The Murder of Annie Le
It started when she was seen going into the lab, but wasn’t seen going out. Yale graduate student Annie Le (MED ’13) entered Yale’s 10 Amistad Street medical building after leaving her keys, purse and phone in her office at the Sterling Hall of Medicine. For a few days, this beautiful, sexy, “sweet, spunky and smart,” 24-year-old, 4’11”, 90-lb pharmacology doctoral candidate whose parents had immigrated to California from Vietnam, was considered “missing.” Then, on Sunday, the day she was supposed to wed her college sweetheart, Le’s lifeless, strangled body was discovered stuffed behind a wall in the basement of the lab in which she worked.
The murder of Annie Le is fascinating, horrifying and perplexing people around the world. Maybe because I was once a young Yalie myself running around campus at odd hours, I feel a personal connection to this rare tragedy; the first killing of a Yale student since 1998. My heart goes out to Le’s family, friends and her young fiancé Jonathan Widawsky. The world has lost so much untapped potential in Le whose work at Yale involved experiments on mice that were part of research into enzymes that could have implications for the treatment of cancer, diabetes and muscular dystrophy.
Within a few days, the New Haven police arrested a young lab technician, Raymond Clark III, said to be the only suspect, whose DNA was found on Le’s body (and his boots had her DNA on them). At first, the media portrayed this case as a “crime of passion.” But police soon said that there were no signs of sex or attempted sex, and the suspect was already romantically involved with his own fiancée. This doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been a secret affair going on between Le and Clark – who could have become murderously jealous of her impending nuptials. But the police are saying no to that theory, so let’s assume they’re correct and there was no romance between victim and suspect.
The only relevant information Clark’s co-workers could give, as of this writing, is that he was “a control freak” about keeping the lab mice cages clean. What? Could this seemingly sane and “nice” young man have murdered this young woman, ruining his own life and damaging so many others, because she messed up some mouse cages?
Of course, Clark is innocent until proven guilty. Having had friends, lovers and my own husband falsely accused and incarcerated, I am particularly sensitive to this constitutional right that’s at the core of our justice system, which is all too often ignored by the public, the media and (hypocritically) the court itself in the rush to “solve” the case and send the “body” up to prison.
But let’s say Clark did the dirty deed as the “mountains of forensic evidence” indicate. What might his motive have been? Police and pundits are struggling for answers, thus far coming up with nothing but messy mouse cages and a bad attitude.
Having served as an expert witness for a couple of criminal defense attorneys with the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office (Sex Crimes Division), I started to feel like I could, so to speak, smell a rat.
When I heard Clark was a lab technician, I thought about another young man, also a lab technician who worked with mice in a university facility. This young man – I’ll call him Ben (with apologies to Michael Jackson) – called my radio show several years ago asking for “dating advice,” saying that he was lonely, working long hours with no company but the mice in his lab. As we talked, Ben gradually admitted that he wasn’t really interested in dating, that he enjoyed his work with the mice, lonely as it was, and that he took pride in keeping his mice as healthy and clean as possible. As anyone familiar with mice knows, they can be very filthy animals when caged and left to their own devices.
Okay, enough about the mice, I said, let’s get back to your love life. I asked Ben how he satisfied his sexual needs, and he replied, “Masturbation.” No surprise there. I inquired as to how often and he said several times a day. I asked how he managed that with such long working hours. Did he take lots of breaks and do it in the rest room? Suddenly, Ben blurted out an outrageous confession. “Actually, I do it with the mice,” he said quietly. “I stick a cardboard tube up my rear and let the rats run up the tube in and out of my rectum. It feels incredible and I usually come in an instant.” I was shocked, to say the least. I’d heard about guys doing stuff like this, and I’d spoken to a few who fantasized about it.
There was even the urban legend that a certain Hollywood superstar had been rushed to Cedar Sinai with an asphyxiated gerbil stuck inside his bum. But I’d never actually talked with someone who seriously admitted doing it on a regular basis – and in the workplace, no less! In a lab at a prestigious university.
The Urban Dictionary calls Ben’s mice-up-the-tube trick “feltching,” though there are several other definitions of that word that are also fairly kinky but don’t involve rodents. At the time Ben called, I didn’t know that. I just listened as compassionately as I could to his story, trying not to laugh or throw up. Then I advised him to stop messing with the mice, even if it meant quitting his job, and seek some kind of therapeutic help. Usually, I am very open-minded about people exploring and enjoying their sexual fetishes. I don’t disparage any erotic activity just because it’s “weird,” and I encourage men and women to follow their sexual muses. My philosophy is “ethical hedonism.” I try to help people explore and cultivate the pleasures of life, whether “normal” or out of the ordinary, as long as they are safe and consensual. This one crosses that line in a few respects. For one thing, its animal cruelty, since I can’t imagine the poor rodent enjoys being stuck up some guy’s asshole. At worst, the animal can die of asphyxiation up there, involving death spasms that the Urban Dictionary tells us can feel pleasurable to the human whose rectum the poor mouse is stuck in. For another thing, Ben was tampering with university property. I reminded him that he could get himself fired for this, and that he probably would, since he was making his confession on a national radio show that blasted all over his small university town.
My fears for Ben proved more than prophetic. The next week, a couple of students from that college called to tell me that Ben was gone. More precisely, he was hounded out of town. Students who had heard him on my radio show raced to his car, vandalized it and spray-painted “RAT MAN” on the windshield. They did the same to his office door and the walls around his lab. Ben left for parts unknown without giving notice. Of course, I wasn’t on Ben’s “side,” but I was horrified by the mob harassment of this mild-mannered lab technician based on his heartfelt, torturous confession on my radio show. I tried, unsuccessfully, to reach out to Ben, hoping he might call again, hoping I could help him through what had to be a devastating experience. Though I continued to get calls from many outraged and bewildered students in that college (“Rat Man” developed into a bit of a local legend), I never heard from Ben himself again.
But when I read that Clark was a fanatical lab technician who “loved his mice,” it was as if Ben came out of my head waving a flag, or more likely, that cardboard tube. Could Clark have been into what Ben was into? Could this have been a “crime of passion” of a different sort?
I started to formulate a theory about Clark’s motive to kill Annie, though perhaps he didn’t plan to kill her. I mentioned the theory on RadioSUZY1, and it resonated with my fellow crime-voyeurs. I want to stress that this is only a theory based on what I’ve read in the media. But what if Clark was using his beloved lab mice to indulge in the sort of feltching that Ben described? Ben, like Clark, spent a lot of time obsessing over “his” mice and cleaning their cages. Could it have been something similar for Clark? Could this be why he was so fanatical about cleanliness, because he didn’t want a dirty rat up his butt?
And what about Le? What if she had caught Clark with his pants down, literally, in the lab? What if she’d walked in on him, caught him in the act, and he knew it? Could that be the real reason that Clark texted Le demanding a meeting on the day she vanished, even though he said it was to discuss the cleanliness of the mouse cages in the research labs? Maybe Le had just discovered Clark’s shameful secret, and threatened to report him.
Clark couldn’t just quit. Several members of Clark’s family, including his sister, brother-in-law and fiancée, work for Yale doing the same kind of work he did since 2004. A revelation like this would have devastated his reputation, his dignity: his life. Maybe, in a moment of fearful rage or temporary “insanity,” this seemingly “normal” guy felt it was better to kill than to be outed and utterly humiliated as a mouse feltcher. Or maybe he planned it. Maybe Clark was so scared to death of getting the Rat Man Treatment that anything seemed preferable to that, even committing murder.
Like I said, it’s just a theory. Experts say there is so much forensic evidence against Clark that prosecutors don’t need a motive. But in case they do, they might want to look around the lab for some cardboard tubes with Clark’s DNA on one end.
In the meantime, R.I.P. Annie Le. Regardless of motive, her murder was monstrous. Her life was luminous. May her memory shine a light into our tortured souls.
Dr. SUSAN BLOCK is a sex educator, cable TV personality, author of The 10 Commandments of Pleasure and hostess of Dr. Suzy’s Speakeasy. Commit Bloggamy with her at http://www.drsusanblock.com/blog/ Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org