Watch CBS News


Betrayal 43:11

This story was previously broadcast on Jan. 3, 2008. It was updated on July 18, 2009.

California computer whiz Hans Reiser seemed to have it all - including a beautiful Russian wife, who was a doctor, and two children. That perfect life hit turbulence when his wife, Nina, had an affair with one of his best friends. Hans and Nina eventually separated and got into a bitter custody fight.

Fast forward to Labor Day weekend 2006, when Nina dropped the children off at their father's house, and mysteriously vanished in the hours that followed.

What happened to Nina Reiser?

Correspondent Maureen Maher reports on the twisted case involving a computer genius, foreign intrigue, and a best friend's betrayal.

Sean Sturgeon knew Hans and Nina Reiser better than almost anyone, and he had a particular fondness for Nina.

Asked what he loved most about her, Sean tells correspondent Maureen Maher, "That she got excited, she'd jump up and down like a pogo stick. She wanted to taste the world, she wanted to grow. I love that she loved life."

The last time he spoke to her, it was about some money he had left in her mailbox. "Called her up and said, 'Honey, there's some money there. I know you need it.' She said, 'Sean, I don't know when I can pay you back.' That was the last time I saw her," he remembers.

That was the same weekend Nina was making plans with her good friend, Ellen Doren. "Sunday morning she called and she said 'Why don't we have dinner together? I can bring dinner to your house,'" Ellen remembers.

Nina and Ellen are both Russian and they both had American husbands. Ellen says Nina often spoke of her husband, Hans.

Theirs was a relationship that began half a world away from Oakland.

It was back in the 1990s in St. Petersburg, long known as Russia's window to the west, where Nina, an obstetrician, and Hans, a computer wizard, first met. They had very little in common, but the quirky American managed to make the young, beautiful doctor look twice. Once smitten, the two quickly became serious.

Hans was one of the visionaries behind the Linux computer operating system and was in Russia looking for cheap programmers for his new software company.

Josh Davis, a writer for Wired magazine and a 48 Hours consultant, says Hans was developing an expertise in something called "file systems."

"It's one of the most basic parts of a computer. Hans felt very passionate that this was what he was going to make his life's work," Davis says.

His life's work, it turned out, included having a Russian wife, says best friend Sean Sturgeon. "There was the Hans flow chart, and the Hans flow chart was pretty, you know, basic. He said to me, 'I want a beautiful, well-educated, professional woman to give up everything to have my children and raise them.'"

Hans thought he'd found what he was looking for when he spotted a photo of Nina in a Russian bride magazine.

Asked if she truly fell in love with Hans, Sean says, "I think that she loved him."

Nina had visited the United States as a teenager and had always dreamed of living there. So when Hans Reiser invited her to Oakland, Nina readily agreed. Within a month, she announced she was pregnant.

The news raises a red flag with Hans' father, Ramon, who thinks the pregnancy was planned.

Ramon demands to know more about this new woman from Russia. "So I said, 'What are her strong points?' And he said, 'Well, she's widely read. She's had the discipline to be a doctor. She's fairly quick. But compared to the girls I've known, she's very shallow.' And I said, 'Do not marry her.'"

Hans ignores his father and married Nina in 1999, when she was five months pregnant with their son, Rory.

Nina takes it all in stride. Life was good and getting better as Hans' company and his reputation grew. Even the U.S. Department of Defense came calling; Josh Davis says Hans received a $600,000 grant, which financed him for a while.

With Hans a computer star and Nina studying for her U.S. medical license, the couple seemed to have it all. They even had a second child, a daughter named Nio.

But by 2001, after Nio was born, Hans began spending more and more time in Russia building up his business. Nina, meanwhile, was back in Oakland.

Ellen says Nina felt abandoned. "She was very upset and, of course, she would cry sometimes."

"I sent him two books, 'Dummies Guide to Better Communication Between Couples' and 'Dummies Guide to Divorce.' And I said, 'Hans, you're gonna need one of these books. You choose,'" Sean remembers.

Sean says Hans asked him to look after Nina for a while - but "looking after" became something more romantic. Sean admits he made the first pass.

"The thing is, if it was just about sex, I never would've done anything. 'Cause it wasn't about sex at all. I have plenty of sex. I can get sex anywhere, almost any time," he says. "It wasn't that I was just, you know, 'I'm gonna hit on my best friend's wife.'"

Sean says Hans found out about the relationship when they told him.

Not surprisingly, soon afterward, Hans and Nina separated. In 2004, Nina filed for divorce and custody of the children. Hans was crushed.

Hans and Nina were in and out of court, arguing bitterly about how the children were being raised.

Hans withheld child support payments and eventually owed Nina more than $12,000. Then came that Sunday in September 2006, when Nina had made dinner plans with Ellen.

Nina took the children to Hans' house, but what happened next was a mystery.

"I called her every half hour after that. Then at 9:30, her phone went straight into the voice mail," Ellen remembers. "I thought maybe something has happened to her, but I believed she was alive."

Speaking in her native Russian, Ellen left repeated messages for Nina all Sunday night and into Monday, Labor Day 2006. Nina had vanished.
At that point, after being a couple for more than a year, Sean and Nina had broken up. Nina had a new boyfriend, Anthony Zagrafos, a prosperous Bay Area businessman.

"I had received a phone call from Ellen and from Anthony, and Anthony was saying, 'Sean we have to put aside all of our conflict. Do you know where Nina is?'" Sean remembers. "'Is it possible that she could be with another man?' And I said, (sarcastically) 'Anthony you're asking me if it's possible that Nina could be unfaithful to you? No, Anthony, I could never see that. Impossible. Nina would never be unfaithful to another man.'"

Curiously, those closest to Nina - Ellen, Anthony and Sean - did not contact Hans. Anthony drove by his house, but Nina's minivan was not there.

Nina had been missing for nearly 48 hours.

Hans was to drop the children off at school Tuesday morning and Nina was to pick them up. So before contacting the police, Ellen checks to see if Nina is there when school lets out.

But Nina is not there. That night, Ellen calls police, who take a missing persons report. With the police standing by, Ellen phones Hans. "I told him that I picked up the children and Nina's missing and I know that you saw her last. Do you know anything about her or where she might've gone afterwards? And his answer was: 'I want to talk to my lawyer.'"

Police move quickly to try and find Nina. Assistant Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan sends out an army of investigators to the last place Nina was seen - Hans' house in the Oakland Hills.

For his part, Hans refuses to say much of anything. "He became very defensive, uncooperative," Jordan says. "And he did not show any remorse or any concern at all for his wife."

Then, police find Nina's minivan just three miles from Hans' house. The groceries she purchased the day she vanished are still inside, and so is her cell phone. But someone has removed the battery so it cannot be tracked.

Asked what she thinks happened to Nina, Ellen says, "I think that's for Hans to answer."

But Hans is a tough guy to pin down. As police tail him, they realize Hans is no longer driving his 1988 Honda CRX and they can't find it anywhere.

Meanwhile, the couple's two young children are taken away from Hans because he is the number one suspect. Within a week, Nina's mother, Irina, flies to Oakland from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Irina and the children move into Ellen Doren's house. "To wake up every morning and to see the children and to see Nina in them was the most difficult; them asking, 'Where's my mom? When is she coming home?'" Ellen says. "We kept telling them that she got lost and everyone's searching for her."As investigators follow Hans, they discover the missing CRX, but something is missing, says prosecutor Paul Hora. "He removed the front passenger seat. Then he completely disassembled, removed the rear cargo area of the car, threw away the carpeting that covered the spare tire and the cover that covered the spare tire."

Police detain Hans to get a DNA sample. In his fanny pack, they find nearly $9,000 in cash, his passport and a cell phone with the battery removed. "The fact that Nina's cell phone battery had been removed from her cell phone intentionally and then later, he too had his cell phone battery removed from his cell phone, was really a signature circumstance in this case," Hora says.

Soon enough, Nina's blood is found on a wooden post in Hans' house and Hans is charged with murder.

Then, just when all the evidence is pointing directly at Hans, the case suddenly takes a dramatic turn. Sean Sturgeon makes a startling confession.

"I told them that I killed 8.5 people," he says. "I told them that when I showed up, that person may or may not have been dead; but by the time I left, that person was most definitely dead."

There's no doubt that Hans' former best friend and Nina's ex-lover, is one of a kind. Few people admit to being a serial killer, but that's exactly what Sean did when authorities began to lay out their murder case against Hans.

"All this time, they're telling me, 'Sean you need to be a witness. Without you as a witness, we don't have a case,'" he remembers. "Witness for the prosecution. I knew Hans and Nina better than anyone else. No one else had that perspective and they kept on me and I said, 'You don't want me as a witness. If you get me as a witness, you will probably lose the case.'"

Sean promised that if called to testify he would have no choice but to tell the jury his story.

Asked under what circumstances he killed, Sean says, "I'm not going to go into that. The people who I was involved and personally responsible for the death of should have stopped what was happening to me as a child."

And what happened to Sean as a child is clearly something he wants to forget. He says he was abused as a child and has always said that those he killed were his abusers.

"My question is, why should anyone believe that you had nothing to with the killing of Nina if you were violent enough to kill other people?" Maher asks.

"That's gonna have to be up to each individual. It'll be a matter of belief. [If] they don't wanna believe it, fine," Sean says. "The most important part of it is that this is a trial of Hans Reiser for the killing of Nina Reiser. And I didn't have anything to do with it."
But William Dubois, Hans Reiser's defense lawyer, doesn't buy it. He says that Sean's history with Nina makes him a perfect suspect. "He had a motive equal to Hans', at least," Dubois says. "Sean is the jilted lover of a missing person, jilted in favor of Anthony Zografos."

When Dubois hears about Sean's confession, he is confident he has found "reasonable doubt" for his client. And he says there is even more about Sean he is eager to reveal to the jury. "He was a sadomasochist and had a lot of violent tendencies," Dubois says.

"Hans and Nina knew about my wild side -- know all about all of the S&M stuff, the leather stuff," Sean says.

Asked if he and Nina experimented with S&M, Sean says, "For about 20 minutes, yes. There was some experimentation. There was other fantasy and fetish aspects to various parts of our lives. Nothing beyond the kinds of things that millions of Americans indulge in."

Sean's thirst for the unorthodox, however, goes well beyond what a lot of Americans would consider normal. At Hans and Nina's wedding, Sean appeared in full drag as the so-called maid of honor. Even Nina's best friend Ellen was surprised by the relationship between Sean and Nina.

Nina's friends prefer to remember the woman they knew as a great mother. "She's the most caring and giving person I ever met in my life, and she deserved so much more in her life," Ellen says.

But the defense plans to tell the jury about a different Nina Reiser.

"If you were a juror, wouldn't you want to know that a woman who's characterized as a perfect mother was actually living with a sadomasochist? That she exposed the children to a very bad person and lifestyle, which was that of Sean Sturgeon?" Dubois asks.

And because police have never recovered a body, Dubois challenges the very notion that Nina is even dead. "I don't know where she is, whether she's alive or dead. I don't know, I don't know where she is," he says.

But Dubois is sure of one thing: "Hans Reiser had no opportunity to kill his wife according to the only eyewitnesses at the scene."

Not long after Nina disappeared, the last known person to see her alive abruptly left the states and came to St. Petersburg. Both the prosecution and the defense believe that witness plays a key role in this case. But with the trial now set to begin, no one is certain when or even if he will return to testify.Rory Reiser was 7 years old when his mother disappeared.

Days later, he told police and a trained therapist about the last time he saw his mother. "She asked us to give her a hug. And then she drove her car somewhere, but I don't know where 'cause I wasn't there," he said.

Rory's testimony could help his father, but a jury may never hear from Rory because Nina's mother has taken Rory far away from Oakland -- to Russia - possibly forever.

48 Hours traveled to St. Petersburg when Ellen Doren was visiting.

Asked if the children ask or talk about their mother, Ellen says, "Rory is asking more than Nio, 'cause he's older and he's very sad that he didn't tell Nina enough how much he loved her."

"Does Rory think that Hans had anything to do with Nina's disappearance?" Maher asks.

The grandmother, Irina, shakes her head indicating yes.

The defense claims this is all part of Nina's grand scheme to move herself and her children to Russia to get away from Hans. "All I know is that two months before she disappeared, she got citizenship for her oldest son, who is now in Russia with his sister," Dubois says. "The children can't be brought here by any treaty or any legal means whatsoever."

And Dubois says they can't be forced to testify. "They have to come of their own free will and the Russians have informed us so far they have no intention."

And with Hans' murder trial about to begin, Dubois believes Nina is having the last laugh back in Russia.

"We could make a strong case that she is there now and that she is, as we're speaking here, sitting on the Black Sea somewhere having a Stolichnaya, no doubt, and finding it humorous that Hans is looking at spending the rest of his life in prison."

A year after Nina's disappearance, the trial of her husband begins. Hans' lawyer remains confident, but admits that having an ornery genius as a client is "challenging."

"We are apprehensive to a certain degree because we don't know how he will come across because of his intellect," Dubois says. On the prosecution side, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Paul Hora has his own problems. "I have to make sure that I can prove to the jury and convince them that not only is Nina not in the United States with her children, but she's also not in Russia with her family and friends," he explains.

Hora begins his case by unveiling a portrait of Nina with baby Rory. "It's more important for the jurors to understand that she really was a committed, devoted mother and she wouldn't have left her kids," he says.

Then, piece by piece, the prosecutor methodically introduces the most incriminating evidence against Hans: the smear of Nina's blood found on a post inside Hans' house, Hans'1988 Honda missing its front passenger seat, and a wiretapped phone call between Hans and his mother that was recorded three weeks after Nina vanished.

On the tape, Hans gives his mother, Beverly, an earful about Nina. And whenever Beverly expresses concern about her daughter-in-law, Hans just does not want to hear it.

"It was incredibly powerful to show his state of mind at a time when you would expect a man to have some compassion, or some sympathy for the mother of his children -- at least for his children. But he just had none. In fact, it was just the opposite. It was hatred," Hora says.

Hora then calls his first witness and it's a surprise: Rory, now 8 years old, and just off a plane from Russia. He is accompanied by his grandmother, who has decided the boy must tell what he knows.

Hans has not seen his son in more than a year and is overcome that Rory is so close he can almost touch him. "There was a point when he wandered over in my direction and it seemed like he wanted to reach out and give me a hug, and then the deputies stepped in between us and prevented that from happening. I'll always think of that as the hug that almost was," Hans tells 48 Hours.

It is a dramatic showdown of son against father, and Hans is worried about the effect on Rory. "There wasn't a lot of concern for his welfare. I don't think he was even given psychological counseling after testifying," he says.

Jurors hang on Rory's every word as he shows them a picture he drew just prior to the trial. Rory says it shows Hans carrying a big bag down the basement stairs.

Hans sees Rory's testimony as confirmation that he's been brainwashed by Russian psychologists. "Rory testified that he didn't remember that until after he got to Russia, so that tells you something there," he says.

On cross examination, Rory sticks to the story he's always told - the last day he ever saw his mother, she said goodbye and drove away from Hans' house. On that count, Hora says Rory is wrong. "He wasn't a reliable historian about what occurred the afternoon of Sept. 3rd." For four months, Hora lines up witness after witness.

Retired police officer Benjamin Franklin Denson testifies that he observed Nina and Hans when they were sharing custody. Their relationship had become so tense that they exchanged their children at police headquarters.

Denson says he didn't like the way Hans looked at Nina and told her so. "I was standing right here, she was on the other side of the counter there and that's when I told her. I said 'Hey, you need to get yourself a gun. You need protection from this guy.' I saw, you know, a real menace in his eyes, a real hostility toward her. And I thought at that time he was a real, a genuine threat to her well being, her safety," he remembers.

The last prosecution witness is Nina's mother, who cries throughout her testimony.

And then it was the defense's turn. After more than 50 witnesses and five months of testimony, the trial really came down to just one witness: Hans Reiser. With a grin on his face, he seemed more than eager to tell his side of the story.

The first impression Hans made on the jury was a good one.

"We were kinda surprised. He was making eye contact. He was smiling. I think he wanted us to like him," one of the jurors remembers.

Hans was composed on the stand. In a matter-of-fact unemotional tone of voice, he told jurors that on the day Nina vanished, he saw her walk out the front door of his house, get in her minivan and drive away.

When it was Hora's turn, he asked Hans why he had removed the front passenger seat from his car. "He said he removed the passenger seat in order to make a Honda CRX a more comfortable place to sleep," Hora recalls. "His explanations were ridiculous. I mean, they were lies. A Honda CRX is an awfully small car that wouldn't be comfortable no matter what you did to sleep in it."

All told, Hans testified for 11 days until there seems to be nothing more for anyone to say. Now, the case heads to the jury. The murder case against Hans Reiser goes to the jury still a circumstantial case. Nina's body has never been found and that leaves jurors wondering about the possibilities.

"I don't think Nina was an angel. There were some things brought out in the trial, having an affair with Hans' best friend," one of the jurors notes.

Clearly, there is some sympathy for Hans, but one fact is never in doubt. "When it came to Nina being dead, there was nothing that told us she wasn't," another juror remarks.

Jurors deliberated for three days before reaching a verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree.

"When Hans responded to the verdict by saying, 'I felt like I was the best father I could be,' to me, it just cemented his guilt. That is a response of a man who is trying to explain why he murdered his wife, not the response of a man who has just been wrongly convicted of murder," D.A. Hora notes.

Hora applauds the verdict, but it hits defense lawyer Bill Dubois hard. "I was numb by the trial and the tribulations that we went through to get to that spot," he remembers.

Dubois feels the jury was prevented from hearing the truth about Sean Sturgeon. "We tried to point out during the trial that, as a matter of fact, he was a sadomasochist and had violent tendencies. And the prosecution never accounted for his whereabouts or let the jury know anything about him."

Before the trial, Judge Larry Goodman had ruled that the jury could not hear Sean's brazen statement about killing 8.5 people, so neither side called him to the stand. In fact there is no proof he has ever killed anyone. Sean says his violent past is behind him and that he has "come to Christ."

"This is a game, this whole '8.5 victims' is a game. It is a game to be lying to the police, particularly in the middle of an investigation and to come up with a really extravagant story. So why not just come clean if not, right here, right now. Have you killed eight-and-a-half people?" Maher asks.

"No. I picked a number, I wanted them to leave me alone," says Sean, who remains a free man and was never charged or arrested.

Last summer, there was a dramatic development. Hans Reiser shocked everyone by offering to lead police to Nina's body. But there was a catch: he wanted a reduced verdict and less time in prison.

"I had a first-degree murder conviction, I had a maximum conviction and I wouldn't make a deal with anybody unless I thought it was to our benefit. I had to be sure Nina's body was gonna be there," Hora remembers.

Hans assured Hora he could deliver Nina's body. He led investigators into dense woods, just a half mile from his house. Hans was under armed guard, but out of concern that he might try to escape, a plan was hatched.

"Hans agreed to be handcuffed to his lawyer, Mr. Dubois," Hora remembers. "He walked down a small foot path to the top of a hill, over the crest, and then down all of a sudden Hans and his attorney began just bushwhacking through trees and bushes."

"I thought to myself, 'We're never gonna find anything here,'" he adds. "And we got to a point where he crouched down for a minute, and looked into these bushes. And I couldn't see anything, and neither could anyone else."

"And then he got up and he continued down the hill and stopped for a moment. And he said, 'She's right up there. We just passed her,'" Hora explains. "And lo and behold, when you got down and took a real hard look, it looked like an area that had been dug up and then re-covered."

Nina's remains were buried in a hole that Hans says he dug in the two nights after he killed her. "He said 'If you dig down two feet, Nina's inside of a garbage bag, a black garbage bag inside of a duffel bag,'" Hora remembers.

"The first thing that flashed through my head was Rory's drawing," Hora says. "What are the chances of Rory drawing a drawing like that in Russia months and months before her body's recovered? Talking about Nina being in a bag and then lo and behold, Nina's found in a bag."

As part of the deal, Hans is required to provide a detailed confession of how he murdered Nina. "I placed my hands on both sides of her neck and in the most unsophisticated chokehold that any judo instructor would completely despise you for ever using, I choked her," he admits. "I'm very sorry that Nina died. I'm very sorry that Nina died."

Hans says he killed Nina because he felt she was purposely harming their children in order to bring attention to herself. The condition is called Munchausen syndrome by proxy, but Hora denies she had the disorder.

One month later, Hans is back in court. Judge Larry Goodman agrees to lower the verdict to murder in the second degree, and sentences Hans to 15 years to life.

Hora did face criticism for making a deal with Hans to recover Nina's body, but he says he put Nina's family's concerns above all else. "They stand at the front of the line. Their voice is the loudest, and if they want her body and they want that closure to have her remains and to have that comfort in the future, they deserve it."

"What will you tell the kids as they get older? What will you tell them about her?" Maher asks Ellen Doren.

"That they should be proud that they had a mom like that and I'm proud that I had her as my friend."

Nina was buried in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her children live there with Nina's mother, Irina.

Hans Reiser will be eligible for parole in 2021.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.