Missing and Presumed Murdered

updated 02/26/2007 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/2007 01:00AM

Hans Reiser is a genius. Operating systems he invented, ReiserFS and Reiser4, help run computers worldwide, and he liked to remind his wife that he was "an internationally famous scientist."

Still, if police are right, Reiser was very bad at one thing: murder. On Oct. 10 police arrested Reiser, who's charged with killing his 31-year-old estranged wife, Nina, on Sept. 3 as the couple's son Rory and daughter Niorline played computer games at his house. Nina's body has yet to be found. At first it was the little things that made him a suspect: He was seen uncharacteristically hosing down his driveway at 10 p.m., two days after she disappeared. Later he refused to meet with police, even as incriminating clues became bigger and harder to explain–especially Nina's blood in Hans's car and along his driveway. Witnesses told police Hans threatened "to hurt her for the rest of her life" and to "make her suffer until she dies." Nor did it help his case when, searching his car, police found two books: Masterpieces of Murder and Homicide. "Everything he did just made him look more suspicious," says police Lt. Ersie Joyner III. "He slipped up thinking he's smarter than everyone."

Perhaps. But Hans Reiser, 43, claims he's innocent, and his lawyer says cops can't prove that Hans murdered Nina–or even that Nina didn't just run off with a stranger. Nina's friends scoff at the notion. "There is no way she would ever leave her children," says Marni Hunter, who knew Nina as a regular volunteer at their children's preschool. "She lived for those children. We assumed there was foul play." Hunter adds that Hans was nasty and confrontational and often complained that Nina lied about him. "No divorce is a good divorce," she says, "but this one was exceptionally brutal."

Even Reiser's attorney would agree. "They were in a very heated divorce in which Hans felt that the very lives of his children were threatened by a woman who robbed him blind," says William Du Bois, his lawyer. Still, says Du Bois, "he is completely innocent of these ridiculous charges." Police could just as easily have implicated someone else, as there was "a powder keg of suspicious characters in her life," adds former defense cocounsel Dan Horowitz. An Oakland judge plans to rule Feb. 23 on whether there's enough evidence to order a murder trial.

Reiser, who grew up in Oakland, met Nina, an OB-GYN doctor, through a marriage agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, while on a business trip in 1998. "When my husband and me met Hans, we liked him," says Irina Sharanova, Nina's mother. "He was a serious man and he wanted to have a family." The couple married May 15, 1999, and lived over the next few years in Moscow, France, Cyprus and Oakland, where both children were born. But all was not domestic bliss. Sharanova says the couple's nanny told her that "Hans would yell a lot and break things when he was angry."

Meanwhile, Hans was becoming a successful computer consultant and programmer. "He was a major innovator," says Bruce Byfield, an editor with the Open Source Technology Group. "I saw him as someone on the genius side."

As Hans's business grew, he continued to travel. He asked Sean Sturgeon, his elementary school friend and business partner, to keep an eye on his wife, who was alone with the children in Oakland for months at a time. Sturgeon did more than that. In 2002 he and Nina began an affair. They confessed to Hans, and the marriage unraveled. Nina filed for divorce in September 2004, and although her affair with Sturgeon ended months later amid Nina's own misgivings and Hans's complaints to the courts that Sean was a poor role model, Sturgeon still cared for her and regularly loaned her money. In December 2004 Reiser became furious that Nina had bought a Christmas present for Sturgeon; Nina claimed he pushed her down, leaving her shaken and bruised. She got a restraining order and told her attorney Shelley Gordon, "My friends are scared that Hans is going to freak out and do something." Gordon, who helped Nina obtain legal custody of the children, says Nina later dropped the order, "trusting him when she shouldn't have." In July 2005 Nina became friendly with Anthony Zografos, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, after she responded to a personals ad on Craigslist. Zografos tells PEOPLE that he and Nina became romantically involved after she won full custody of her children in December 2005.

Zografos, 46, says he hoped to spend the rest of his life with Nina: "People would stop her on the street and say, 'Oh my god, you are so gorgeous.' I don't know how any man can resist her." He suggests Hans feared Nina would become financially independent and cut all ties once she passed tests scheduled for Sept. 20 for her medical license: "She'd gotten to the point where she could put all this behind her."

At their last family court appearance Aug. 25, Reiser was "agitated," attorney Gordon recalls, adding that Nina said, "He's angry with me because I'm not involved with him anymore." A few days later, with his mother out of town for several days, Hans demanded the kids for the long Labor Day weekend, even though it wasn't his turn.

Zografos suggested Nina "be the better person" and split the weekend. On Sunday, Sept. 3–before Nina brought the children to Hans's house–Zografos playfully e-mailed Nina her horoscope: "Someone will be aggressive with you today, but he can't hurt you." Hours later Nina brought Rory, 7, and Niorline, 5, over to Hans's house. That was the last anyone heard from her. Cell phone records showed that she made her last call to Hans's house. Friends became increasingly concerned two days later when Nina failed to pick the children up from school as scheduled. Zografos posted 18 billboards offering a reward for information about her disappearance and circulated thousands of flyers. Along with dozens of friends and volunteers, he searched the hills unsuccessfully.

On Sept. 9 police recovered Nina's minivan a couple of miles from Hans's house–they believe he drove it there–and in it found her purse, wallet and cell phone, its battery removed, presumably so that the phone couldn't be located. Police also found traces of Nina's blood inside and outside the house and noted that Reiser apparently gutted his home computer of all its drives and emptied files from his file cabinet. On Sept. 18, 12 surveillance officers in cars and a plane saw Hans make four trips to his Honda CRX and rifle through its trunk. The next day they found that the passenger seat had been removed; it has yet to be found. (A policeman who gave Reiser a ticket the previous week recalled the seat was still inside and that Reiser "seemed very nervous.") Police confiscated a roll of large black trash bags, masking tape and the books about police investigations. On Sept. 28 police detained Reiser and found him with his passport, $8,900 in cash and a receipt for a pump they believe he used to clean the car–although they say he overlooked specks of Nina's blood. "We looked at everybody with a fine microscope, but everything pointed back to Reiser," says police lieutenant Joyner, who believes Hans attacked Nina in the house but may have killed her elsewhere. Rory and Niorline are now with their grandmother in Russia; Zografos says the hardest part was telling them their mother is missing, maybe for good. "They look for her under the bed and in the closet," Zografos says. "They look where they can look."

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