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.

Oakland’s 13th Worst In Crime

Oakland does have high crime rates, when you look at both violent and non-violent crimes.  According to the MetroCrime 2008 Rankings, Oakland came in 13th worst out of 388 U.S. metro areas.

The CQ Press produces their rankings based on FBI crime statistics for six crimes:  murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and motor vehicle theft.

Unlucky 13

For each crime type, CQ calculates the number of local crimes/100,000 population as well as variances vs. national averages.  Then CQ adds these six variances together to issue the metro results.

We’re not saying that violent crimes aren’t important.  However burglaries and motor vehicle thefts also contribute to quality of life, and should be included when assessing Oakland’s crime issues.

With this 13th ranking given to Oakland, we don’t have much farther to fall…sigh.

Guvernator Picks His Murder Mysteries

Today Governor Schwarzenegger announced monetary rewards to solve six murder mysteries scattered throughout California.  In the Bay Area, the bounties are $35k for a Union City teen and $50k for another Livermore teen.  If you have information leading to an arrest, then you could receive a nice payout.

Crime Scene Triptych

Begs some obvious questions:  Are certain lives worth more than others?  What about all the other unsolved cases in the state?  Are the folks killed in Oakland simply unworthy?

Let’s take the case of Johnikka Jackson, who attended Skyline High and later took medical assistant classes at Laney College – until she went missing last summer.  We know about Johnikka because her body was discovered behind Skyline and positively identified in December.  Police and Crime Stoppers of Oakland are offering a $10k reward for more tips on this crime.

Many Oakland murders, though, seem to be an afterthought.  It’s just endemic crime, drug-induced crime, ongoing gang warfare, murders that simply happen in every inner city across America, etc.  There might be some minor or occasional rewards for tips, but we’re pretty much awash in zero expectations.

Maybe bigger bounties would make a difference, who knows for sure.  Let’s say tipsters start receiving from $35k to $50k for each unsolved homicide, based on clear reward criteria.  Surely a few Oaklanders might fess up and be worthy recipients.

Of course, the State can’t afford an across-the-board crime reward in this economy.  The Guvernator is doing something good, by announcing rewards for several heinous crimes.  Yet we’re left wondering what this means and why now.

Pulled Asunder By Community Meetings

It’s a tough decision.  We’re pulled asunder by the two community meetings tomorrow, and frankly wondering which one to attend.

Option One:  Neighborhood Watch Steering Committee Meeting

Hear from Jeff Israel, who serves as Deputy Chief of the Oakland Police department (OPD).  He will address Oaklanders who are active with community safety groups, and provide guidance about recent burglaries and crime.

According to Montclair’s Nick Vigilante, the deputy will cover “how OPD is responding to the increases via investigation, patrol, outreach, and enforcement activities; how Neighborhood Watch and NCPC Groups can help OPD; and what you and your neighbors can do to make your neighborhoods safer from such crimes.”

Details:  Wednesday, 6:30-8:30 pm – City Hall, 1 Frank Ogawa Plaza, in Hearing Room 4 – Validated parking at Clay Street Garage (14th/Clay) – You’ll need to RSVP to Felicia Verdin at fverdin-at-oaklandnet.com or 510-238-3128.

Option Two:  Neighbor-to-Neighbor Community Town Hall Meeting

See Vice Mayor Larry Reid and special guest Mayor Ron Dellums in action, in a town-hall meeting tomorrow.  This event is open to all, and is interesting timing after the Oakland budget meeting today.

The invitation says it’s “your opportunity to share issues you care about.  Join your neighbors in an informal and insightful exchange of ideas,” with focus on the budget, economic development, public safety, etc.

Details:  Wednesday, 6:00-8:00 pm – Castlemont Community of Small Schools cafeteria – 8601 Macarthur Blvd – Any questions, please call 510-444-CITY.

Even if you aren’t able to make these events, I’m sure there will be plenty of reports and opinions – and we’ll pass them along if interesting for Montclarions.

Oakland vs. San Francisco Crime Showdown

When looking through the newly-released FBI crime stats for last year, the geographic results were clearly out in the open.  There’s no question that Oakland experienced a higher level of crime than San Francisco, in a true apples-to-apples comparison.

Oakland recorded 119% more violent crimes per capita than San Francisco, and 27% more property crimes. Every type of crime was higher except for larceny theft, which was 29% lower than San Francisco.

Here’s the overall lineup, with highest to lowest differences: 343% for Rape; 212% for Motor Vehicle Theft; 184% for Aggravated Assault; 122% for Murder; 73% for Burglary; 70% for Robbery; and -29% for Larceny Theft.

The Oakland Tribune looked at Oakland’s track record alone, reporting a 2% decline between 2006 and 2007.  Overall declines continued this year, with the Oakland Police reporting 10% or more reductions in rapes, burglaries and auto thefts year-to-date.  Robberies were about even, down 1% this year.  Murders were up slightly, from 99 to 101 murders this year.

Maybe we’re shrinking some of those per capita gaps with San Francisco.  Does anyone have their stats handy, so we can compare trends versus our urban sibling?