EVERETT — A Bothell man snuffed out his cigarette outside his home on April 21, then tossed the butt on the side of the road.
Alan Edward Dean, 62, did not know undercover detectives were watching him, waiting for a chance to seize a sample of his DNA, and a chance to finally solve the mystery of who killed teenager Melissa Lee, of Bothell, in 1993.
On Wednesday morning, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office announced at a press conference that Dean had been identified as a suspect in the kidnapping and murder 27 years ago. DNA on the cigarette matched a male genetic profile on Lee’s underwear, according to the sheriff’s office.
Dean was 35 years old at the time of the killing.
The case was cracked with the help of CeCe Moore, a genealogist whose genetic expertise played a key role in a groundbreaking double murder conviction in Snohomish County, for the 1987 slayings of a young Canadian couple. That case and similar work around the country earned Moore a primetime TV series, “The Genetic Detective,” that premiered on ABC as detectives were closing in on Dean.
Lee, 15, was found dead in a brushy ravine around 3 p.m. April 14, 1993, under the Edgewater Creek bridge on Mukilteo Boulevard, at the far west end of Everett city limits. Her clothes — a black San Jose Sharks sweatshirt, orange-and-pink shorts and dark socks — were disheveled. She wore socks, but no shoes. It appeared she had been sexually assaulted. Her underwear was on backwards. There was a stain, which was noted as evidence.
Lee was a “girly girl,” who liked to dress up and insisted on putting on lipstick, makeup and eyeliner before she went out, according to her mother’s report to police. Those clothes were the kind she’d wear around the house, never in public.
An autopsy confirmed she’d been strangled. She had no alcohol or common drugs in her system, but toxicology tests came back positive for ethyl ether, a colorless compound with a history of use as an anesthetic and a debilitating intoxicant, as well as a trace of heptane, a solvent that smells like gasoline.
For years, Lee’s smiling face appeared in a slightly faded photo on a King of Diamonds playing card, in decks featuring local cold cases. The cards were distributed by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in 2008, handed out to prisoners with the hope of generating desperately needed tips in dozens of unsolved killings.
The investigation into Lee’s death led to many red herrings and dead ends. Yet early on, clues pointed to Dean as a possible suspect, according to a detective’s report filed in court Wednesday. Until now, nothing had been conclusive enough for an arrest. The inner workings of the investigation were news to Lee’s family this week.
There has been a lot to take in.
They were not aware one of the longtime suspects, Dean, had been accused of sexually abusing another girl, then age 13, in Scottsdale, Arizona, about eight years before Lee was killed. According to that police report, the girl told officers Dean bought alcohol for her, then gave her marijuana that made her feel so high she believed it was “laced” with something. She took off her clothes when he told her to, and she fell asleep. When she woke up, and Dean allegedly told her, “I hope I didn’t get you pregnant.”
Dean admitted to police in Arizona he’d bought the beer for the girl, given some cannabis to her and slept in the same bed as her, but denied any kissing or sexual contact, according to detectives. Dean was arrested, but released pending charges. Ultimately, no charges were filed, and Dean moved to a new state.
Around the time Lee went missing, she often used a talk line, also known as a party line or a date line — a number you could call to connect with strangers. That was one way people had fun in the early 1990s.
A handwritten entry in Lee’s planner was dated March 14, 1993: “Met Alan on the Nite Line over the phone.”
The next day, she wrote, she went out with him again: “Alan picked me and (someone else) up at 4:15 p.m. and we went out to eat then to Funtasia, then went home.”
She also chronicled a breakup with a boyfriend.
“I hope to god we get back together!” she wrote. It was her last handwritten entry, on April 12, 1993.
Melissa Lee’s mother, Sharon, a bartender, came home with her fiancé in the early morning hours of April 14, 1993, to find the front door open, cushions thrown around the room and a coffee table pushed out of its normal place. An ash tray, a jar of peanuts and a glass of milk had been dumped on the floor. And there was a chemical smell in the room, like ether.
All of Lee’s shoes appeared to be still in the home. Police recovered Lee’s address book. They also found a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a lighter that didn’t belong to the girl.
Detectives interviewed other men who were rumored to be potential persons of interest in 1993, and gave polygraph tests to four of them. The rumors appeared to be “baseless,” wrote Brad Walvatne, now a lead detective on the case for the sheriff’s office.
On May 18, 1993, detectives started calling phone numbers in Lee’s address book. One man, Dean, was listed under a different name, beside a note that read, “Nite Line.” Snohomish County detective Gregg Rinta met him at an apartment on Madison Street in Everett, about 3½ miles from where the body was found. Dean remembered Lee. He met her through a “talk line,” he reported. He’d used a fake name, Mike, when he called the number. They’d even met in person for a date or two, but it hadn’t turned sexual, he stated.
He told the detective he was a Boeing mechanic who worked in the interiors shop at the Everett plant, as an assembler of decorative panels at a campus along Airport Road. He went on to say he’d been on disability for a few months, due to a back injury. The detective noted Dean had surgery May 8, 1993, with staples put in his back.
Rinta also noted Dean would have had access to “many types of chemicals in his line of work.”
Dean told the detective he didn’t know Lee was dead.
Years later, he would be interviewed again by detectives, without realizing it.
A trio of undercover officers arrived at his home in July 2019, to ask his opinion on some new flavors of gum. It was a ruse. They wanted him to chew a few pieces and unwittingly surrender his DNA profile through saliva. But then Dean got suspicious when the three women at his door asked for the chewed gum.
According to Walvatne’s report, Dean asked, “You’re not here to collect my DNA, right?”
In the past, Dean had been arrested for marijuana possession, domestic violence assault, resisting arrest, failing to obey an officer and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He had no felony convictions, however, in the era of widespread forensic DNA technology. His genetic profile was never entered into a federal database. In the early 2000s, crime scene evidence was tested at a state lab, and revealed there was male DNA on Lee’s shorts. But it did not match anybody in a database of felons.
The sheriff’s office turned to Parabon Nanolabs in October 2018, to obtain a sample of DNA that could be uploaded to the public genealogy database GEDmatch. It was the exact same technique used to catch a suspect months earlier in the case of the Canadian couple.
Once the sample was online, Moore filled out limbs of the unknown suspect’s family tree, based on relatives who had shared their DNA in the database. She searched for the spot where two branches of the tree would intersect in the man’s mother and father.
Moore forwarded her findings in February 2019. She had found “two promising matches, three potentially promising matches and many more distant matches,” Walvatne wrote. One of the names was very familiar to investigators.
Detectives put Dean under surveillance at his home in the 16700 block of 6th Avenue SE. He didn’t seem to leave the house often, so they had to wait patiently for that cigarette.
Weeks later, on June 2, a test of a stain on Lee’s underwear came back as an apparent match for Dean. An arrest around 5 p.m. Tuesday was uneventful, Walvatne said. Dean was booked into the Snohomish County Jail for investigation of first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping of a minor.
Dean protested as he paced to the defense table in a jail courtroom Wednesday, in front of a wall of Seattle news cameras. He made it clear he didn’t want to be there, and didn’t want to be represented by a public defender.
“This is forced, this is under duress, by the way,” Dean said. “I decline any and all offers to contract, and I don’t concede to any proceedings that are … adverse to my best interest.”
He rambled in seemingly random and irrelevant legalese.
“A trust cannot fail for want of a trustee, your honor,” Dean said. “Any — any profit from a trust made by a trustee is the profit of the beneficiary.”
An Everett District Court judge pro tem, David Ruzumna, replied that he had almost no idea what Dean was trying to say. The judge found probable cause to hold the defendant behind bars pending formal charges. Bail was set at $2 million.
Lee’s mother caught a flight across the country to attend the press conference Wednesday in downtown Everett. She stood beside her daughter’s portraits propped up on easels, on the fourth floor of the Snohomish County courthouse.
On the opposite side of the room were two more portraits: Dean as a younger man, and Dean today.
Sharon Lee’s remarks were brief.
“I’m just happy I got to live long enough to see this happen,” she said, fighting tears, then paused. “I hope he rots in Hell.”
Lee’s mother had spoken with The Daily Herald in 1994.
“I can’t go on with my life with this hanging over me,” she said. “It’s like it’s there every single day, every single night. I want somebody to be caught, not only so Melissa can be at rest, but so I can be at rest.”
The genealogist, Moore, said she had read news articles about Lee, and those brief glimpses into her life made it a special case to her. She felt a connection to this girl. Moore said she didn’t want her family to feel like she had been forgotten.
“This is truly why we do what we do,” Sheriff Adam Fortney said.
The detective, Walvatne, said an arrest would not have been made without the technological advances of the past three decades. This is the third cold case where Snohomish County detectives have made an arrest with the aid of genetic genealogy. The suspect in the first case is serving a life sentence for the deaths of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. The suspect in the second is still awaiting trial in the murder of Jody Loomis. Walvatne said the sheriff’s office has seven more similar cases they’re working on now.
A radio reporter asked Walvatne if he had message for any criminals who thought they had “gotten away with it.”
“I don’t play games,” the detective said. “We work with the facts, we work with the evidence, and the evidence will lead us to where we need to go.”
Prosecutor Adam Cornell said he had already assigned the case to two of his most seasoned deputy prosecutors, Craig Matheson and Laura Twitchell.
“I’d like to say that a successful prosecution will be the last chapter, but we know that’s not the case, because no cop, no prosecutor and no court can bring Melissa back to life,” Cornell said. “But we can do everything in our power to bring her a measure of justice.”
Sara Hinckley, a family friend, recalled hanging posters about Lee’s case in 1993, when she was in eighth grade. Hinckley, now 40, was just a little younger than Lee. So she looked up to her. They would go roller skating in Lynnwood, and Hinckley was a little jealous of her, because Lee was 15, on the verge of adulthood, and that meant she had more freedom to do as she pleased.
“She’s so beautiful,” Hinckley remembered thinking. “I want to be like her, charismatic.”
Hinckley has always believed the killer would be caught.
“I just felt like eventually something’s going to happen,” Hinckley said. “Miracles happen every day.”
After she learned of the arrest, Hinckley spent the rest of the day thinking about the man accused of preying on her friend, Melissa.
“What does he look like?” she wondered.
“Where did he come from?”
Police seek tips
Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives are asking anyone who knew Dean — especially around 1993, or now — to come forward. They also hope to speak with anyone who talked with a “Mike” or “Michael” on a night talk line in the 1990s, or anyone with information about Dean’s access to chemicals.
Tips can be directed to the sheriff’s office at 425-388-3845.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; email@example.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.