Lee, 75, was preparing to run for an eighth term, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reported. His aggressive crime-fighting and occasional use of racially charged rhetoric gained him a national reputation.
He had an unusual background for a southern sheriff. Lee was the son of immigrants from China and earned a degree in geology before going to law school.
Lee entered public life as a protege of Congressman Hale Boggs and his widow and successor, Lindy Boggs. He first ran for sheriff as a reformer in 1979.
But Lee realized Jefferson residents were fearful of crime spilling out from New Orleans. At one point, he put up a barrier in the middle of a street that served as the boundary between the two, and in 1986 ordered deputies to pull over black men in “rinky-dink” cars. That caused a firestorm that almost pushed him into resignation.
But he also was much admired.
"For me, I've lost a hero, I've lost my best friend and I've lost a father figure," Chief Deputy Newell Normand said during a news conference.