorrow. And, after reflecting on Lorimer’s words, I realized that I had learned a truth: Raymond Clark III did not matter. I am glad he never wrote back to me from prison.
In searching for Clark, I realized that it does not matter whether he is truly sorry, and it does not matter if he feels he got off lightly.
Annie Le was who mattered, and her name and face live on in the memory of each Yalie who came together throughout that entire two-week period. She was more than just a juicy tabloid headline; she was one of us.
Correction: September 22, 2011
An earlier version of this article misrepresented the ramifications of a plea under the Alford Doctrine in regard to sex offender registry. Under current law, Raymond Clark III will be required to register as a sex offender when released from prison.