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.

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Montclair Mirror: Your Searches Tell All

Today we would like to share what’s interesting to Montclarions, as reflected by the most popular searches conducted to find Today in Montclair and postings clicked once here.  In case you are worried, nothing traces back to individuals at all.

Let’s start with what you searched throughout 2008.  Bar none, the Hans Reiser case was the most sordid and popular news of the year.  Beyond that infamous murder case, our most prevalent concerns related to local fires, burglaries, voting, home values, and a little shopping.

Reiser On 48 Hours

All Things Reiser: Our famous murder case featured computer expert Hans Reiser, who killed and buried his wife in the hills.  We were aghast at the court proceedings, Nina’s recovery and their poor kids.  CBS-TV even aired a special 48 Hours program last night, where Hans reflected on his crime:

I felt that I was trying to keep my children safe….I feel very sad.  Sometimes, sometimes keeping children safe doesn’t lead to happiness.  In the law, there’s a difference between killing and murder.  I think that Rory deserved to be safe, which is different from thinking that Nina deserved to die.  I don’t think that people who hurt children or threaten to hurt children should die, but I think that children should be safe.  And I’m very sorry that Nina died.

Fires: There’s ongoing interest in local fires, long after the flames have been snuffed out.  As everyone knows, there were two main events this past year, namely the pre-season Hiller flare-up below homes and above Rt 24; and the late-season Tilden blaze mistakenly set during controlled burning.

Crimes: Of course, all the local crimes deserved our attention and there were some creative efforts like the restaurant stick-ups.  More recently, there have been perpetrators casing the hills and later breaking in.  While we have apprehended some burglars, there’s ongoing interest in how to protect our hearths.

Voting: This civic discourse was heartening, at national and local levels.  We wanted to attend an Obama rally, know exactly where to vote, and find out election results.  The interest in village leaders, local reps, and measures like OO and  WW was strong as well.

Home Values: The top searches related to median prices which recently held steady, as well as foreclosures and their movements.  Many villagers have lived here a long time, before cheap credit appeared.  As the market contracts and job losses mount, we’re holding our breath for the bad news ahead.

Pizza, Pizza: The sad truth is that Montclarions searched for pizza places more than anything else, except the Reiser murder.  Do you recall The Net (1995) with Sandra Bullock, when she ordered pizza online?  It’s nothing today to check menus or reviews online, though we still place orders by phone.  Searches for other edibles paled by comparison.

More Goods: Yes, the web has become our new yellow pages.  The searches for clothing, gifts and kids stuff remained steady all year.  Of course the search volumes spiked over the holidays, including decorations, village events and giving back to others.

So there you have it, a Montclair mirror held up to our collective souls.  We care about larger issues in our community, staying safe at home, and maybe trying to save a little time.  Just a microcosm of Hills life, I suppose.

Take Care Of Reiser Kids

We thought the Montclarion saga was over.  Hans Reiser has been officially locked up 15-plus years, for the murder of his estranged wife Nina.

Well the saga continues for the Reiser kids, who now live with their maternal grandmother in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Last week, a pro-bono suit was filed, which attempts to extract financial support for Rory and Niorline.  The wrongful death suit, filed on their behalf, is hardly a reach.

While this suit was reported by the Oakland Tribune and SF Chronicle today, I wanted to record the sorry tale of the Reiser children here.  It’s the least we can do to honor this local Montclarion mom, who was strangled to death by her husband – while their kids were around.

Older son Rory was quite clear-headed at the trial, even testifying that he saw his father carrying a black bag down the stairs.  This bag was Nina’s burial shroud, unearthed when Hans led cops to her hillside grave this summer.

The suit clearly states that both children “were in the house when the Defendant murdered Nina, which has resulted in severe emotional distress and psychological damage.”  No kidding.

At his sentencing hearing last week, Hans insisted the kids did not witness the crime and “never even knew what happened.”  He expressed remorse and actually seemed sad for them.  This delusional, alternate universe of Hans Reiser continues to make me sick.

As part of his sympathy campaign, Reiser also set up a token trust fund which will accept donations for his kids.  Around Montclair, the scuttlebutt says to ignore this request because funds won’t ever make it to the offspring.

Here’s hoping the kids’ lawyers prevail instead, and they receive some compensation for their radically altered and irrevocably harmed lives.   It can’t be an easy life over in Russia, instead of Montclair.

Montclarions Chilled – Nina’s Been Found

We are all pretty chilled by this unexpected news about Nina Reiser.  As a bargaining chip, Hans Reiser was brought back to Montclair this afternoon to show authorities where he buried his estranged wife.

Nina was located in a four-foot ditch near the West Ridge Trail, in Redwood Regional Park.  I shudder while thinking about how many times I walked right by her grave.  This was not exactly a remote spot!

CBS News Producer Paul LaRosa filed this report a little while ago.   We all remember the Hans Reiser case, and the defenses including Nina’s escape to Russia.  As LaRosa said, “that puts a lie to his story.”

I’m sickened about this visit to the Hills today.  With Nina’s body as evidence, Hans might be able to prove the murder wasn’t pre-meditated.  This means the sentence could be reduced from 25/life down to 15/life instead.  Not that this brings back Nina or changes his kids’ lives in Russia.

Do you recall when Nina first went missing?  In Montclair, we were all horrified by this disappearance for a few days and hoped for the best.  But those flyers were up long after we knew better.  Years later, Hans was convicted of her murder due to overwhelming circumstantial evidence.

Our famous murder case is no longer a mystery.  Even though this closes the sordid tale, it will remain chilling for the Reisers’ neighbors.