Detectives find unidentified body in Ariz. desert

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) -- Arizona authorities who have been investigating the disappearance of a 78-year-old suburban Phoenix woman said Saturday they have found an unidentified body in the desert near Gila Bend.

This is the same general area where the missing woman's grandson had led detectives to find additional evidence, Goodyear police spokeswoman Lisa Kutis said.

It could be Monday before medical investigators identify the body, but Kutis did say that Helen Jean Lee's grandson, 40-year-old Jason Eric Howell, is the prime suspect in the woman's disappearance.

Lee was reported missing from her home Wednesday, the same day Howell was arrested in the theft of an SUV from a Chandler school.

Police first went to Lee's home late Wednesday for a welfare check after a daughter who lives in Tucson was unable to reach her mother. TV news footage of the home showed heavy damage to the garage door, as if something rammed or backed into it.

Two days later, investigators said Lee might have been killed after they found indications of foul play at her home and evidence in the desert about 50 miles away.

Detectives continued to process what Kutis described as a crime scene at Lee's home on Saturday.

Lee's neighbor and friend, Don Morrison, said Howell was living with Lee and that Howell had a substance abuse problem. Morrison said Lee often talked about the difficult situation.

"She did what she could do for her grandson," said Morrison. "I don't know why a 78-year-old grandmother was taking care of her 40-year-old grandson but she was trying to help him." 

Neighbors said Howell was recently out of state for rehabilitation and was expected to be gone for one year.

"He was back here within probably six weeks and Helen was very distraught over that," explained Morrison.

It was not clear if Howell has been appointed an attorney. He was ordered held Friday in lieu of $300,000 bond on charges related to the carjacking case.

One of the seven charges accuses Howell of using the SUV to ram the car of a Chandler police officer who spotted the stolen vehicle. The officer arrested Howell at gunpoint, according to an affidavit.

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