NEW HAVEN, Conn. – A former animal research technician was sentenced Friday to 44 years in prison for killing a Yale graduate student days before what was to be her wedding day in 2009. The judge's decision came after anguished relatives described how their anticipation of a celebration turned to grief as they returned home with her in a coffin.
Raymond Clark III, 26, apologized in New Haven Superior Court for strangling 24-year-old Annie Le of Placerville, Calif. Her body was found upside down stuffed in a wall of a research lab on Sept. 13, 2009, her wedding day and five days after she was last seen inside the Yale medical building.
"Annie was and will always be a wonderful person, by far a better person that I will ever be in my life," Clark said. "I'm sorry I lied. I'm sorry I ruined lives and I'm sorry for taking Annie Le's life."
Judge Roland Fasano told Clark that he'd snuffed out the life of a promising young woman and virtually destroyed the lives of two families.
Clark pleaded guilty to the killing earlier this year, and prosecutors revealed at the time that he had left behind evidence of a sexual assault and desperately tried to cover his tracks.
Le's relatives repeatedly sobbed as they described how what was supposed to be a joyous wedding turned suddenly into mourning the loss of a woman whose research included finding new treatments for chronic diseases. Clark, whose fiancée attended the hearing, wiped away tears as they spoke.
"She was about to start her life as a young bride," said Le's mother, Vivian. "She told me many times how happy she was to start her family. I will never see her walking down the aisle. I will never hold my grandchildren. I will never see Annie's dreams come true."
"I only see my Annie in my dreams," she added.
Le's younger cousin, Ryan Nguyen, who said he considers her his sister because they grew up in the same household, recalled the flight home from New Haven in September 2009. He said his younger brother Sean was supposed to be the ring bearer at the wedding and played with a teddy bear Le intended to give him as a keepsake. Nguyen planned to hold a Jewish wedding canopy that represents a new beginning in life while his father would give a speech about Le, and his mother was sure to take plenty of photos.
"That would have been a perfect picture of all of us together, sharing and celebrating the happiest moment of my sister's life," Nguyen said in a statement read by another relative. "But, instead, on the flight home from New Haven, I remember how empty and painful it was for me to know that my sister's coffin would be flying home on that very same day."
Nguyen said he misses the phone calls he would get on his birthday from Le and the package of goodies with a note, "hi little buddies, I miss you guys."
"I miss my sister's loud booming voice when she gets excited," he said.
Le's brother, Chris, said his life was going smoothly until his sister was killed.
"I was in school, now I'm not," he said. "I never had a DUI, now I do. I never found solace in experimenting with drugs, I did in my darkest moments. I never had to see a psychologist, but I do that now."
Chris Le said questions such as why his sister was killed "have tortured my soul."
Clark offered no explanation. His father, Raymond Clark Jr., said the family was shocked.
"I know that we will never understand, as I know Ray does not understand, how this could have happened," Clark's father said.
One of Le's relatives said Clark should have received a life sentence. Some spoke of eventual forgiveness if Clark showed genuine remorse.
Clark pleaded guilty in March to murder and attempted sexual assault under an agreement with prosecutors. The sexual assault plea was entered under Connecticut's Alford doctrine, where the defendant doesn't agree to the facts but agrees the state has enough evidence to get a conviction.
A prosecutor said at the time that there was evidence that Clark tried after the killing to generate an alibi, scrub the crime scene and even fish out evidence from behind the wall. He said Le had broken bones and that her underwear had been disarranged. He noted that the victim was 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 89 pounds, while Clark was 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds.
He also cited DNA evidence including Clark's semen and a pen under Le's body that had her blood and Clark's DNA. Court papers describe a bloody crime scene and Clark's efforts to scrub floors. Investigators say Clark tried to hide a box of cleaning wipes that later was found to have traces of Le's blood.
Clark previously had been charged with murder and felony murder, each carrying a possible sentence of 25 to 60 years.
Le was a doctoral pharmacology student who worked on a team that experimented on mice as part of research into enzymes that could have implications for treatment of cancer, diabetes and muscular dystrophy.
At her memorial service, family and friends remembered for her academic success, sense of humor, ambition, love for shoe-shopping and love for her fiance, Jonathan Widawsky.
James Bui, Le's uncle, recalled rocking his niece to sleep as a baby, her excitement at the age of 10 when she finally beat him in Scrabble with the word "czar," and how she and her brother rolled on the floor laughing as he tried frantically to remove a lint ball that Le had stuffed in his nose while playing.
"All I have left are the happy memories that I shared with Annie," he said in a statement read by a relative.