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'Make the impossible possible': Famed forensic scientist brings inspirational message to East Lyme

East Lyme — Famed forensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee told East Lyme High School students to "make the impossible possible."

It's a mantra that is both personal and professional for a young, fatherless man from Taiwan with 12 siblings who ended up in law enforcement because tuition to police college was free. After becoming an officer in a country he said was more focused on the confession than the methods used to obtain it, he moved to the United States to further his studies.

"I liked to use scientific evidence to solve a case," he said. He went on to earn degrees in forensic science, science and biochemistry.  Over the next six decades, he made an international name for himself through the investigation of high-profile deaths and rose to the rank of commissioner of the Connecticut State Police.

All told, Lee said he's been involved in 8,000 cases in 47 countries to date.

Some cases are known by the names of the victims, like JonBenet Ramsay and Laci Peterson. Some are known by the name of the suspect, like OJ Simpson and Phil Spector. One is gruesomely remembered as the Wood Chipper Murder, the first conviction in the state without a body.

Lee arrived in East Lyme on Tuesday morning at the request of the school's Coastal Connections program for students who work best in small settings with a focus on internships. More students from classes like biology and forensics filed into the high school auditorium for his inspirational talk.

Lee's roughly hourlong presentation included an autographed photo — "That's on eBay, $29.99" — for anyone who answered a question.

He said people have said many nice things about his accomplishments over the years, but the one that stays with him speaks to his relentless choice not to give up. "A lot of people say I make the impossible possible," he said.

He cited one example from his two years as state police commissioner during which he championed the upgrade of an outdated radio system with dead spots that were endangering officers and the public. According to a Hartford Courant report from 1999, the roughly $80 million project had been through 18 years of delays and controversy.

"I don't even know how I did it, but we did it," he said.

The culmination of the assembly explored Lee's investigation into the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart of Utah and the cold case that began as the 1992 Brown's Chicken Massacre in Chicago during which seven employees were executed.

He described using window and screen cuts, a chair perched unsteadily on the ground, and foot and handprints to determine where the suspect had entered the Smart home.

Junior Ella Wyn, 16, said she most enjoyed hearing about the cases. "I thought it was amazing. He's very well spoken and has a lot of good knowledge."

Wyn said she is mulling a career in forensic science or child psychology. She's also thinking about attending the University of New Haven, where Lee served as a professor for much of his career and founded his own forensics science institute.

Among the adults in the audience who attended previous lectures, trainings and seminars by the acclaimed forensic scientist were several teachers and police officers.

Biology and forensic science teacher Holly Buckley said she attended a weeklong teaching seminar at the University of New Haven in 2015 that included classes taught by Lee.

She described herself as "stunned and thrilled" when colleague Paul Tar sent Lee an invitation to speak at the school that yielded an almost immediate response in the affirmative, despite what she'd long been told was a two- to three-year wait.

Assistant Principal and Coastal Connections Director Abby Demars had a cameo appearance in Lee's presentation from his 1996 visit to Norwich Free Academy, where she was a student.

Demars went on to become a molecular biologist. Before long, she gave up research for teaching and began bringing forensic science enrichment opportunities to students at the now-defunct DNA EpiCenter in New London. That's where she brought in Lee to help lay out a crime scene where students could learn how to properly gather evidence.

She said the message Lee delivered while she was in high school was the same one the students heard Tuesday.

"You don't start at the top," she said. "You have to work your way through hard work, dedication and passion."

East Lyme police Chief Mike Finkelstein and School Resource Officer Don Hull both credited Lee with leading numerous training sessions with an engaging sense of humor.

"It's a sense of humor with an abundance of information," Hull said. "He keeps your attention. And on such a scientific, very intricate level, he makes it understandable. It's incredible."

Finkelstein said he's been able to pass along some of the information he learned from Lee while teaching forensic science classes at Three Rivers Community College.

According to Hull, Lee put the state at the forefront of forensic innovation through the years as he introduced methods that are now routinely used to solve crimes. "I don't think there's a police officer in the state who's not affected by his training and his technology."

e.regan@theday.com

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