Hard luck

City college journalist solves family mystery

By Bethaney Lee

Unable to write or read past a third grade level and labeled as a drifter with his bottom teeth missing and a wart on his left eyelid, Donald Ray Lee was almost lost to history and with him an entire family’s heritage. Falling through the cracks of society his whole life, Lee’s death within the confines of New Mexico State Penitentiary (NMSP) on June 19, 1964, is a chilling reminder that people’s stories have weight beyond the grave.

Absent in the lives of his five children, Lee’s remaining offspring depicted a man shrouded in mystery, convicted of multiple felonies and constantly weaving in and out of the life of their mother, Mary Elizabeth Bates. Lee’s death at 36 ensured that his youngest son, Perry Wayne Lee, was only ever granted a single image of his father, about which Perry said he was grateful, even if it was only the “desperate screams of a man too far gone.” Only aware of their father’s death within the penitentiary, decades later the last remains of Lee were just as unbeknownst to the family as the man himself.

And I was his granddaughter.

Lee’s shadowy life in the 1960s is a time capsule which can be studied over 50 years later, bringing focus not to just the Lee family but to systemic problems within America’s judicial, healthcare, education and economic structures, some of the same problems we are still in suffrage of today.

General Counsel Jim Brewster from the New Mexico Corrections Department was happy to help by issuing me several reports from the time Lee stayed at the prison.

“We don’t have many documents regarding your grandfather, but here is a copy of everything we have,” Brewster said. “It appears that everything is public, and no documents or portions of documents were removed or redacted.

These documents confirm Lee was convicted on two counts of forgery in Chaves County, New Mexico and incarcerated on March 23, 1962, after being in the area for only two weeks. He was likely visiting his father, Emery Perry Lee, who at the time lived in Roswell off Route 2.

Both fraudulent checks were written for the amount of $42.50 and drawn from the First National Bank of Roswell, to total an amount of $85 dollars which Lee pled guilty to, resulting in a sentence of no less than three years and no more than four.

Lee was held in medium custody, assigned as an Education Building Porter whose sole responsibility was to carry luggage and died two years into his sentence, known as inmate #18698.

And on the report, in the very middle, are the typed words “DISCHARGED” and handwritten next to it in cursive, “by death.”

Obtaining vital records from New Mexico only took two weeks to obtain, a luxury given to me because I was family.

The blue border of the Certificate of Death contained the last of what I needed to know regarding where the remains of my grandfather were placed. While no autopsy on Lee’s body was performed his certificate reveals the leading cause of death to be spontaneous pneumothorax or a collapsed lung, due to emphysema.

It is hard to say why Lee was in the prison as opposed to the psychiatric ward when charted under the medical certifications of his death certificate are charts showing Lee suffered from anorexia and had not eaten for months. Even more telling is the note that he suffered from schizophrenia for years.

Several of Lee’s children also suffer from schizophrenia and have long attributed it to their mother’s blood. Schizophrenia genetically bonds best with the Y chromosome found in men, however as genetics would have it, Lee likely suffered greatly from delusions like several of his children do today.

With a psychosis and nearly illiterate, keeping a job would have proved difficult which is likely why Lee forged checks, something he relied on not only in New Mexico but in California as well. The family verifies Lee served time for the same charges at San Quentin State Prison but records have not yet been obtained.

Lee was born in Wichita Falls, Texas on April 19, 1928, making him the second of ten children for his mother Martha Taylor who was “tailor made and proud”— a sentiment recalled by Lee’s eldest son, Donald Ray Lee Jr., while reminiscing of the few times spent with his grandmother Taylor.

The death certificate claims Lee now lies rotting in the ground of the Marysville Cemetery as a man whose knuckles were tattooed with the phrase “hard luck,” a sentiment which couldn’t ring truer for a middle-aged, mentally ill convict ambling through life in the 50s and 60s.  

As Lee’s granddaughter today in 2017, I am a journalism major at City College who has been fortunate to maintain a job my whole adult life. I have all my teeth, even the bottom ones. But I still bear a wart on my left eyelid, just like Lee.  

Somewhere between a photograph and an illustration sits an image of Lee in a tarnished oval frame. Youngest son, Perry Lee, has it hung in his home. The only image of his father Perry has. Photo contributed by Jacob Lee. Taken on Oct. 21, 2017.
Somewhere between a photograph and an illustration sits an image of Lee in a tarnished oval frame. Youngest son, Perry Lee, has it hung in his home. The only image of his father Perry has. Photo contributed by Jacob Lee. Taken on Oct. 21, 2017.

 

Donald Ray Lee’s death certificate lies underneath stacks of research granddaughter and reporter, Bethaney Lee, compiled during her investigation. Photo contributed by Jacob Lee. Taken on Oct. 21, 2017.
Donald Ray Lee’s death certificate lies underneath stacks of research granddaughter and reporter, Bethaney Lee, compiled during her investigation. Photo by Bethaney Lee. Taken on Oct. 21, 2017.

 

Notable facts are marked with multi-colored sticky notes that weave together the last days of Donald Ray Lee’s life. Photo contributed by Jacob Lee. Taken on Oct. 21, 2017.
Notable facts are marked with multi-colored sticky notes that weave together the last days of Donald Ray Lee’s life. Photo by Bethaney Lee. Taken on Oct. 21, 2017.

 

 

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