As previously promised, Baltimore County's key witness in their case that led to the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee finally spoke to the media on-record about his role in the day Lee was killed in 1999—just not with Serial, the podcast that documented his elusiveness and problematic account of the day.
In the first of a multi-part interview with The Intercept's Natasha Vargas-Cooper, Jay Wilds describes how he first came to meet Syed at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore. He also provides a narrative of January 13, 1999 whose details do not match the various timelines he provided to police and in his testimony in the trial that eventually put Syed in prison for life.
The major plot details of his story, however, do appear to line up: That Syed called Wilds to pick him up from Best Buy, where he tells him he killed Lee; that Syed later showed him Lee's dead body in the trunk of her car; that they went to Leakin Park to bury her. (And to followers of the podcast, Wilds' version would also appear to place Adnan in possession of the phone during the ballyhooed Nisha call.)
Wilds tells Vargas-Cooper that he first met Syed through his then-girlfriend Stephanie, who told him that "Adnan was pretty cool" and wanted to buy weed from him. (Jay admits that at the time, he was running a small marijuana operation that was partially based out of his grandmother's house.)
"I didn't trust him at first, since he wasn't like the people I knew — pot smokers you know? I made him smoke one time, he got a little high, got a little weird. Didn't say that much. He just seemed like someone who didn't smoke weed too much," Wilds tells the Intercept.
When did you two get closer to each other?
There was never a real friendship. I only smoked with him two or three times. It wasn't like, 'Oh, we're down in the park, come on down.' We were friendly, we were cool. I might have sat next to him in a class, and joked or something. But he didn't call me unless he needed something. It wasn't like, 'Oh, we're going bowling, and let's call it in before we go bowling and call the rest of our friends and call Jay.' I don't remember ever going to any kinds of functions or endeavors together, or any concerts or clubs together, you know.
As Wilds begins to retell the sequence of the events that purportedly led to Lee's killing is when his previous known narratives—as collected by Koenig and Serial through court documents, police records, and trial testimony—begins to divert. For instance, he tells the Intercept that Syed intimated to him that he wanted kill Lee a week before her murder:
When did he first talk to you about hurting her?
It was at least a week before she died, when he found out she was either cheating on him or leaving him. We were in the car, we were riding, smoking. He just started opening up. It's in the evening after school, we never hung out in the morning. Just normal conversation like, 'I think she's fucking around. I'm gonna kill that bitch, man.' Nothing real pointed or anything, not like, 'I know his name,' or 'I caught her.' But I just thought he was just shooting off like everyone else shoots off when they're mad at their girlfriend. He never said anything like, 'Hey, what gauge gun should I use?' or 'How many minutes am I supposed to hold somebody under the water for?' or, 'Is there a statute of limitation on murder?' I thought he was just blowing off steam and bullshitting. I thought at worst he'd throw a rock through her window or something. Normal high school 'I'm mad at her and I'll scratch her car' sort of stuff.
I had never known anybody who had killed anybody else, so there's no way I could have known.
But look, if we start speculating what he was thinking that far ahead – I don't know. He might really have just been bullshitting at the time. I don't know what happened, what occurred between them that day. I don't know if she said something he couldn't handle, and he went off the edge or if he had been seriously speculating about it. I don't feel comfortable drawing conclusions like that. You can't start drawing conclusions like that.
But his version of the day of the murder, January 13, 1999, contains key, recurring plot points in many versions of the story. Wilds says he was ditching last period of school that day with Syed when he borrowed Syed's car and phone to buy a gift for his then-girlfriend Stephanie at the mall. After buying the gift, he says he went to his friend Jenn's house, then he says Syed called him, asking him to pick him up at Best Buy, where Syed apparently confesses to Wilds of killing Lee:
Let's back up, tell me what happened when you arrived at the Best Buy to pick up Adnan.
I pick him up — he doesn't have any car with him. Like, he's not in a car or anything.
Where was Hae's car? Was it in the Best Buy parking lot?
Hae's car could have been in the parking lot, but I didn't know what it looked like so I don't remember. When I pick him up at Best Buy, he's telling me her car is somewhere there, and that he did this in the parking lot. But that, according to what I learned later, is probably not what happened.
Wherever her car was at the time I picked him up from Best Buy, it probably stayed there until he picked me up later that evening.
He then claims that the two are together and leaving Best Buy for Wilds' friend "Cathy's" house (her name was changed for the podcast) between 3 and 4 p.m., which would put Syed in possession or capable of making the "Nisha Call" at 3:32 p.m.—Nisha being a friend of only Syed and not Wilds.
What time do you get back to your place?
I think — and, look, it's been 15 years — about 6 p.m.
Ok. So then you and Adnan parted ways?
Yes. He left in his car and I was trying to collect myself at my [grandmother's] house. I was pretty distraught, fucked up, feeling guilty for not saying nothing. I don't know whether he calls me when he's on his way back to my house, or if he calls me right outside the house. He calls me and says 'I'm outside,' so I come outside to talk to him and followed him to a different car, not his. He said, 'You've gotta help me, or I'm gonna tell the cops about you and the weed and all that shit.' And then he popped the trunk and I saw Hae's body. She looked kinda purple, blue, her legs were tucked behind her, she had stockings on, none of her clothes were removed, nothing like that. She didn't look beat up.
Hae was in the trunk of her own car?
"Why did you agree to help Adnan bury Hae?" Vargas-Cooper asks, a question listeners have been pondering for 12 episodes.
"Because at the time I was convinced that I would be going to jail for a long time if he turned me in for drug dealing, especially to high school kids. I was also running [drug] operations from my grandmother's house," he tells Vargas-Cooper. "So that would ruin her life too. I was also around a bunch of people earlier the day [at Cathy's], and I didn't want them to get fucked up with homicide. So I said, 'Look man, I'm not touching [Hae]. You're in this on your own. I'm being manipulated into what's being done right now.'"
Did you go to Leakin Park immediately after agreeing to help?
No. Adnan left and then returned to my house several hours later, closer to midnight in his own car. He came back with no tools or anything. He asked me if I had shovels, so I went inside my house and got some gardening tools. We got in his car and start driving. I asked him where we're going and he says, 'Didn't you say everyone gets dumped in Leakin Park?'
I said, 'Drug dealers, people who get killed by drug dealers,' and I'm thinking to myself, 'When did I ever say that?' So, as I'm riding with him to the park and it starts raining and I'm thinking to myself as he pulls over—and I'm thinking this is the spot he's chosen. I'm also thinking, 'What's making him think I'm totally okay with this?' Like if a car goes by, and I jump out and wave at them saying, 'Hey, this is a murderer right here.' But I didn't. I'm pretty sure it was my fear of going to prison for having a bunch of weed in my grandma's house. He knew I was afraid of that.
The two then spend about 40 minutes digging a grave, but Wilds' refuses to touch Lee's body; Wilds claims Syed buried Lee by himself.
Where was Hae's car?
Somewhere up around a corner up a hill, parked in a strange neighborhood. It's just on the street. I didn't know it was that close. He said, 'I'm gonna drive back down there [to the grave]. You follow me some of the way, and then I'll take care of it.'
You drove him to Hae's car nearby?
Yes. We get into his car, and he drives up around the corner to Hae's car. He says, 'OK, follow me halfway back down the hill [towards the grave site]," so he doesn't have to walk all the way back up the hill to get back to me in his car. I follow him halfway back down the hill, park, smoke some cigarettes. He's gone with Hae's car.
It takes him about half an hour, 45 minutes, and he comes back with gloves on, panting, like, 'She was really heavy.' That's all he says. That's about burying her.
"Why is this story different from what you originally told the police?" Vargas-Cooper asks. "Why has your story changed over time?" Wilds says his portrayal in Serial as a "petty weed dealer" was inaccurate and that the stakes for him were larger than the podcast reported:
It wasn't just like I was selling a nickel bag here and there. At the time, this was Maryland in the '90s, the drug laws were extremely serious. I saw the ATF and DEA take down guys in my neighborhood for selling much less than I was at the time. And they were getting sentenced to three and five years. I also ran the operation out of my grandmother's house and that also put my family at risk. I had a lot more on the line than just a few bags of weed.
"I stonewalled them [police]...until they told me they weren't trying to prosecute me for selling weed, or trying to get any of my friends in trouble," Wilds told the Intercept. "People had lives and were trying to get into college and stuff like that. Getting them in trouble for anything that they knew or that I had told them—I couldn't have that." He goes on:
That's the best way I can account for the inconsistencies. Once the police made it clear that my drug dealing wasn't gonna affect the outcome of what was going on, I became a little bit more transparent.
To speculate as to why he thought Syed killed Lee, he said he believed it was because Syed couldn't handle the sting of rejection from his breakup with Lee.
"From the way he carried himself, at least, it looked like he had never lost anything before. And it was really hard for him to deal with being on the losing end. In that situation, he was the loser," Wilds told the Intercept. "And people were starting to find out he was a loser, 'Oh, you and Hae aren't together anymore. She got a new boyfriend?' And he didn't know how to deal with that."
[Photos of Syed and Lee via Serial]