The Missing Wife

Oaklander and Chronicle crime reporter Henry K. Lee pens a book about Nina Reiser's 2006 murder.

Like the memorabilia of many other murderers, Hans Reiser‘s résumé is viewable online. It begins: “Entered UC Berkeley after completing the eighth grade … focused on math, physics, operations research, economics.” The résumé lists jobs — programmer, file-system architect, “Senior Technology Integrator and Clearcase Performance Tuning Consultant” — but fails to mention Reiser’s best-known occupation: murderer.

Russian-born obstetrician Nina Reiser had filed for divorce before vanishing in September 2006. Pleading innocent but found guilty in a murder trial, Hans Reiser then led cops to Nina’s corpse near their Oakland Hills home. Henry K. Lee, who spent six months covering the case for the San Francisco Chronicle, calls that last revelation a “shocking turn.”

Lee probes the case in his first book, Presumed Dead: A True Life Murder Mystery. Its Wednesday, July 7, launch party is at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland), near the crime scene.

Although “I am always reluctant to develop, much less share, personal opinions,” because “as a reporter it is important to stay impartial and be open to all sides,” Lee sometimes struggled for equanimity during the Reiser trial.

“It was heart-wrenching to see Hans’ son testify,” he said. “He clearly had been impacted by the loss of his mother and his father’s bizarre behavior. For a long time, the two children heard conflicting stories about their mother, and they had no idea whether she had in fact abandoned them and gone back to Russia, as Hans had suggested,” noted Lee, a UC Berkeley grad and Oakland resident himself. Aged five and six when the murder occurred, the Reisers’ son and daughter “were too young to grasp the enormity of it all. … One day, the kids were two typical East Bay children, shopping at Berkeley Bowl with their mom; the next day, she disappeared.”

Crime has always intrigued Lee. “My best friend and I would chase cop cars on our bikes from the time that we were seven years old,” he said. “In high school, we saved up for a police scanner so we could chase them in our cars and go to crime scenes. By the time I got to Cal, I was well-versed in police code and getting to crime scenes before the cops did. I like the fast pace of crime reporting. … There is nothing better than getting some crucial piece of information and getting it into the paper or online before anyone else.”

But a tough part of crime reportage is interviewing victims’ traumatized, angry, or bereft loved ones. Lee’s approach is to “be as sensitive and as understanding as possible,” he said. “I offer my condolences and gently ask them if they want to share any positive remembrances, if only to offset the sadness they are feeling. I am prepared for any reaction, from slammed doors to hang-ups to tearful conversations. … I usually keep my emotions in check, but it can be challenging at times, especially if a child is hurt or killed.” 7 p.m., free.


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