Monday, April 28, 2008

While the Jury Is Out

The Hans Reiser murder trial has almost all the classic elements of a great criminal proceeding: a prominent defendant, the mysterious vanishing of a lovely young woman, a pair of orphans, bizarre friends and relatives, kinky sex, hints of espionage and international crime, a bitter divorce, charges of embezzlement, and an unusual mental health defense.

All that's missing is any trace of Nina Reiser, 31, beyond a few bloodstains.

But the Reiser trial is also peculiarly Silicon Valley, given its mix of money, high tech, Craigslist, BDSM, playful transvestism, Burning Man, the Berkeley Bowl, and Asperger's Syndrome. The trial is getting gavel-to-gavel coverage, not just in such local papers as the Chronicle, but also in Wired. Their case timeline is helpful in trying to follow the story.

A former Alameda County public defender, Jay Gaskill, is also blogging it, and his blog is absolutely invaluable for the clarity and special knowledge he exhibits.

The lady vanishes

On September 3, 2005, Nina Reiser took her kids grocery shopping at the Berkeley Bowl. Then she dropped the kids with her estranged husband, who was living at his mother's house at the time. (His mother, a 64-year-old artist, was away at Burning Man.) They were in the midst of a genuinely nasty divorce.

Nina Reiser hasn't been seen since. That night she missed a date with her boyfriend, whom she had met on Craigslist; they had been thinking of moving in together, or even getting married.

On September 5, Hans Reiser went to pick up his kids at school, although it wasn't his day to do so, hours before he supposedly became aware that Nina was missing. Oh, and his small car disappeared for weeks; when it reappeared, the passenger seat was missing and the floor was awash in water. He had hosed it out -- just as he had hosed down his mother's driveway just after the disappearance. He claims he was living in the car, although his mother had to rent another one for him to drive.

September 9 her minivan was found a few miles away, still full of groceries. Billboards appeared in Oakland, then all over the East Bay, including my neighborhood.

Suspicion

Within weeks Hans Reiser was fighting for custody of his children. The Oakland police were watching him -- hell, I'd watch anybody whose spouse had disappeared and who had reacted by living full-time in a sports car, especially if they were taking professional-level evasion measures against surveillance. (The 1988 Honda CRX Si was a two-seat hatchback sports car. Not exactly like moving into a Land Rover.)

His father offered a reason for the anti-surveillance measures: he testified that, a week after Nina disappeared, he told his son to be careful of the Russian mafia and the "techno-geek S&M crowd."

On October 10, 2006, Hans Reiser was arrested for murder. He claims Nina Reiser framed him for her murder: that she simply went home to Russia (where their children are now living with their mother's family), leaving him high and dry. Along with $4500 in her bank account, $2000 in her apartment, and a mini-van full of groceries she never unloaded. Not to mention that Nina had just accepted a job offer to help Russian immigrants with their health concerns.

Hans Reiser, a prominent Linux guru, developed the ReiserFS filesystem. He has explained all his strange behavior after his wife's disappearance as the result of Asperger's Syndrome. In Silicon Valley, Aspies rule. Many of the stars of the high-tech industry are far from neurotypical.

(Speaking as a member of the techno-geek S&M crowd, I suspect this area may be one of the few where Hans Reiser could get a fair trial. His repeated courtroom outbursts, rambling monotone delivery, and paranoid behavior after the disappearance don't look good, but people here do understand that computer geeks are often a little strange in their behavior. Very few of them commit murder.)


Into the Labyrinth

Nina Reiser, trained as an OB/GYN in her native Russia, is often referred to as a mail-order bride. She did apparently have her name in a Russian dating catalog. However, according to one source, she was the translator accompanying another Russian woman to an arranged date with Hans Reiser.

They married in 1999; she was five months pregnant. Even in Silicon Valley, the Reisers' wedding was unconventional. It featured a belly dancer and a Minotaur leading the pair through a stone labyrinth -- not exactly auspicious symbolism, since the Minotaur fed on human sacrifices.


Friend, lover, adviser, and more

The maid of honor was a male truck driver in drag: Sean Sturgeon, founder of the Lake Merritt Socrates Cafe, and Hans Reiser's close friend and financial adviser. Later, Sturgeon became Nina's lover. Nina broke up with him because she didn't enjoy BDSM.

In addition to his sidelines in amateur philosophy, truck driving, wedding attendance, BDSM, adultery, and financial advice, Sean Sturgeon claims to be a serial killer with 8 or 9 notches on his belt, although he says he didn't kill Nina. Nobody seems to have arrested him.


The war between the Reisers

The marriage produced two children, whose rearing and education were the focus of enormous conflict between the Reisers. The emails Nina sent seem reasonable; they were produced in court.

Reiser continued traveling to Russia on business, being gone months at a time. When he was home, he wanted to teach his children -- especially his 5-year-old son -- how to survive. His idea was to play violent videogames like Battlefield Vietnam with young Rory. In that game, napalm explosions envelop villages in fire, bodies are hurled through the air, and, when shot, characters collapse to the ground and choke on their own blood, realistic sound effects included.

Rory started drawing violent pictures that worried his mother and teacher. According to the teacher, Rory had become hostile; he said to her, "I don't need to listen to you, you’re a woman. Women shouldn't have rights in this country." And Nina became afraid that her son was getting PTSD from the violent films and videogames.


Means, motives, opportunity

During the vicious divorce and the murder trial, the prosecution characterized Nina Reiser as a loving mother who would never abandon her children. The defense has accused her of being a terrible mother, of having connections with the Russian Mafia and the KGB, of making up diseases for her son to get attention for herself, and of embezzling funds from her husband's company. How much this is the usual blame-the-victim tactic and how much is true, God knows.

Could Hans Reiser be violent? At one point he pushed Nina violently enough that she got a restraining order. And an experienced Oakland cop, now retired, advised her to get a gun.

The money is an issue: Hans Reiser claims Nina was embezzling, but he also owes or owed her large sums in child support. The company Namesys was in some financial trouble, and Hans had publicly complained that Nina and the kids were a financial burden.

The high-tech angle continues into other evidence. Reiser pulled a couple of hard drives from his computer and entrusted them to his lawyer. Nothing of interest was found on them when the police tech expert examined them.

Much more to the point, when the minivan was located, Nina's cell phone was inside with its battery removed -- a way to make sure that it couldn't be tracked. Hans Reiser's cell phone was either turned off or had its battery removed for several days around the time of the murder.

The jury has been two days. At this point, the sketch artists are sketching each other.


If he did it

This case is heartbreaking, because I do think Hans killed Nina, but I believe he did it in defense of his children -- or rather, in defense of the child he had once been.

Hans Reiser was a boy genius who dropped out of school after eighth grade because, as he said in an interview before the disappearance, I . . . couldn't handle junior high school and the insistence on sitting in neat rows. He was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley when he was just 15.

Like a lot of geeks, Reiser had a miserable time being teased and bullied in school. Reiser said, "All of my life people have been doing things like... in grade school, kids would pick on me, they would chase me. And I had a talk with my parents, it takes two to tango and you should use words like this, you should run away." As an adult, he became a Judo black belt.


Is it any wonder that he insisted that his boy watch bloody movies and play violent videogames? He wanted to prepare his son for life -- to protect him from bullies.

Hans Reiser's emails are full of concern for the children, but not in an day-to-day fashion of providing shoes or meals; he was worrying about their future. He scorned the local Montessori school, saying Ordinary people cannot educate genius children. It does not work. And he was obsessed with getting them into the highest status, wealthiest social circles.

When his attorney brought up the children, who are now in the custody of their grandmother in Russia,
Reiser broke down and began weeping, saying his children were "really important to me" and deploring that Nina had accused him of causing his son to have traumatic stress disorder because of violent computer games.

Nina seems to have been a warm, loving mother; a charming and beautiful woman; a person of intelligence and heart. Despite the smear campaign, she comes across as a decent human being. But to the eye of someone like Hans, her desire to protect her children from early exposure to violence must have seemed like the ultimate cruelty. In his mind, she was sentencing them to the kind of misery he had gone through. Only his toughening-up technique could help them.

I think he killed her in a sudden rage, strapped her to the car seat, and dumped it somewhere in the mountains or even in a reservoir. I think the sour-milk smell he was obsessed with washing out of his car was really the smell of her dead body. Sour milk stinks, yes, but it's also the ultimate symbol of bad mothering, and that in Hans's eyes was Nina's crime. Probably there was a smell only he could detect -- the stench of his own guilt.

ETA Convicted of first-degree murder. "I've always been a good father to my children," Reiser said as he was being led out.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Great post!

I'd almost forgotten about the Hans Reiser case -- that was a nice summary (and a lot more than I knew about it previously.)