Car fire death puzzles officers Towson man's last day remains a mystery

December 12, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The day before his death, Bruce Frank Lee said goodbye to his friends, his family and his girlfriend.

What the 24-year-old Vietnamese immigrant did the last day of his life is a mystery -- one that state police and fire investigators have been struggling to solve since Thanksgiving, when a passing motorist found the Towson resident dead in a burning car beside Interstate 95 in Cecil County.

"There's no evidence of foul play," says Allen L. Ward, a deputy chief in the state fire marshal's office. "He had no other injuries -- no trauma, no bullet wounds."

Ward says the investigation shows that Lee's death was an accident -- he died of smoke inhalation from a fire that probably started outside his 1986 Mazda sedan, then spread inside and generated thick smoke.

Lee was discovered shortly after 9 p.m. by a motorist who stopped after seeing the car on fire, investigators say. The car was burning so fiercely that the motorist was not able to pull Lee's body out.

The accident ended a life that was short and filled with struggle.

Lee, four siblings and his grandmother were the only survivors in a Chinese family from Vietnam. They were boat people who fled during the late 1970s, spent 18 months in a refugee camp in Malaysia and finally found a sponsor to bring them to Maryland in 1979, when Lee was 7.

Last month, Lee was beginning another journey, say friends and family -- he was moving to New York, hoping to find a better job than the one he had making sandwiches at a Subway restaurant.

Instead, he died in an accident that has raised many questions.

What puzzles investigators most is why Lee stopped beside I-95 near North East, and why he didn't smell the smoke that killed him. They also want to know why Lee's car was full of art supplies, turpentine, aerosols, a propane tank and a container of gasoline -- but no clothes.

In the trunk was a security box (which survived the fire) with books, his car title, his draft registration and Social Security cards, his Baltimore County library card and the addresses of family members.

"All that stuff he was carrying inside the car didn't make any sense," says Sgt. Michael Cole of the Maryland State Police, who is assigned to the case.

Family and friends, who didn't see Lee on Thanksgiving, say Lee had told them he was moving to New York and had a job at the Bronx Zoo waiting for him.

"He gave me notice -- he said he was heading up to New York to work," says Peter M. Pazura, owner and operator of the Subway restaurant on York Road in Lutherville where Lee had worked for more than two years.

Pazura gives Lee high praise as an employee, saying, "He had one of the highest work ethics I've ever seen, he never missed a day in two years and two months, and he was never late." And Lee was popular with his co-workers. Nov. 24, they gave him a farewell dinner at the shop.

"Everybody was here, the whole crew -- nine or 10 people," Pazura says. "It was hard as it was, when he said he was leaving. Then we find out he's no longer with us. It's really hard on everybody here."

Lee's family is equally baffled about how he came to stop along the road. They last saw him the day before Thanksgiving. "We were under the impression he was leaving that evening," says Bill Field, Lee's uncle.

But he apparently left the next day. Nor did he have a job in New York -- state investigators say no application was on file for Lee at the zoo.

Field thinks that perhaps Lee's prospects in New York were not as bright as he led his family to believe -- but that he wanted to spare the family worry. Since childhood, Field says, Lee had been very conscious of his responsibilities as the oldest boy in his family.

"He kind of took on the role of man of the family," says Field. "I know this whole move to New York was a tough one for him. There was a part of him that felt he was deserting the family -- and a part of him that felt this was a good way to have the boys [his brothers] take care of themselves."

Lee, his three brothers, a sister and grandmother remained together despite many obstacles, Field says, including the refugee camp. The children's mother had died in Vietnam; their father lives in Maryland, but is not close to his children.

"They were in refugee camps for 18 months because they refused to split up the family," says Field, who is married to Lee's aunt Tam. "Five children and an elderly woman -- it was hard to find a sponsor."

But in 1979, Linden Heights Methodist Church in Carney came forward. The family settled in Towson and remained close to the church for a while, says the pastor, the Rev. Steve Larson. A memorial service for Lee was held at the church Saturday, he said.

Church member Sandy Simmons, who coordinated the family's move to Maryland, says the family worked hard to survive the first few years in the United States. Two aunts raised the boys, supporting everyone by sewing, she says.

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