In October 1991, New York Police Department Detective Tommy Dades stepped around the spatters and followed the crimson trail to the first bedroom. His eyes couldn’t help but be drawn to the body: a middle-aged Korean-American man, throat slashed, sprawled across one of the beds. A pillow covered the victim’s head, presumably to let his killers avoid his deathly admonishments as they stole from him.
The murder wasn’t typical. The nine-story tan brick building on 72nd Street, where the crime took place, was in the heart of Brooklyn’s middle class Bay Ridge neighborhood.
That’s Haeng Gu Lee, Dades found out. The thirty-nine year old Korean businessman sold animal parts for use in traditional Asian medicine. According to Oriental philosophy, one could gain an animal’s characteristics by ingesting it. Lee specialized in bears, which were viewed as a prime source of strength and vitality.
Dades flipped on the hall light and pushed open the door to the second bedroom. A dank, medicinal odor hit him and he searched for its origin – bookcases lined with jars of herbs and odd-shaped animal viscera.
Out of the corner of his eye, the muscular detective glimpsed a dark figure in the corner. He jumped back, almost knocking his partner over, and drew his gun. He scanned the room for the slightest sound and watched for movement. Nothing.
Shifting heel-to-toe, he advanced silently toward the shadow. At last, he saw it. A stuffed bear trophy, its jaws open in permanent protest. Dades shuddered and returned to the kitchen, treading carefully to avoid the mashed animal organs and tufts of coarse, stringy fur strewn on the floor and cabinets.
He inspected the table. Lee had a meeting with two buyers earlier in the day, and the three used teacups and half-full pitcher of sake seemed to confirm it. Behind one of the chairs, long red splotches stretched backward toward the hallway, indicating the fight probably started there and continued to the bedroom. Maybe over a negotiation?
Dades spotted three knee-high freezers on the far wall and peered inside. Whatever they’d held was gone now.
What was in them? he asked.
An officer on the scene replied: thirty-six frozen bear gall bladders.
The detective’s jaw dropped and he quickly clamped it shut. That was a new one. Yet he soon learned that the market for bear gallbladders, which produced bile used in traditional Chinese medicine, was particularly lucrative. Bile is a fluid synthesized in the liver, stored and concentrated in the gallbladder and secreted into the small intestine via the bile ducts to help in the absorption of fatty acids and cholesterol. While worth $400-$600 each on the domestic market, in powdered form at Asian pharmacies, the gall bladders could be worth 30 times that or more—ounce-for-ounce one of the highest value commodities on the black market.
Dades had worked hundreds of drug cases but never something like this. Could someone have killed Lee for his trove of bear gall bladders?
In late 1991 or early 1992, Dades stood in the back of the office as he and his colleagues watched the result of their short burst of TV stardom: an episode of America’s Most Wanted featuring Haeng Gu Lee’s murder. The program showcased unresolved crimes in the hope that viewers would help catch the perpetrators. While usually focusing on cases with known suspects, producers had wanted to include the Lee case because of the extraordinary half-million dollar motive. NYPD’s 68th precinct had supported the idea. Over the last several months, the investigation had yielded little. They’d even called in an undercover agent who specialized in bears from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation to walk them through the netherworld of the bear gall trade. Maybe America’s Most Wanted would help?
“There’s a hot black market for black bears,” the America’s Most Wanted reporter explained over a video of poachers hounding and killing black bears. “Like the drug trade, this business spawns a seamy underside of big money, international smuggling and murder. But unlike the drug trade, the illegal goods in this operation travel from west to east.”
The segment detailed the trade and turned to an undercover wildlife agent who, seated in shadow, echoed Dades’ mind-set on the Lee case: “An animal in the wild who is taken just for one purpose, for money, commercialization, isn’t any different than somebody putting out a hit contract on somebody and just kil ling them for the money. To me, it’s almost the same.”
The film flipped to a shot of Lee and the crime scene. In an instant, the NYPD footage transported Dades back to that Brooklyn apartment building. Only this time, instead of confident that he could solve the crime, time had made him impotent.
“There are no suspects,” the report announced, signaling the detective’s failure to find the killers thus far. “The Brooklyn detectives investigating the case last October thought they’d seen everything,” the report said, describing the thirty-six missing bear gall bladders.
Dades flushed as he watched his face fill the screen.
“Whether they were removed by the individual or individuals who murdered him, we’re not a 100% sure, but it’s a very strong possibility that was the motive for the crime,” he heard himself say.
The show closed with a plea to viewers – “If you know anything about this murder, we want to hear from you.”
Dades turned off the TV. Hopefully, they’d get some calls. But in his mind, the killers had likely fled back to Korea, leaving Dades and his colleagues little chance of apprehending them.
Dades’ dour prediction proved true. The America’s Most Wanted segment yielded nothing – not even a single useful phone call. Given how easily gall bladders could be concealed and smuggled out of the country, it didn’t surprise the detective. After over 17 years, Haeng Gu Lee’s homicide remains open – a stark symbol of the high profit and low penalties of the bear gall bladder trade.