WOONSOCKET — Even now, more than seven years after serial killer Jeff Mailhot was captured, the case of the mild-mannered monster from Cato Hill still holds a lesson or two for some of the best cops in the world.
And who better to do the teaching than the investigator who cracked the case — Detective Capt. Edward J. Lee Jr. of the city police force.
After returning from 11 weeks of graduate-level study at the prestigious FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va., the 23-year veteran of the Woonsocket Police Department says one of his instructors invited him back to guest-lecture on the Mailhot probe.
“He never had a case that involved a landfill search before,” said Lee. “He thought that would be pretty interesting for other classes to hear about.”
Central Landfill in Johnston may be grabbing headlines these days as the source of a malodorous stench making life miserable for miles around.
But back in July 2004 Woonsocket cops and state troopers were dragging rakes across the mountain of trash in a methodical, Hail Mary search for the remains of Mailhot’s victims.
The seemingly average everyman had confessed to strangling three prostitutes to death in his eerily isolated bachelor pad, dismembering their bodies and disposing of the remains in commercial trash bins all around Greater Woonsocket over the course of 16 months.
Because so much time had passed before he was arrested, police knew if they had any chance at all of recovering remains from the landfill they would belong to Stacie Goulet, a petite, 27-year-old brunette who vanished 12 days before Mailhot was captured.
After days atop the steamy, moldering pile of summertime trash, against all the odds, police succeeded in making what was then portrayed as a needle-in-a-haystack discovery — a few bits of bone from the last victim of Mailhot’s ghoulish brand of violence.
Just 33 years old when the killer’s crime spree came to an end, Mailhot will likely spend the rest of his life in the state prison.
Lee, 43, was nominated for a spot in the 247th installment of the FBI National Academy’s advanced training regimen for municipal police by his boss, Police Chief Thomas Carey (himself a graduate of the seminar), and the Providence Field Office of the FBI. Lee says it wasn’t his work on the Mailhot probe that caught the attention of the latter, but a more recent murder that’s making news — the shooting death of gas station manager David D. Main of Lincoln outside Citizens Bank.
While few details have emerged to shed light on how investigators honed in on accused killer Jason Wayne Pleau and two alleged accomplices as suspects so quickly, the city worked closely with the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies after the Sept. 20, 2010 homicide.
Nevertheless, all student police officers who are admitted to the academy are required to bring with them the case file from an investigation in which they played a role.
THAT LEE chose Mailhot should hardly come as a surprise. He literally wrote the book on the investigation.
In the summer of 2004, it was Lee, then a lieutenant in the detective division, and his partner, Steven Nowak, a sergeant, who had been assigned to investigate how three women had vanished without a trace between February 2003 and July 2004. They got their best lead when another woman with a record for prostitution had come to police headquarters saying Mailhot had picked her up in his car, taken her back to his apartment and tried to strangle her.
She poked him in the eye with her thumb, and he let her go.
When Lee and Nowak brought Mailhot into the interrogation room, even the detectives took him as an unlikely mark for a killer.
During a session that lasted over six hours, Mailhot grudgingly admitted picking up hookers on the street and taking them home. But when police showed him photos of the missing women, he repeatedly insisted he’d never seen them before.
“How are you so damn sure,” Lee pressed
“Because I never killed anybody,” Mailhot replied.
The answer was the beginning of the end of Mailhot’s double life. The detectives had never told him the women were dead. They weren’t sure of it themselves, but Mailhot seemed to know.
Mailhot continued to deny he was killer for a few more minutes, but the detectives couldn’t help noticing that, as he sat at a table in the interrogation room, he looked sickened to the core, as if he needed to unburden himself of some painful and ugly secret. Then, finally, after the gentle and persistent prodding of the detectives, Mailhot finally came clean.
Lee and Nowak were both promoted after the Mailhot’s arrest, and Lee later went on to write a true-crime book on the case, “Ripper,” which he co-authored with freelance crime writer Linda Rosencrance. It’s still in print, and now it’s even available as a “NOOKbook” for digital readers.
The arrest provided some closure for the victims’ families, but they never learned what drove Mailhot to kill. Though he struggled with the question, Mailhot was ultimately incapable of looking deeply enough into his tortured soul to find the answer.
At the Virginia academy, Lee brought a computer slide show featuring photos from the investigation and excerpts from the interrogation to show his classmates. He also brought a copy of “Ripper” with him and gave it to his instructor, with his autograph, as a memento.
Just one percent of all municipal police officers are chosen for a seat in the FBI National Academy, located on the grounds of a sprawling Marine base. In addition to classroom study, all students must participate in a daily regimen of physical fitness in which an obstacle course featuring muddy creeks and grappling nets are among the challenges.
Lee says he was one of 270 cops in the class from all over the U.S. and 27 countries, with all sorts of different crime problems. A cop from Panama City told his classmates his department investigated 400 homicides in the last year, most the bitter fruit of the region’s drug trade. Lee befriended a general in the Afghanistan army who’s troubled by the Taliban, and schmoozed with Arizonan agents beating back the tide of illegal immigration at the Mexican border.
As a master’s candidate at Roger Williams College, Lee had an option not open to other students at the FBI school, which was to enroll in courses for college credit. He took five, including a course in “enlightened leadership.” Lee said a lively topic in the class was how police administrators can keep officers motivated in an era when many municipal payrolls are frozen.
“You have to show them how rewarding this job can be by helping people, bringing closure to the families of victims, by being part of something bigger than yourself,” says Lee. “Just recognizing people for the good work they do, that’s something that goes a long way.”