EVERETT — A Bothell man snuffed out his cigarette outside his home on April 28. He left the butt on the side of the road.
Alan Dean, 62, did not know undercover detectives were watching him, waiting for a chance to seize a sample of his DNA, with the hope it would finally solve the mystery of who killed teenager Melissa Lee, of Bothell, in 1993.
On Wednesday, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office announced Dean had been identified as a suspect in the kidnapping and murder more than 27 years ago. DNA on the cigarette matched a male genetic profile found on Lee’s underwear, according to the sheriff’s office.
Dean would have been 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 the groundbreaking double murder conviction in Snohomish County, for the 1987 slayings of a young Canadian couple. That case and other forensic work around the country earned her a prime time TV show, “The Genetic Detective,” on ABC.
Lee, 15, was found dead around 3 p.m. on 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. Her underwear was on backwards. A stain on the panties was noted as evidence.
An autopsy the next day showed she’d been strangled. She had no common drugs or alcohol in her system, but toxicology tests came back postivie for ethyl ether, a colorlesss chemical with a history of use as an anesthetic, 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 cases.
The investigation into Lee’s killing 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 was news to Lee’s family this week.
They did not know one of the main suspects, Dean, had been suspected of sexually abusing another girl, then age 13, in Scottsdale, Arizona, about eight years before Lee was killed.
Around the time she went missing, Lee often used a talk line, also known as a party line or a date line — a number you could call connect with strangers. That was one way people had fun in the early 1990s.
A handwritten entry in Lee’s diary was dated March 14, 1993: “Met Alan on the Nite Line over the phone.”
She’d just broken up 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 were still in the home. Police also recovered Lee’s address book. They found a pack of Marlboro cigarettes that didn’t belong to Lee.
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 the lead detective on the case.
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.” A Snohomish County sheriff’s detective, Gregg Rinta, met with him at an apartment on Madison Street, about 3½ miles from where Lee’s body was found. Dean remembered Lee. He met her through a “talk line.” 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, because of a bad back.
The detective noted Dean had back surgery on May 8, 1993, with staples put in his back.
Police noted Dean would have had access to “many types of chemicals in his line of work.”
He told the detective he didn’t know Lee was dead.
Years later, he would be interviewed again by detectives, without realizing it.
Undercover officers knocked on the door of 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 ladies at his door asked for the chewed gum.
According to Walvatne’s report, he 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. So his DNA was never entered into a federal database of felons.
In October 2018, the sheriff’s off ice turned to Parabon Nanolabs to obtain a sample of DNA that could be uploaded to the public genealogy database GEDmatch. Moore began looking for relatives of the suspect, as she has done in dozens of cases, with the aim of building family trees that could ultimately reveal the name of the suspect.
As she worked, a familiar name popped up.
Detectives put Dean under surveillance at his home in the 16700 block of 6th Avenue SE.
On June 2, a test of a stain on Lee’s underwear came back as an apparent match for Dean, based on the discarded cigarette. He was booked Tuesday into the Snohomish County Jail for investigation of first-degree murder and kidnapping.
Sheriff’s detectives are asking anyone who knew Dean around 1993 to come forward. They also hope to speak with anyone who spoke with a “Mike” or “Michael” on a night talk line in the 1990s, or anyone with information about Dean’s access to chemicals at the time. Tips can be directed to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office at 425-388-3845.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.