Sunday, June 27, 2010

Interview with San Francisco Chronicle crime reporter Henry K. Lee (author of Presumed Dead)

You may not know him by name, but anyone who has lived in the Bay Area in the 1990s or 2000s has read Henry K. Lee's work.  He is the crime reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.  If you look at the next article about that senseless shooting or that article about that other senseless shooting, the byline is likely to have Henry's name.

I remember Henry from his days at Berkeley in the early 90s.  He was the crime reporter for the campus paper, The Daily Californian.  For a school paper, there was certainly no shortage of crime stories.  A deranged woman named Rosebud broke into our Chancellor's residence with a machete and she was shot to death.  A mini riot followed thereafter.  And who can forget the Naked Guy?

A young Henry, a young Naked Guy (RIP), and a younger UCPD cop

After college, Henry moved up to the Big Leagues and joined the Chronicle.  He was knee deep in the Hans Reiser murder case.  A brilliant but deranged computer scientist killed his Russian doctor wife because he thought she was a bad influence on their children.  It was a sad and compelling story.  Henry has written a book about it.  He took some time away from his police scanner to answer my questions about his life as a crime reporter, Oakland, and pizza.

Tell us how you decided that you wanted to be a journalist.

I guess the seed had been planted early on. As kids, my best friend and I chased cop cars on our BMX bikes. We wanted to see what was going on, and afterward we would tell people what happened. When I was maybe 10 or so, I made a newsletter with construction paper and masking tape and posted it on a light pole near my house.  It featured an article about which dogs on the street belonged to which neighbors. When I got to UC Berkeley, I channeled what I had done as a kid by becoming a police reporter for the Daily Californian student newspaper, chasing cops on my bike! It felt natural being a journalist.

Did people at the Daily Cal see working there as a stepping stone to a career in journalism?  What are your contemporaries at the Daily Cal doing now?

Many reporters cut their teeth at the Daily Cal. Student journalists there are able to secure internships at large metro dailies, television networks and other media. Berkeley and the Bay Area as a whole is a very dynamic place, full of news and controversy and never a dull moment. It's great to see today's Daily Cal staff carrying on a proud tradition of journalistic excellence.

You write multiple crime stories a day for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Logistically, how do you do it?  Do you have sources at every Bay Area courthouse, DAs office, and police agency?  

People joke that I don't sleep, which might be partially true. I can write stories from the office, from home, in a car on a laptop, and because of our Web site,, we post things around the clock. Crime reporters never work bankers' hours. As a result, I have carefully cultivated many sources over the years throughout the Bay Area.

What are the causes of violent crime in cities like Oakland?

   I believe the easy accessibilty of weapons, the proliferation of gangs, lack of family support, troubled family dynamics and peer pressure might be contributing factors to what we've been seeing in Oakland.

Are there any programs in place now-- foot/bike patrols, Neighborhood Law Corps, after-school programs, etc.-- that are successful in reducing crime or improving Oakland’s quality of life?

 My wife began her law career in the Neighborhood Law Corps and I personally saw that she was able to do a lot of good in Oakland. While we tend of focus on the homicide rate in Oakland and try to extrapolate from that number all sorts of things, Oakland is far different now than from the place that I reported on almost two decades ago.  Programs like Youth Uprising, community policing efforts, and other outreach programs are making a difference, but change can be slow. I am heartened that such organizations are taking steps to address the violence. If one at-risk youth can be steered away from a life of crime, then that is a step in the right direction.

For the haters who badmouth Oakland, what do you say to them?  What are the virtues and positives of Oakland?

 Oakland is a vibrant, diverse city of distinct neighborhoods. This city shouldn't be painted with a broad brush. Oakland is known for its culture, commerce, intellectual curiosity, arts and entertainment, sports teams and its picturesque neighborhoods. I am proud to say that I live and work in Oakland, where the sense of community and civic pride is strong. Our neighbors brought us cookies when we moved in, and we get together as a group several times a year for special occasions. 

Do you ever get depressed covering these senseless and gruesome crime stories?  How do you decompress?

I try to keep my emotions in a box, but it can be difficult when you witness tragedy and mourning day after day. It can be especially challenging writing about the deaths of people you know personally, such as one of the four police Oakland police officers shot dead in March 2009. When I am not reporting gloom and doom, I am actually pretty light-hearted.  Maybe because I have seen so much tragedy, I am able to value all the wonderful things that life has to offer.

What traits-- psychological, upbringing, etc.-- separate law abiding citizens from felons and murderers?

I still believe that most people want to just live their lives and not bother anyone.  Then, there are a select few who cause trouble and become the subject of my stories.  Sometimes people lack the support they need to make good decisions, or they just never got a shot. 

Tell us about your book Presumed Dead: A True Life Murder Mystery.  It’s a true crime story about a brilliant computer scientist who killed his Russian wife in the Oakland Hills.  What sets this book apart from other true crime novels?

This was a so-called "no body" case, in which the victim's body, Nina Reiser, wasn't found at the time her husband, Hans, was arrested in her slaying. Her whereabouts remained a mystery even during the trial, in which the defendant believed he was smarter than anyone else, including the prosecutor, the judge and his own defense attorney. In my 18 years of crime reporting, I haven't seen such a character acting so unusual while being pursued and surveilled by police and while on the stand. In most cases, you don't hear a peep from the defendant, and the victim's body has already been found. That was not the case here.

What’s in your future, career-wise?  Did you enjoy the book writing process?  Will you be going into other genres?

I love being a crime reporter and can't imagine doing anything else.  Adapting to the longer novel format was an enjoyable challenge and I hope that I will have the opportunity to do it again.
Fat Slice or Blondie’s?  

Whichever has the shorter line.

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