Episode 094: Lindsey Lee

October 2, 2023

When a sheriff’s department employee doesn’t show up for work, her colleagues set out to find the truth. Who killed Lindsey Lee?

Episode Media
Lindsey Nicole Lee (Dignity Memorial)
Lindsey at a judo competition (Cola Daily)
Sheriff’s deputies at the crime scene on March 14, 2017 (WACH)
Jason Donn Lee (11th Circuit Solicitor’s Office)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a case from my own backyard, one that I recently heard about from a sheriff’s deputy connected to the investigation. The story has really stuck with me because – as the deputy said – you never really know what’s happening in someone’s life, and sometimes you find out when it’s too late to save them. This episode discusses sensitive topics and includes graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.

In the spring of 2017, 31-year-old Lindsey Nicole Lee was living and working in Lexington County, South Carolina. Growing up in a military family and moving every few years had given Lindsey the ability to make friends anywhere she went, and she was known for her bright and bubbly personality.

Lindsey had been working in IT at the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department since 2011, and she absolutely loved her job. She had always been fascinated by computers, and she enjoyed putting her knowledge into action in a way that supported the community. Lindsey had become close to her coworkers during those six years, and they felt like a little family. So when she didn’t show up for work one morning, everyone took notice.

Lindsey had the same routine every day. She would leave her home in West Columbia before dark and drive into the town of Lexington for her morning workout at the gym. She would then head to the sheriff’s department where she would shower in the locker room and get ready for work. By 8am, she was at her desk, greeting her coworkers and getting down to business. But on the morning of Tuesday, March 14th, Lindsey wasn’t at her desk like usual.

The deputies who worked in her department were surprised by her absence. Lindsey was a very regimented person, and she would never miss work without letting someone know. She hadn’t planned for any time off that week, so they wondered if maybe she had just overslept. Lieutenant Olyn Sexton, Lindsey’s administrator and close friend, tried to call her cell phone and sent multiple text messages asking where she was and if she was okay, but he got no response. This was also alarming. Lindsey always had her phone nearby and was usually quick to respond.

When there was still no response by 9am, there was a growing sense of urgency in the department. They reached out to Deputy Shannon Lovell, who lived just a few miles from Lindsey. They asked him to swing by her house to perform a welfare check.

Deputy Lovell drove to Lindsey’s house on Haleywood Lane and saw that her car was still parked in the driveway. The engine was cold, and the neighborhood was quiet. He didn’t hear any sounds coming from inside the house, so he knocked loudly on the front door, hoping that Lindsey would hear even if she was asleep. When no one answered, Lovell walked around to the back of the house. There, he found the back door ajar, the wood frame splintered as if it had been kicked in.

Lovell immediately called for backup. When his partner arrived just minutes later, they entered the house through the back door, which led into the den. Right away, they knew something was wrong. The house was silent except for the sound of running water. The deputies moved through the kitchen towards the main bathroom, where they found the shower curtain drawn closed and the tub water running. Cautiously, they pulled back the curtain. There in the tub was Lindsey, her throat cut, covered in blood.

Lovell turned off the water and called for reinforcements. But it was clear from the beginning that the sheriff’s department couldn’t investigate the death of one of their own – they were just too close to the case. Sheriff Jay Koon contacted the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, known as SLED, and asked them to take over the investigation.

When crime scene investigators arrived at the house, they could see right away that this had been a brutal attack. Just inside the front door, bags of groceries lay scattered on the floor, suggesting that whoever had done this had taken Lindsey by surprise as she entered her home. The house was fairly small, and the distance from the foyer to the bathroom was short, just through the living room and down the hall. In the bathroom, Lindsey lay in the tub in a manner which several deputies described as “coffin-like”, her head propped up against the wall and her arms by her side. She was wearing black gym shorts, but no top or bra. The six-inch gash across her throat was deep, likely the cause of her death. The perpetrator had left the water running, presumably to wash away evidence. Lindsey’s fingernails had also been cut to the quick. Lindsey was strong and had surely fought for her life; had her killer been scratched in the process and decided to take that evidence too?

Across the hall, investigators found clothes in the washing machine, still wet. Lindsey’s wallet was in the pocket of a gray hoodie. Had she been wearing it when she was attacked? Was this another attempt to scrub evidence from the scene?

While processing the scene, investigators spotted small pieces of blue latex scattered around. They appeared to be from a latex glove, the kind used by doctors or found in first aid kits. Several pieces looked to be from the fingertips of a glove, either cut or torn off during a struggle. These were immediately sent to the lab for analysis.

While the crime scene unit processed the home, SLED agents began piecing together a theory of what may have happened. It didn’t seem to have been a robbery; Lindsey’s cell phone and purse were still in the house, her Fitbit lay on the bathroom counter, and there was cash in her bedroom drawer. Other than the foyer and bathroom, the rest of the house was undisturbed. Lindsey lived in a safe neighborhood near the airport, and there hadn’t been any similar crimes nearby. So if this wasn’t a robbery, they had to look at the possibility that Lindsey had been targeted.

Investigators began digging into Lindsey’s life, hoping to gain insight into what had led to her death.

Lindsey was born in Arkansas in 1985 to Steven and Debra Pilkington. Steve joined the military to support his growing family, which soon included younger sister Karista, and over the following years, the family lived everywhere from California to Germany. In 2003, when Lindsey was 18, the family settled in South Carolina. Lindsey then pursued her four-year degree and got a job working at a bank.

In 2008, Lindsey met Jason Lee. He was a locksmith who had come to the bank to work on the vault. He and Lindsey struck up a conversation and arranged to meet up for dinner. After that, the two were inseparable.

Lindsey’s family loved Jason. Everyone who knew them described Jason and Lindsey as soulmates. When they got married in 2010, Jason was overcome with emotion as he watched his bride walk down the aisle. They were so happy together.

But of course, no couple is perfect. According to Lindsey’s family, Jason and Lindsey were big spenders – they loved to go out on the town and didn’t worry about money. Soon, however, they got into quite a bit of credit card debt, and their salaries just weren’t cutting it. During this time, they both began to gain weight, and Lindsey’s family noticed that her confidence was slowly declining. Lindsey had struggled with her weight since high school, but it seemed that the stress of marriage and their financial situation only exacerbated the issue. Lindsey had a big personality and was generally extroverted and happy, but lately, she had been drawing into herself more and more.

By 2014, Jason and Lindsey decided they needed a change. They were in a rut and they had to do something about it. Jason began going to the local gym and working out several times a week, hoping to get healthy again. Soon, Lindsey joined him – reluctantly at first – but after a while, the couple was a regular sight at the gym, working out together and getting stronger.

Before long, Lindsey fell in love with fitness. She began lifting weights, and she and Jason signed up with a personal trainer. Graham Hockley became a close friend to the couple, encouraging them in their pursuits and pushing them to work even harder during each session. Then, he introduced them to judo, a form of martial arts that focuses on physical strength and mental discipline. Lindsey was fully committed – she was getting stronger and healthier, and she felt like a new person.

Her relationship with Jason was also getting better; at least, that’s how it seemed. But under the surface, Jason wasn’t that happy with Lindsey’s progress and dedication to fitness. Lindsey was improving by leaps and bounds, even winning local judo competitions. Jason, on the other hand, was going to the gym less and less. According to Lindsey’s father, it seemed as though Jason was jealous of Lindsey’s success and jealous of her friendship with Graham.

Slowly, Lindsey and Jason began drifting apart, but they kept trying to meet each other in the middle. They both really wanted to make things work, but Lindsey wasn’t willing to give up judo just to make Jason happy. Then, Jason told Lindsey that he wanted to start having kids. They had been married for over five years, and he felt that this was the next logical step for them. But Lindsey disagreed. She didn’t want kids, and this led to many arguments between them. Finally, in April of 2016, after trying again and again to find a resolution, Lindsey asked Jason for a divorce. She went and stayed with her mom while they figured out what to do next.

In South Carolina, couples who file for a no-fault divorce have to be separated for a full year before the divorce is finalized. Both Jason and Lindsey were determined to keep things amicable throughout the process. Jason told Lindsey that he didn’t want the house – she could move back into their home on Haleywood Lane and he would move to Greenville where he could find work as a locksmith.

For the next year, the couple lived separate lives, Lindsey in Lexington County and Jason up in Greenville. In February of 2017, Lindsey told Jason that she wanted to sell the house, so he drove down and helped her remodel the bathroom in preparation for putting the house on the market. Around this time, he told her that he was seeing someone, and Lindsey was happy. This would be a good first step toward both of them moving on with their lives.

But just one month later, Lindsey was dead, and no one knew why.

On March 14, 2017, the day Lindsey’s body was found, SLED agents in both the Columbia and Greenville offices were rapidly putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Investigative teams were interviewing everyone in Lindsey’s life while the intel unit was scouring social media and following Lindsey’s digital trail.

Lindsey always had two items with her – her cell phone and her Fitbit. Her Fitbit showed constant activity in the days leading up to her death, but the tracking stopped around 9pm on March 13th. Lindsey wore her Fitbit at night to track her sleep, so it would have been unlikely for her to remove it before bed. The Fitbit had been lying on the bathroom counter when deputies found her in the tub – had Lindsey removed it herself, or had that been done by her killer?

Investigators looked back through her phone to retrace her last movements. Shortly after 5pm on March 13th, Lindsey left work at the sheriff’s department and drove to the gym. She worked out for approximately two hours, then drove from downtown Lexington to the Walmart in West Columbia. Surveillance video showed Lindsey entering the store at 8pm wearing a gray hoodie – the same one that was found in her washing machine the next morning. The whole time she was shopping, Lindsey looked relaxed, casual. She didn’t seem concerned or scared.

At 8:17pm, Lindsey checked out and left Walmart. She was seen getting into her car and driving away. By 8:30, she was pulling into her driveway. Investigators believe that she was attacked as soon as she entered the front door, her hands full of grocery bags. Her assailant, waiting in the dark, took her by surprise.

Investigators also saw that Lindsey’s phone had multiple missed calls and texts after she arrived home that night. Several of those messages were from Graham Hockley, her personal trainer and friend. When questioned, Graham told SLED agents that he and Lindsey had become close over the years through the gym, but they were just friends. When Lindsey left the gym shortly after 7:30 on the 13th, she told Graham that she was going to pick up groceries before heading home. As was their custom, she would text him to let him know she got home safely. But she didn’t text, and the hours ticked by. At 8:57, Graham sent Lindsey several messages asking if she was okay, but he got no response. Both Graham’s and Lindsey’s phone records confirmed this. All in all, Graham was cooperative with investigators, answering all their questions and voluntarily offering up his DNA. He was quickly ruled out as a person of interest in the case.

Meanwhile, SLED agents in Greenville were asked to contact Lindsey’s soon-to-be ex-husband Jason to notify him of Lindsey’s death. Lieutenants Gene Donohue and Jeff Kindley drove to Jason’s office at the locksmith company and asked to speak with him. When they told Jason that Lindsey was dead, Jason cried out, wailing loudly and asking what had happened. Then, Jason began volunteering information about where he had been the last few days.

According to Jason, he had worked a normal shift on March 13th. When he got back to his apartment that night, he had taken a pain pill for his aching feet and watched TV until he fell asleep. When he awoke the next morning, he wasn’t feeling well, so he decided to go to the nearby Walmart to get some medicine. However, he soon found that his car – a blue Kia Rio – was missing from its parking spot. Jason assumed that it had been repossessed since he was behind on his payments, so he decided to just drive his work truck to Walmart. He got his medicine and then headed back home.

When Lieutenant Kindley asked Jason about his relationship with Lindsey, he noticed that Jason became agitated. Jason said that he had tried to fix their marriage, but that Graham Hockley had gotten in the way. Jason had even spent over $5,000 remodeling a bathroom just to win Lindsey back, but it hadn’t worked.

Lieutenant Kindley also asked Jason about the scratches on his face – long, vertical cuts around his mouth and nose. Jason said he had cut himself shaving that morning, but the investigators were skeptical; the cuts didn’t seem to reflect a shaving accident. However, they didn’t push the issue, instead asking Jason if he would be willing to come down to the SLED office in Greenville and let them download his phone and take a swab of DNA. Jason agreed to come in the next day.

When the computer crimes unit examined the contents of Jason’s phone, they discovered something very interesting: Jason’s phone had been completely turned off in the time directly before and after Lindsey’s death. In fact, there was a 12-hour window in which his phone and Fitbit went completely dark.

Investigators were able to determine that Jason rarely turned off his phone, and – just like Lindsey – he wore his Fitbit all the time, even at night. But on the night of March 13th, Jason had removed his Fitbit and turned off his phone around 6pm. It wasn’t turned on again until 6 the next morning. Jason had also deleted all of his browsing history prior to March 15th, right before he turned it into SLED. But there were a few things he hadn’t deleted. On March 15th, Jason had searched for criminal defense attorneys in Greenville, the Zillow listing of the house on Haleywood Lane, and for media coverage of Lindsey’s death.

Now, investigators knew they were on the right track. Jason gave them permission to search his work truck, but they didn’t find anything. The truck’s GPS indicated that it hadn’t been driven to Lexington County; it had been in Greenville the whole time. They needed to find his blue Kia.

Luckily, Jason himself had given them the clues they needed. SLED Agent April Sykes pulled surveillance footage from the Walmart by Jason’s apartment and surrounding businesses. At 5:15am on March 14th, Jason’s blue Kia is seen pulling into the back of the Walmart parking lot. A man matching Jason’s description exits the vehicle and walks away from the store, back in the direction of Jason’s apartment, which was only a mile away. Fifteen minutes later, Jason’s work truck pulls up next to the blue Kia. The same man spends a few minutes walking back and forth between both vehicles, almost as if he was moving items from one to the other. At one point, the man leans down at the back of the Kia as if he’s removing the license plate. Then, he gets back into the truck and drives away.

As soon as investigators saw this footage, they descended on the Walmart parking lot, and sure enough, there was Jason’s blue Kia, abandoned and missing its plates. Search warrant in hand, they began processing the vehicle. Inside, they found fingernail clippings on the floorboard; they were sure they would be a match to Lindsey. Their next stop was Jason’s apartment. There they found a backpack containing blue latex gloves just like the kind found at the crime scene.

On March 17th, three days after Lindsey was found, Jason Lee was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and first-degree burglary.

In a statement to the press, Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon thanked SLED for their assistance in getting justice for Lindsey. “SLED stepped in and helped us during a very difficult time. Because of their hard work, Lindsey’s family can hopefully gain some sense of closure as they continue to grieve in the weeks and months ahead as they begin to heal.”

Lindsey’s family was shocked by Jason’s arrest. True, Lindsey and Jason were separated and almost divorced, but they never imagined that he would harm her in such a way. They had thought that the divorce was amicable, that Lindsey and Jason had found an arrangement that worked for them. But the truth was much darker.

When Jason’s case finally went to trial in November of 2019, prosecutors painted a picture of jealousy and anger, but also of desperation.

At the time of Lindsey’s murder, Jason was in dire financial straits. He had maxed out his credit card, he had $100 in the bank, his car really was on the verge of being repossessed, and he was about to get evicted from his apartment. He also owed Lindsey $1300, which the court had ordered him to pay by April 1st. On top of all this, Jason and Lindsey’s divorce was imminent – in just a few short weeks it would be final.

According to South Carolina law, if a person is legally married at the time of their death – even if they’re separated – their spouse is entitled to all of their assets. When their divorce became official in April, Jason would get the house on Haleywood Lane and all of Lindsey’s money.

One of Jason’s coworkers testified that shortly before Lindsey’s death, she and Jason had met up to finalize the terms of the divorce. Lindsey still wanted to sell the house, and she would get to keep the proceeds. According to the coworker, Jason was livid, absolutely infuriated that Lindsey would do this.

Jason’s girlfriend confirmed this, testifying that Jason had raged about the fact that Lindsey would be getting $50,000 from the sale of the house, a house that they had shared. But the day after Lindsey’s body was discovered, Jason had told her that all his financial troubles were over. The house was his.

SLED agents testified about the digital evidence as well as the physical evidence found at the crime scene. They told the jury how on the evening of March 13th, Jason Lee had turned off his phone and left his Fitbit in his apartment before driving his blue Kia 85 miles from Greenville to Lexington County. He parked some distance away from Lindsey’s house, then sneaked into the backyard, forcing open the back door and hiding in the dark until she came home. When Lindsey opened her front door, groceries in hand, Jason attacked, using his weight and the element of surprise to overpower her. He choked her until she was unconscious, then dragged her limp body into the bathroom, placed her in the tub, and slit her throat. According to forensic pathologist Dr. Janice Ross, sharp wounds on Lindsey’s hands indicated that she had awakened and tried to defend herself from the knife. But instead, she bled out as her attacker – her once beloved husband – stood over her and watched. Then, he turned on the water, clipped her fingernails, and threw her hoodie in the wash before driving off into the night.

Crime scene investigators testified that although Jason had tried to remove his DNA from the scene, he had missed several crucial elements. During the struggle, pieces of his latex gloves had torn off and had been later found by investigators. Lindsey’s DNA was found on the outside of the gloves, and Jason’s was found on the inside. Jason’s blood was also found on the fingernail clippings, which were determined to be Lindsey’s. It was likely that clippings had attached themselves to Jason’s clothing without his knowledge and had later fallen off in his car.

Lastly, before leaving the property, Jason had planted a bag of marijuana inside Lindsey’s car, probably to make it seem like Lindsey had been killed by a drug dealer. But Lindsey didn’t do drugs, and the only DNA on the bag belonged to Jason.

Finally, on November 22, 2019, after just one hour of deliberation, the jury found Jason Lee guilty of the murder of Lindsey Lee. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Solicitor Rick Hubbard told the press, “This man brutally took Lindsey’s life and, today, I know her family and her friends will sleep a little easier knowing the man responsible for taking Lindsey from them will spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Sheriff Koon spoke to the judge, saying, “We’ll just remind you that the defendant, in this case, handed down three sentences that night. He gave Lindsey a death sentence and he gave two life sentences. One to her immediate family and one to the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department’s family, and we’ll be living with that for the rest of our lives.”

Lindsey Lee had so much life ahead of her. She was dedicated to her judo training and had dreams of one day working for the FBI. Her life was on an upward trajectory when it was cruelly taken by someone who was supposed to love and protect her.

SLED agent April Sykes told A&E, “You know, we tell women when you leave it’s the most dangerous time. This is what Lindsay was doing. Lindsay was leaving him behind.”

Lindsey’s friend and former coworker Olyn Sexton agreed. “I think Jason saw a happy, well-adjusted, empowered woman that he could no longer control, and he saw her moving on with her life and it bothered him. She didn’t need him, she had left him. She was able to take care of herself, and his life was falling apart, and without her he didn’t have anything, and so he decided that no one else was gonna have her either.”

In the aftermath of Lindsey’s death, Olyn and Lindsey’s family created the Lindsey Pilkington Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering women through self-defense and firearms training, providing critical mental health services to women in need, particularly those in abusive relationships. They are determined to keep Lindsey’s memory alive and help other women protect themselves.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or text START to 88788. Help is available 24/7 – it is free and confidential. Domestic violence is not your fault: you deserve to be safe.