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Nina Reiser Couldn’t Win

Wired reported yesterday on a twist in a high-profile murder investigation that may truly be worthy of a show like CSI. From the article:

A former lover of the missing wife of Linux programmer and accused spouse killer Hans Reiser has confessed to killing eight people unrelated to the case, prosecutors informed the defense last week.

Sean Sturgeon, a one-time friend of Reiser’s, had already been a focus of the defense team’s efforts to shift suspicion off Reiser in the disappearance of his estranged wife, Nina Reiser. Sturgeon’s alleged confession to a series of unrelated murders will likely complicate the trial, which is set to begin Monday…

Nina Reiser vanished sometime during the day on September 5, 2006, after taking her children to visit Hans Reiser (link goes to Reiser’s online resume). Though Nina is still missing, investigators in Oakland, California eventually gathered enough evidence against Hans Reiser to charge him with her murder. According to the Wikipedia page about Hans, the evidence included blood found on a bag in Hans Reiser’s car that matched Nina’s DNA, a missing passenger seat from Hans Reiser’s vehicle, and less concrete indicators — the legendary computer programmer had become a true crime enthusiast around the time his wife disappeared. Among Hans Reiser’s effects were Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon, and Masterpieces of Murder, written by Jonathan Goodman.

The couple married in 1999. Nina was from Russia, where she’d been trained as an obstetrician and gynecologist. At the time of her disappearance, she had custody of the couple’s children. The Reisers’ divorce had become final in 2004. Nina was the one who filed, saying in part that Hans was gone so much that the children didn’t really know him.

The “about” page on the website Nina’s family built after disappearance gave this description of the missing woman:

Nina Reiser is a beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, caring, devoted mother of two young kids, Rory, age 7 and Niorline, age 5. Nina is a trained medical doctor from Russia; she moved to the US in 1999 and has lived in Oakland, CA since then…

Hans Reiser was a boy genius. He’d entered UC Berkeley at age 15, and after spotty attendance, achieved his bachelor’s degree in the early ’90s in computer science.

Hans was already traveling to Russia in 1996, as indicated by a post he made in soc.culture.afghanistan on October 8 that year. At the time, Hans’s company, Namesys, was still called The Naming System Venture. Around that time Hans was also helping his mom Beverly, an artist, develop a project titled “Life on a Slice.” Here was how Hans’s bio on that site read in 1997… and how it reads today:

A graduate of U.C. Berkeley, Hans is currently a systems technologist at Synopsys, in Mountain View, California. He is also the owner of the Naming System Venture: a joint Russian-American persistent storage layer project. Hans works on lingo scripting, plot development, poetry, and story-boarding for Life On A Slice.

Reiser’s main products produced under The Naming System Venture were filing systems used in conjunction with the Linux operating system — he branded them accordingly: ReiserFS and Reiser4.

According to Nina, Hans wasn’t a nice guy. She’d filed a temporary restraining order against Hans in 2004, then in August, 2006, a civil suit. The latter was intended to get Hans Reiser to pay medical bills and child support for the couples’ children.

Sean Sturgeon was allegedly a former friend of Hans Reiser’s who ended up being romantically involved for a time with Nina. They’d broken up because Sturgeon was into serious bondage and dominance, and that was not Nina’s thing.

If Sturgeon is a serial killer as he claims, the chief issue where the Reiser trial is concerned will be all the reasonable doubt provided by Nina having been involved with a man capable of murdering 8, possibly 9 people in cold blood.

That, and Sean Sturgeon would also become quite the true crime story unto himself.

It is interesting that as of midnight on May 6, 2007, Wired was the only major news outlet of any kind that had picked up this element of the story. I had to wonder — are others just not noticing, or do investigators suspect that Sturgeon is lying, to fill some kind of sick need for attention?

Sturgeon’s name came out very early in the news coverage of the case. This article was published September 14, 2006 on the website for TV station KGO, abc7news.com. Quotes from the piece about Sturgeon:

According to filings in Alameda County Superior Court, a notice of settlement was filed on Hans Reiser’s behalf Wednesday to resolve a lawsuit filed against him by Sean Sturgeon on Dec. 30, 2004, seeking $131,552 in damages.The terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed.

Sturgeon claimed that Reiser and his company, Namesys, Inc., which he ran out of his home, failed to pay back a loan.

In a response to the lawsuit that was filed on Feb. 15, 2005, Reiser, acting as his own attorney, said “under no theory of liability is defendant Reiser liable personally for repayment.”

Reiser alleged that Sturgeon “had been having a secret affair with defendant’s wife, Nina Reiser, at the time of the loan.”

Reiser said Sturgeon “continues this illicit affair even during divorce proceedings currently in action” and that Sturgeon “even apparently is, in defiance of a court order, residing with defendant’s wife and children.”

The allegations of an illicit affair didn’t stop there:

Reiser said Sturgeon “worked with my wife Nina Reiser and eventually drugged her with ecstasy and seduced her.”

Reiser alleged, “He then engaged in Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism techniques and continued to redrug her repeatedly over time.”

Hans Reiser added more accusations to the pile, saying that Sean Sturgeon’s goal was to unman him and plunder Namesys’s assets, all with Nina’s collusion. Reiser said that Sturgeon had threatened him physically, as well as other family members. Further allegations included Sturgeon allegedly calling the IRS on Hans Reiser and his mother, Beverly.

Google’s cache can capture some strange things. At least, they seem strange in hindsight.

In 2003, Hans, Nina, and Beverly Reiser were chatting with Sean Sturgeon and others about the Reiser4 file system, and some of this was captured online:

Hans was apparently addressing how best to promote the new system, hence the title, “sloganeering.” His cc list for the message included Beverly Reiser, Nina (nenasha@namesys.com), and Sean Sturgeon’s Yahoo address. [Edited per Nikita Danilov, whose name is also found on the messages. I’d misread the quotes and attributed a statement made by Mr. Danilov to Sean Sturgeon. I thank him for the correction, but not for his pointlessly smartassed comment, which was deleted before seeing the light of day.]

Sean Sturgeon seemed to be more comfortable with subjects like philosophy. This page for “Socrates Cafe Berkeley” no longer has Sean’s e-mail address on it, but it was on the main page in 2003.

The East Bay Express published an article in December of 2004 about Sturgeon’s philosophical pursuits. From the piece written by Kelly Vance:

The formula is simple: organize a loose group of interested people, meet in a hospitable public place, and ask a multitude of questions. That’s exactly what Sean Sturgeon, a 38-year-old Oakland native, did when he suddenly found himself with time on his hands after, as he puts it, “I blew out my shoulder slinging buckets” as a recycling truck driver. Last April, Sturgeon held his first Socrates meeting at the Alley on Grand Avenue in Oakland. Five people showed up: two landlords, two tenants, and himself.

(…)

So is the Socrates Donuts, soon to be the Socrates Lakeside, any different than a bunch of cranks sitting around shooting the bull? “Not a whit,” laughs Sturgeon. A typical meeting has anywhere from five to twelve participants, evenly divided between men and women in the twenties-to-sixties age range, a diverse group drawing heavily from the arts-film-academic backgrounds — this being Lake Merritt. Recent topics, decided upon beforehand by networking, were “What is privacy?” and “What is pornography?” Says Sturgeon: “When you throw a subject out there in front of a group of strangers, they’re going to call you on it. People have these passions, and they’re not passive. It goes beyond a chat room.”

And on September 1, 2005, when the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans was becoming apparent, Sean Sturgeon’s “charitable” side came out. He apparently founded the SF Bay Area Katrina Relief Convoy Yahoo group.

In the group, Sturgeon used both his “seansturgeon” Yahoo e-mail and this screen name: “katrinadisasterconvoy[at]yahoo.com.” You can see a post on a NOLA.com forum here from “Sean Sturgeon,” using the “…disasterconvoy” addy. It was made just 2 days after the Yahoo group was formed.

Nina Reiser, or someone using an e-mail address in her name, was also a member of the group. She also appeared to share the “katrinadisasterconvoy” e-mail with Sean. Using that address, someone made this post on September 5th… just 3 days before Hans Reiser filed a suit against Sean Sturgeon, as detailed in the KGO article quoted above. A portion of the message:

I am Nina, Sean’s girlfriend. Sean is on the way there, a hour away from Houston, TX as of noon on Monday 09/05. I will be posting regular updates from him and contact info of people- volunteer coordinators there.

Sean left Oakland on Saturday night, so it takes about 40 hours to get to Houston. He’s been driving without much rest on the way though…

The group appeared to be basically abandoned after September 13, 2005. Whether that was because Hans Reiser’s suit against Sturgeon put a chilling effect on the couples’ charitable efforts or because they felt they’d done all they could do can’t be determined at the moment.

The first question that came to mind for me after finding out a bit more about Sean Sturgeon was, “why was this guy running Hans Reiser’s finances for 3 years?”

This article published on September 14, 2006 at CBS5.com, KPIX-TV, adds that little detail into the mix: “Reiser said Sturgeon acted as his financial agent from 1999 through 2002 and had access to and control over deposits, withdrawals and funds at the Patelco Credit Union.” Emphasis mine.

Sturgeon drove a recycling truck otherwise. It’s hard to make that square with him having full access to the Reisers’ money. It would make me think that Hans Reiser’s “genius” did not extend to the decisions he made about the people with whom he became close.

That Sturgeon may have been into bondage and dominance does not, by any stretch, make him a would-be serial killer. People who don’t know anything about bdsm might automatically equate the two, but I won’t — I’ve made that mistake before (some time ago), and man, did people from that community let me know I was wrong.

I’d be more suspicious of his having been a truck driver, and somewhat suspicious of the trip Sturgeon supposedly made to help out with relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina. Truck driver — possibly highly mobile; Katrina relief — a wide area of travel at a time when all the usual systems of order in the region were overwhelmed.

At the moment, Sean Sturgeon has said that he killed 8 people and left a ninth for dead. He hasn’t been arrested. He has stated that he would take a lie detector test where Nina Reiser’s disappearance and presumed death were concerned. Sturgeon allegedly only confessed to his “crimes” to clear his own conscience.

He could just be another true crime attention whore. Until more evidence is out, that’s how I’m looking at Sturgeon’s supposed confession.

One thing seems pretty clear to me, whether Sturgeon was a killer or not — between whatever was wrong with him, and Hans Reiser’s egomania and being a workaholic, Nina Reiser, in the end, really couldn’t win.

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