Henry Lee on a Hills Mystery

Here’s what you need to know about Henry K. Lee, the San Francisco Chronicle’s East Bay crime reporter. He sees more mayhem and human misery in a month than most people see in a lifetime, yet he is surely one of the most upbeat and pleasant personalities in the famously cynical news business. His news writing is crisp, snappy, and to the point. And as anyone who follows Oakland news can attest, Lee seems to live by the newspaper creed of “file early and often.”

Fans of crime non-fiction everywhere will be happy to learn that Lee paused briefly from the relentless demands of daily journalism to produce his first book. “Presumed Dead,” which comes out next week, investigates the strange, sordid, and sad story of Hans and Nina Reiser, a murder mystery that touched close to home for folks living in the Oakland Hills. The Reisers lived on Marden Lane. And when Hans finally confessed, and told police where he hid his wife’s body, she was found on a deer trail near Redwood Regional Park.

We spoke to Lee on Tuesday about the case and his new book.

Today in Montclair: You’ve reported on hundreds, probably thousands, of crime stories over the years, why did you choose this one to turn into a book?

Henry Lee: I covered the case from the very beginning, from the moment Nina first went missing. I ended up chasing Hans for a quote on the streets of Oakland. I was there everyday during the six month-long trial. It was full of twists and turns. And in between there was Hans’ strange behavior on the stand, his strange behavior before his arrest, and his stubbornness throughout the whole process. There was too much that could not be put into a newspaper article, so many elements of the story that needed some explanation.

TIM: What did you learn while researching Presumed Dead that surprised you?

HL: I certainly learned more about the case while working on the book. The behind the scenes stakeouts that the police conducted, the plane they used to surveil Hans from the air, there was a lot of technology that the public didn’t know about.

TIM: When you were watching Hans Reiser plead his innocence in court, did you believe him?

HL: There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that made people think he was the responsible person. I certainly had my suspicions about Hans from the very beginning because there were a lot of holes that needed to be filled. But there were three viable suspects from the start: Nina’s current boyfriend, Nina’s former boyfriend, and Hans. All three were looked at with equal fervor.

TIM: What’s the most interesting part of the tale for you?

HL: There’s a lot of key players in the case, and they all stand out in their own right. The interplay and interaction between all these people was quite fascinating. I am able to get into a Hans’ innermost thoughts. Sources close to the case gave me emails, letters, and wiretap conversations.

TIM: Did you talk to Hans for the book?

HL: I tried. But he threw up all these obstacles, including a request that I read Anna Karenina in its entirety. He also said that I should bring a polygraph so that he could prove what he’s saying about Nina being a threat to their children was true. I just got a letter from him two days ago saying “I don’t think you understand me, come and talk to me behind bars.”

TIM: How do you stay remarkably cheerful, surrounded as you are by so much of what’s ugly and tragic about human behavior.

HL: I count my blessings, and make the most of everyday.

Henry Lee will be at A Great Good Place for Books on Wednesday, July 7 for a launch party. The party starts at 7 pm. Enjoy wine and cheese, buy the book, and meet the author.

Pay to Appeal

Here’s another one to file in the Services That Used to Be Free category.  The Alameda County Assessor is going to start charging for assessment appeals.  You can hardly blame them.  In the old days of the real estate bubble, the county received between 2,000 and 3,000 appeals in a typical year.  With property values dropping, the appeals board handled more than 11,500 appeals in each of the last two years.  Unless this a “W-shaped” recession, it looks as if home values in 94611 bottomed out about 13 months ago with an average selling price of $738,000. In April, the average price was $766,000.  The price of an appeal application will be a very reasonable $50, but the County Assessor suggests that you wait until “Notifications of Assessed Value” are mailed at the end of July.  You can file online between July 2 and September 15.

Fire Department May Charge for Services

Tell your friends visiting from out of town to make sure they drive safely.  The city’s budget trouble has prompted the fire department to look into charging non-residents for showing up at an accident ($450), putting out a car fire ($720), or extracting trapped drivers from their vehicles ($1,220).  Don’t worry.  If you’re just unconscious, and all the fire fighters have to do is open the door, you’ll be charged at the basic rate of $450. It’s not completely unfair. Non-residents will have to be at-fault in order to get a bill from the city.  The City Administrator thinks this will bring in around $33,000 a month to the city’s general fund.

Oakland will have to share the proceeds with Fire Recovery, USA.  That’s the company that will handle the billing and all the “customers,” who will not be happy to learn that they owe the city of Oakland for services rendered.  Oakland residents who need help from OFD after drinking or using drugs will also have to pay up. Oakland City Council will vote on the new fees at its meeting next week.

It could be worse.  Tracy in San Joaquin County is charging for 911 calls, and the small burg of Maywood near LA has essentially given up trying to provide basic services.

For the moment, the Oakland Fire Department will rescue stuck cats at no charge.

Murphy Is Montclair Pet Mayor!

Montclair voters backed the traditionalist candidate in elections this month.  Murphy, a Chocolate Lab sponsored by Crogan’s Restaurant, succeeds Little Bear, an Alaskan Mix, as Pet Mayor.  Murphy’s administration includes Jasper, a Portuguese Water Dog, as Vice Mayor, and Stella, a long haired cat, as Secretary of  Catastrophic Disasters.  Congratulations to the victors, and to the Montclair Veterinary Hospital Pet and Wildlife Fund, which raised nearly $14,000 in the Pet Mayor Contest.

That’s a pretty impressive haul.  Since 2004, the pet mayor contest has raised $60,000, which has paid vets for helping injured and ill wildlife.  We look forward to Murphy’s administration.

Our 35th Annual Fine Arts Sidewalk Festival!

The streets of Montclair are alive with fine art and artists, during our 35th Annual Fine Arts Sidewalk Festival this weekend.  You’ll discover nearly 90 exhibitors hanging out on Mountain, La Salle and Antioch with their creations.

This juried festival is proudly hosted by the Montclair Village Association every year.  Artists hail from California and other Western states, and represent media including oils, acrylics, etchings, glass, wood, stone…you name it.

Paintings in this festival draw heavily on geometrics and beautiful scenery.  For the most part, the artists seem to be living in more calming and zen modes.  Here are two artists displaying their works, Terry Steinke and Karen LeGault:

There are also many sculptures and objets d’art made from natural materials. You will see metal and wood pieces, of course. We also admire the more unusual stone and glass items, from exhibitor-artists Ted Kugleman and Christopher Roscoe:

Beware, you might end up with some new artwork! While this festival isn’t for bargain hunters, you’ll likely discover art or objets d’art that cost in the hundreds – and won’t land you in the poorhouse.

In past years, we first cased the streets and then stopped to chat with artists whose pieces we coveted.  Your approach may vary, depending on how much time you wander through the Village.  Montclair’s Arts Festival runs all weekend, including Saturday (10am-6pm) and Sunday (10am-5pm).