Henry Lee: Forensics guru still a dreamer
Henry Chang-Yu Lee remembers the days when families used to call the police before leaving on vacation, back when he first joined Connecticut’s police force in the 1970s. It was a time when drivers immediately pulled over when they saw flashing lights.
“They trusted policemen. They respected the profession. They told their kids to become cops,” said Lee. “Now, it’s no more.”
For Lee, at 77, it’s one thing to be nostalgic and another thing to try to change things.
One of the most celebrated forensic scientists in the world, Lee has worked on such high-profile cases as the O.J. Simpson trial and a reinvestigation into the JFK assassination. He also solved the bonechilling cause of the “missing body” of the Helle Crafts in the notorious “Woodchipper” case.
He fought crime in uniform, retired from his post with the state, and has trained thousands of forensic scientists and inspired many more.
Lee teaches at the Henry Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences and the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
He is a celebrity on campus. When he walks into the dining hall, cashiers, faculty and students alike all greet him.
Lee also trains international government officials at the institute, where he has lectured hundreds of groups from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East on topics ranging from crime-scene photography and bloodstain analysis to firearms, ballistics and fingerprints.
“Even though I don’t have much money, I can travel around the world without my wallet, because there are students of mine all over the globe,” Lee said proudly.
The Henry Lee Institute also gives out a handful of scholarships to forensic scientists each year, and he said usually more than half of them go to China, where his roots are.
“All overseas Chinese hope our motherland will grow stronger,” Lee said. “The stronger China gets, the more it is respected.”
Lee was born in 1938 in eastern China’s Jiangsu province and moved to Taiwan with his family in 1949. He first worked for the Taipei police department, attaining the rank of captain by the age of 25. He emigrated to the US with his wife, Magaret, in 1965.
Lee earned a BS in forensic sciences from John Jay College in 1972 and continued his studies in biochemistry at NYU, earning a master’s in 1974 and PhD in 1975.
He has served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Safety, director of the Connecticut State Police forensic science laboratory and the state’s chief criminalist from 1979 to 2000.
“My biggest achievement from my many years of work has been making forensic science the most reliable way to conduct criminal investigations, upgrading its status a notch,” Lee said. “In the US, as in China, it was inquiry that made the case before forensics came along.”
Lee said he used to work 16 hours a day, and now, at 77, he still does.
“Many of my students have asked me how can I have so much energy, and after working with me for a while, they become like me,” said Lee.
“We only have 24 hours in a day. If you don’t use them today, tomorrow they are gone. I try to use the 24 hours as much I can. Tomorrow will be a new 24 hours,” he said.
Lee, the 11th of 13 children in his family, lost his father at a young age.
“We saw how mom worked so hard to raise us. We all knew we couldn’t let her down,” he said. He learned the habits of hard work and discipline at the Central Police College in Taiwan.
“We only come to this world once,” he said. “If we can live more than 80 years, we have about 30,000 days. Even if we live to 100, it’s not even 40,000 days. Life is short. If you can work several extra hours a day, your dreams will come true.”
“Violinists, pianists, painters all practice. Tiger Woods used to hit thousands of balls a day,” he said. “It’s easier for geniuses. For us who are not, we just keep working harder.”
And hard work pays off in its own way, with a sense of achievement and good dreams. “Every night, as I lie down and fall asleep, I know I did my best during the day. No insomnia — ever, and we live happily.”
“Who do you want to be when you grow up?” is an essay question everyone has written in school. Lee gets these essays in the mail all the time, because he’s what so many kids want to become.
“My son and daughter used to say Washington, Lincoln, and now kids write Dr. Henry Lee,” he said. “It’s very touching, but also a lot of pressure. As a role model, I have to behave myself.”
He gave a motivational speech at high school this year, and Lee said he has speaking engagements lined up through 2019. He talks about dreams and respect. “You have to have a dream,” he said. “Don’t do what you do as a job, do it as your career, so you treat it seriously and take it to heart.”
“I want to be a good cop. It’s my career,” said Lee. “You have to respect yourself so that others will respect you.”
Known in China as the “Chinese Sherlock Holmes”, Lee went back to China multiple times this year to observe the military parade, to lecture his Chinese counterparts on the corruption crackdown and to appear on a reality TV show on China Central Television.
He starred as a guest judge on Challenging the Impossible, which finds people who defy human limitations by doing outrageous things like walking a tightrope between mountains two miles above sea level, opening a beer bottle with a helicopter or determining the value of a piece of currency from the sound of its crinkle.
Lee loves the idea of challenging one’s self.
“Policemen can only do so much, they cure the symptoms but not the deep-rooted cause,” Lee says. “If people challenged themselves more, tested their own limits instead of testing those of others, so much crime could be avoided.”
Sun Ye in Beijing contributed to this story.
Henry Lee works with students from China at the Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory.