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Body of Annie Le thought to be found

The Yale graduate student from Placerville, Calif., was to be married Sunday. Police find a body hidden in the wall of a lab research center where Le was last seen.

September 14, 2009|Geraldine Baum and Kimi Yoshino

NEW HAVEN, CONN., AND LOS ANGELES — Police discovered Sunday what they believe is the body of Yale University graduate student Annie Le, hidden in a wall of a campus research lab where she was last seen five days ago. Sunday was to have been her wedding day, with 160 guests including relatives from her hometown of Placerville, Calif.

The body was found in an area of the lab building where utility cables run between floors. Peter Reichard, New Haven's assistant police chief, told reporters four hours later: "We are assuming that it is her."

More than 100 law enforcement agents from local and state police and the FBI began searching for Le on Tuesday after her roommate reported she hadn't come home. The aunt who raised Le, Ngoc-Tuyet Bui of Placerville, sent an e-mail Thursday asking family and friends to pray for Le.

Bui, Le's brother, Le's uncle, and Le's fiance and his family went to New Haven to await word. After the body was discovered, they met with university president Richard Levin.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 15, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Body found at Yale: An article in Monday's Section A about the discovery of a body in a Yale University research lab -- now known to be that of graduate student Annie Le -- misidentified Le family friend Joette Ward as Joelle Ward.

Le's family "now must suffer the additional ordeal of waiting for the body to be positively identified," said a grim Levin on the steps of his campus office. "The investigation will continue and we have every hope it will be successfully resolved."

Later in the evening, James Bui, Le's uncle, sent an e-mail saying, "I'd like to thank you and the public for your support and prayers in our time of grief. That is the only statement we can make right now."

Le, 24, had spent the last three years working on a doctorate in pharmacology at the Yale School of Medicine.

More recently, she was happily caught up in plans to wed a Columbia University graduate student, Jonathan Widawsky, whom she met as an undergraduate in upstate New York. They would have been married Sunday on his native Long Island at a wedding hall in Syosset.

Family friend Joelle Ward said Sunday that Ngoc-Tuyet Bui always spoke proudly of Le, a high achiever all through school, and that Bui and Le had recently discussed both the excitement and stress of planning a wedding.

"They were very pleased that she was getting married -- and to whom she was marrying," Ward said.

Le's cousin David Nguyen said that Le and her fiance had come to Santa Ana this summer for a reception involving dozens of relatives who couldn't travel to New York for the wedding. The bride-to-be wore a white wedding dress, Nguyen said.

The wedding was "something she was looking forward to," he said. To her family, the notion that she'd had cold feet and run away was absurd. "We would say that would be the last case."

Le (pronounced "lay") used her university identification card at 10 a.m. Tuesday to check into a research complex on the Yale Medical School campus, where she worked in a basement lab. She was caught on a security camera carrying an armful of papers as she went into the building.

That was the last sign of her.

That image was quickly put up on at least two billboards dedicated to missing people that appear along the Connecticut turnpike near New Haven. The police had no images of her leaving that day.

Police soon began to view the case as more than that of a runaway bride.

They questioned one of Le's professors who had abruptly canceled a class Tuesday morning. Police also sifted through her home computer and other belongings, dismissed her fiance as a suspect, and examined more than 75 security tapes to track her comings and goings from the lab building.

Over the weekend they reviewed those tapes with more sophisticated equipment, on the chance that during a fire drill Tuesday the 4-foot-11 Le -- perhaps having put on a white lab coat -- might have been hard to pick out on grainy film.

Police also brought in bloodhounds to scour the lab building -- and, according to some media reports, found bloody clothes above a ceiling tile.

The FBI, called in by Yale police, wouldn't confirm that items found in the building included bloody clothing -- or that what they found was even connected to Le.

Reichard, the assistant police chief, said investigators were still sorting through a "large amount of evidence" they'd collected over the last five days.

He would not confirm a report that police had questioned a student who had failed a polygraph test.

"At this time, we can't release any more information," he said.

Le's life in New Haven, a gritty city on the southern Connecticut coast, appears to have centered on the lab building on Amistad Street, her nearby campus office, and a top-floor apartment in a Victorian home about two miles from the medical school campus in a gentrified section of the city called East Rock.

Caixia Lv, 28, a graduate student who lives around the corner from Le, works in the basement quarters of the same research center.

"Many of my friends were warning me that I should be careful because there usually aren't many people in that area and I look so much like Le," she said.

"But it's still not sure what really happened."

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