“Serial” Update: We Need To Talk About Hae’s Boyfriend Don
If you were really a fan of the Serial podcast, then your obsession with the Adnan Syed case didn’t end when Sarah Koenig signed off the air still unclear herself on Syed’s guilt or innocence. No, if you were truly gripped by the case of a high school senior who was convicted of killing his ex girlfriend in 1999, then you’ve been listening to Undisclosed, the followup podcast from three lawyers (including a friend of Syed’s) who believe Syed is innocent. And if you’re really, really, really invested in this case, as I am — for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because of the detailed glimpse it gives into the criminal justice system — then you’ve also been listening to the Serial Dynasty, a podcast started by a Serial fan named Bob Ruff. Over time, Ruff — who also believes Syed is innocent in Hae Min Lee’s death — has become one of the more productive “citizen detectives” delving into this case, conducting interviews with various sources/experts and helping to uncover what could be damning information about the State’s case. And on yesterday’s podcast, he dropped a pretty major bombshell about one mysterious key figure — Hae Min Lee’s boyfriend at the time of her murder, a guy named Don.
But before I get to that, a quick word about Serial Dynasty and Bob Ruff. As of next week, the Serial Dynasty will be called the Truth & Justice Podcast, a move that will distance it from Serial, which is currently at work on a second and third season, and speaks to Ruff’s larger goal of investigating other possible wrongful convictions. Ruff, who works on arson investigations for his day job, is emotional in his convictions, apologizes when he swears, and quite dramatically refers to his listeners as an “army” with their goal of seeing Syed released as a “movement.” His genuine-seeming disgust with the tactics used by the police and the prosecutor in the Syed case, bolstered by the realization that these tactics are basically standard procedure, have seemingly inspired this side career in podcast activism — making him an easy target for Serial obsessed Reddit trolls. Personally, I’m amused by the guy’s folksiness and find his mid-life “wait, the system DOESN’T work?” epiphany to be both endearingly and annoyingly earnest. He’s not a lawyer, so I don’t take his assertions nearly as seriously as I do those from Undisclosed’s Susan Simpson or Colin Miller, but it’s worth noting that all of these advocates for Adnan have paid attention to, and even shared and compared the information they’ve gathered, with Simpson and Miller cosigning the validity of much of Ruff’s work. (Whether you take Simpson and Miller seriously, of course, is another matter, but for the record, I do.)
Over the last few months, after reaching the concrete conclusion that Adnan Syed is innocent, Ruff has largely been focusing his efforts on investigating other possible suspects, which isn’t easy considering this case stretches all the way back to 1999. But there’s one obvious person to start with — Hae Min Lee’s boyfriend at the time of her death, a guy named Don. Serial fans will likely remember Don, or more specifically, remember that there’s not much TO remember about him because the police ruled him out as a suspect almost immediately, focusing on Syed instead. Don and Hae met at LensCrafters, where they both worked. Don’s alibi for the afternoon of January 13, when Lee disappeared, was that he was at work, which was confirmed to police by a LensCrafters manager. What was not revealed on Serial, but is corroborated by the police and prosecutorial casework, is the following:
- Don usually worked at the Owings Mills LensCrafters location, but on the day of Lee’s murder, he claimed he was working at the Hunt Valley store, covering someone’s shift. The manager at the Owings Mills location verified Don’s alibi to police on February 1, even though she was not actually working with him, and specifically gave them the times that he clocked in and out, including to take a quick lunch break. The police never interviewed anyone who was supposedly working with Don at the Hunt Valley location that day.
- The manager at the Hunt Valley location was none other than Don’s mother.
- Don’s alibi didn’t garner further investigation until September 1999, just before the start of Syed’s trial, when the defense filed a subpoena under seal requesting that LensCrafters produce all employment records for Don — and those records showed that Don had only worked at the Owings Mills location that week, and had not worked at all on January 13, 1999.
- Prosecutor Kevin Urick somehow learned of the defense’s request, even though it was sealed, and subpoenaed those records for himself. He then had a conversation with the LensCrafters legal department, who, a few days later, found an additional time card showing that Don had worked at the Hunt Valley store on the day of Lee’s disappearance/murder. (The information on that time sheet matched the information provided by the Owings Mills manager on February 1.) They provided this time card to Urick and to the defense, but only Urick’s copy came along with a cover letter emphasizing that Don’s mother was the manager at the Hunt Valley location. Naturally, Urick never mentioned that little fact at trial.
However, a few weeks ago on the Serial Dynasty, the validity of that time card was called into question, with Ruff going so far as to assert that it had been falsified. The evidence for this is largely dependent on the knowledge and opinions of LensCrafters employees of varying degrees of authority, interviewed by Ruff, all of whom say that Don’s time card corroborating his alibi is abnormal in a couple key ways:
- Don had two employee ID numbers: the one used on all of his other time cards, regardless of which location he was working at, and the ID number listed on the time card provided to Urick. According to the various current and former LensCrafters employees Ruff spoke to, employees only have ONE employee ID number, which they use to clock in and out regardless of which location they are working at for their entire period of employment at the company.
- According to these sources, only a LensCrafters location’s manager has access to that location’s employee records. In other words, if this is true, the only person who could verify that Don worked at Hunt Valley on the day of Lee’s disappearance/murder is the manager of the Hunt Valley location — aka Don’s mother. However, the police verified Don’s alibi with his usual manager at the Owings Mills location on February 1, most likely over the phone. She should not have had access to Don’s time card on January 13, 1999, and should not have been able to verify his alibi with actual employee records — but as Don was working at Owings Mills on February 1, the suspicion is that he gave her the information she needed to confirm that alibi for the police.
There are a lot more details about the fishiness of the time card on Susan Simpson’s blog. But the overall contention is that the only person who could have falsified a time card for Don also happens to the only person besides Don who would have motive to do so — the manager at the Hunt Valley LensCrafters, aka Don’s mom. The post is explicit about the timeline of the police’s “investigation” into Don, and also delves into other bits of information that should have made them take him more seriously as a suspect. Go read it, especially if you’ve made it this far.
Now onto Serial Dynasty’s big bombshell, which Ruff and the Undisclosed team worked on confirming together. So, you know the manager at Owings Mills, the location where Don usually worked? The manager who, when contacted by police on February 1, confirmed that Don had been working at Hunt Valley on January 13, even though she hadn’t actually been there with him in person (and, according to those Lenscrafters sources, should not have had access to his Hunt Valley time card)? The woman whose alibi confirmation was immediately accepted by the lazy as fuck police officers investigating Lee’s murder, who didn’t bother to request time cards as proof?
Well, it turns out that she was more than just Don’s supervisor. According to Ruff as well as the Undisclosed team, she is also HIS STEPMOTHER. Ruff uncovered this insane tidbit as he was trying to track down that manager, hoping that she could explain how she was able to corroborate Don’s alibi. It took a while to find her because she had changed her last name in 2007. And lo and fucking behold, her new last name is the same as Don’s mother’s. From there, Ruff and the Undisclosed team were able to confirm that this woman has been living in the same house with Don’s mother since 1993 and still lives there today. In other words, if their theory is true, the falsification and confirmation of Don’s alibi was, as Ruff put it, “a family affair.” And this whole case just got a hell of a lot weirder.