Henry Lee’s byline is one of the most familiar in the San Francisco Chronicle. He’s covered crime in the East Bay for 16 years and is known to have the best police sources around. He writes so fast that his words are often online shortly after the report of a crime comes across the scanner.
Lee got his start as the crime reporter for The Daily Californian, the newspaper for UC Berkeley. In 2006 he covered the mysterious disappearance of Nina Reiser of Oakland, a beautiful young mother of two who had last been seen heading to Berkeley Bowl. Hans Reiser, Nina’s brilliant but strange computer programmer husband, was eventually convicted of her murder. The case gripped the Bay Area. (Read Lee’s blog on the trial.)
Lee’s book about the crime, Presumed Dead: A True Life Murder Mystery, will be published July 6. He is having a book launch at 7 p.m. on July 7 at A Great Good Place for Books. He will also be appearing at Books, Inc. on Fourth Street in Berkeley on August 11.
Berkeleyside caught up with Lee in between crime stories.
Where do you live? What years did you go to Cal?
I live with my wife in Oakland. I went to Cal from 1991 to 1994. I was originally pressured to study law or medicine or business, but I decided to go with psychology, telling my parents (Dad is an electrical engineer; Mom is a retired medical technologist) that psychology is “half ‘ology.” At Cal, I chased cops as the crime reporter for the Daily Cal. But my interest in sirens goes back to when I was a boy, chasing cops and ambulances with my best friend on our BMX bikes! I like to think of what I do now as a simple, befitting extension of my childhood fascination with sirens.
You got your start reporting at the Daily Cal. What was your most memorable story?
I just remember a lot of fun stories. I covered the Naked Guy (look for a picture of me witnessing one of his arrests circa ’93). I also gained a reputation for arriving at crime scenes faster than the cops. In two distinct cases, I recall chatting with the cops while they were on perimeter posts searching for suspects. In one of those cases, I ended up chasing the bad guy, who was on foot, while I was on my bike. The cops were on foot, huffing and puffing behind me. I actually yelled out, “Westbound over the fence” as the guy ended up going through my own apartment complex on Dana Street at the time. Seconds later, cops broadcast on their radios, “Westbound over the fence!” They caught the guy.
How long have you been a reporter for the Chronicle? How do you manage to file so many stories every day? Do you work in the East Bay or San Francisco or just rove around, posting from cafes?
I’ve been a reporter ever since I started out as a summer intern in 1994. I don’t know if we should curse the Internet, but that is how I can file from anywhere, my Oakland office, my Oakland home, in a car, from the courthouse, or while on vacation (which I have been known to do). I bring my laptop wherever I go; I consider it something akin to the “nuclear football” that the military brings with the President. Criminals never work bankers’ hours, and alas, neither do I.
What did you find so fascinating about this case that made you want to write a book about it?
There was so much to delve into, with Hans’ computer background, how Hans met Nina, how they fell in and out of love, their rancorous divorce proceedings, Hans’ strange behavior before his arrest and while taking the stand on his own defense, that there was no way that all of it could fit into the confines of daily newspaper reporting. With my book I was able to flesh everything out, go deeper into this case and be a fly on the wall for the readers during key moments in the couple’s past as well as the police investigation. Of course, I ended up being part of the case myself (see Henry Chasing pic), and that ended up being part of the trial as well.
You covered Nina Reiser’s disappearance and the court trial. What new or different information did you find for the book?
I was able to obtain the entire police case file, which provided important behind-the-scenes details in what would become a surreal cat-and-mouse game between Hans and the cops. I was able to sit down with Nina’s ex-boyfriend, Sean Sturgeon, to gain a deeper understanding of the dynamic involving Sean, Hans and Nina. I also conducted key interviews of other players in this case, including attorneys, officers, friends and relatives of the couple and reviewed voluminous court documents with details that have not yet been revealed.
People love crime stories in the newspaper and books that take a deeper look at crimes like the one at the heart of Presumed Dead. Why do you think we like to know and learn about violent acts?
Crime stories allow people to explore the psyche of those who commit terrible acts. I have always wondered why human beings do such hurtful, violent things to each other. But in reading and writing about such terrible deeds, we can learn about the human mind, how it operates and explore different ways of managing anger and avoiding conflict.
Hans Reiser seems like an odd person, at once brilliant, socially awkward, and a bit creepy. What did you discover about the way he treated Nina and those around him? Were there any clues that he had a streak of violence?
Hans came across to people as arrogant, self-centered and uncaring about others. He didn’t have a history of hurting others to the extent that he killed Nina, but there was an incident when he used a bow and arrow to hurt a neighbor’s cat. Some have said that childhood cruelty to animals is a big predictor of future violence toward people.
Since Reiser was a bit strange, why do you think Nina married him? Did they ever have a good marriage?
I do think that they had a genuine love for each other in the beginning. Nina thought that Hans was a gifted computer programmer and that the two could start a happy family together in Oakland. But what tore them apart was their wildly divergent views on parenting.
Would Reiser talk to you?
I asked him for an interview about two years ago, but in response he requested that I read Anna Karenina in its entirety and to bring a polygraph machine with me so that he could prove to me that he wasn’t lying when he said that Nina was a threat to their children. I received a letter from Hans from Mule Creek State Prison just this week, in which he asked me to bring a draft of my book if it hadn’t already been published. He said he didn’t feel as if I understood him. It’s too late for me to talk to him face-to-face, but I’m confident that I’ve painted an accurate picture of him and his worldview in the book
What are the lasting impacts of Nina’s murder? Did you talk to her friends about how it has changed their lives?
Nina’s family and friends mourn her loss every day. It struck a chord in Montclair, where parents had to talk in code to avoid having their school-age children learn the details of Nina’s disappearance and murder. Her loss is a void in their lives, because she was just trying to be the best mother that she could under some very difficult circumstances.
How are the Reiser children doing?
The children have since been adopted by Nina’s mother and now live with her in Russia. For the longest time, the little boy would ask, “Where is Nina?” They will never see either parent again, and I hope that knowing that their mother is close by, if not in spirit but also by the fact that she has since been reburied in Russia, will bring them some measure of solace.