Gone But Not Forgotten

Phoenix residents awoke on the morning of March 9, 1991, to terrible news.

Someone had bludgeoned an elderly father and his daughter to death inside their small east Phoenix market.

For those who didn't know 72-year-old John Lee or his 50-year-old daughter Ginger, the apparent robbery-murder was just another lousy headline in a nasty world.

But, of course, it was far more than that for those who knew and loved the victims.

Victory Lee, whose father and sister were those victims, contacted New Times after reading an account ("Hyde Out," September 23) of how the separate murder cases against Phoenix half-brothers finally had been resolved.

The half-brothers, Jackie Johnson and David Hyde, had been linked to the killings by an anonymous tipster, a bloodied knife that a pathologist said could have been the murder weapon, eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the men near the market shortly before the killings, a jailhouse snitch, and, in Hyde's case, a disputed confession to police.

Jackie Johnson was acquitted, though he later served years in prison on an unrelated aggravated-assault conviction. David Hyde was convicted in a subsequent trial of killing the Lees while robbing them.

A Maricopa County prosecutor suggested to Hyde's jury that the Lees' blood was on jackets owned by the half-brothers -- a claim that turned out to be wrong.

Hyde was sentenced to death row, where he resided for the next decade.

But in May 2002, county judge Tom O'Toole granted Hyde a new trial after DNA evidence revealed that the blood on the jackets had been Jackie Johnson's, not the Lees.'

The odds of a new conviction at a retrial seemed long under the dramatically changed circumstances. Last August 11, Hyde plea-bargained with prosecutors to a reduced charge of second-degree murder and burglary.

In return, a judge ordered Hyde's release from custody that day.

But Vic Lee doesn't want to dwell on what he terms a miscarriage of justice. He remains convinced both brothers were guilty as charged.

Instead, Lee wants to talk about his late dad and sister, and to let the public know how he and others have kept their memories alive in the nearly 14 years since their deaths.

"You can destroy yourself if you don't try to find a positive side," Lee says, tearing up as he recounts his family's inspiring history. "I used to think I was a pretty tough guy, until this happened. These were two very good people who died. I questioned God -- a lot of us did."

The retired software engineer for Honeywell speaks of how his father routinely helped those less fortunate during decades at the Joyland Market, and of how his sister Ginger became one of the most beloved teachers ever to grace east Phoenix's Balsz School District.

Born in China, John Lee had only a fifth-grade education when he moved with his American-born wife, Hazel, to Mississippi in the 1930s. But he was determined that his four children would graduate from college, which each did.

The couple worked at a family store in Louise, Mississippi, for a time, then migrated with their young brood to Arizona in 1943, the year Vic was born (his parents named him Victory in tribute to the American soldiers enmeshed in World War II).

Hazel Lee's father then owned the little market at 40th Street and Van Buren, and the young Lee family moved into a small home next to the store.

John Lee eventually took over the neighborhood store, and put his children to work there.

"I grew up in that store; all of us did," Vic Lee recalls. "At 5, he had me picking up bottles and cleaning up. We weren't rich, but my dad made us appreciate what we had every day. He taught us to share what you have. I remember him telling me as a kid to go into the back to make a bologna sandwich for a hobo who was walking by on Van Buren, and to get him some water. That happened a lot. We were just taught to help people."

After graduating from Arizona State University, Ginger Lee went to work as a schoolteacher in the Balsz District that she and her siblings had attended. "Miss Lee" taught at Griffith Elementary School for the next 29 years.

After school, Ginger often helped her father at the store, which is why she was there when the killer or killers entered on that terrible night.

"My dad worked seven days a week, and he didn't take a vacation for his last 25 years," Vic Lee says. "He was alone a lot there, and Ginger went there just to be with him, to keep him company and to look out for him."

Vic's mother, Hazel, found the bodies of her husband and youngest daughter. She moved in with Vic's family for a while, and later moved to California to live with another son. Hazel Lee died in 2000.

After the murders, the surviving Lees decided to honor Ginger's memory by creating a scholarship for deserving boys and girls at her school. They have donated thousands of dollars to the fund, and set up a committee to decide how to disburse the monies, usually in U.S. savings bonds.

Then, last year, the Balsz District renamed Ginger's old school "Brunson-Lee Elementary School," after Ginger Lee and Mike Brunson. Brunson taught P.E. at Crockett School for more than 20 years.

Inside the school sits the Ginger Lee Media Center, filled with books and other media purchased with a family endowment and other resources.

"It's a perfect tribute to my sister," Vic Lee says. "She was so into reading and math, and she loved seeing her kids improve their skills so they'd have a chance at making it out there. She never got married, and her students were like her own children, year after year after year."

Because of a miscommunication, the prosecutor in the David Hyde case didn't immediately ask the judge during the recent court hearings to order financial restitution to the Lee family.

But on October 14, Judge Greg Martin ordered David Hyde to pay $20,313 in restitution to the Lees, at the minimum rate of $25 per month.

Vic Lee isn't counting on Hyde to come through.

"But if he does come through," Lee says, "every cent we get from that guy is going to Ginger's media center, to those books that she loved so much."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8433.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin