Ten years after she disappeared on a hot July night, Jeanine Harms' body has never been found and the chief suspect is dead, but Harms' family and prosecutors cling to a literal thread of hope that may finally prove who was her killer.
On Friday, prosecutors expect to receive the results of a private lab's extensive testing of fiber evidence that could definitively link a Persian rug missing from Harms' home to the cargo area of San Jose architect Maurice Nasmeh's Jeep Cherokee. Within the next two months, the district attorney promises to finally issue his own report on one of Silicon Valley's most mysterious crimes.
Until then, the devastating wait continues. Microtrace, an Illinois forensic research laboratory known for its work on such high-profile crimes as Washington state's Green River Killer, serial killer Ted Bundy and the Atlanta child murders, has been testing the fibers in the Harms' case since 2008, but Santa Clara County assistant district attorney Marc Buller said "it will become evident why it took so long when the report comes out."
Some forensics experts are skeptical that authorities needed so much time to test the fibers, but it's the first potential step forward in the case in years.
Secret may last forever
As the decade passed, the question of what happened to Jeanine Harms grew more puzzling and frustrating through a series of twists and turns.
Police had little
The major break that led to Nasmeh's arrest came two years later -- a San Jose woman came forward after reading news reports that Los Gatos Police were looking for the blue and red rug. The woman said she and her daughter had found it next to a Dumpster in a parking lot in San Jose in the summer of 2001. Neither was sure of the exact date: The mother said sometime after May; the daughter said she thought it might have been in July. Prosecutors said the Dumpster was 0.6 miles from Nasmeh's home.
But after 21/2 years in jail, Nasmeh was released in 2007 as prosecutors were forced to retest the fiber evidence after a county crime lab analyst failed a certification test.
Then, in January, in a stunning example of vigilante justice, Harms' brother, Wayne Sanchez, killed Nasmeh and then himself during a chance encounter at a San Jose shopping mall. If results from the new fiber tests prove Nasmeh is the killer, as prosecutors have claimed all along, the secret of where Harms is buried died with him.
3,000 hours of testing
It's a painstaking process some describe as looking for a needle in a haystack: Fibers are gathered from crime scenes by vacuum, tweezers or tape, as Santa Clara County criminalist Mark Moriyama did. Then he had to sort through the mass of fibers to isolate the ones he wanted to analyze more.
Before his work was discredited, Moriyama spent nearly 3,000 hours analyzing the thousands of fibers from Nasmeh's Jeep and the Persian rug.
Authorities insisted it didn't matter that for two years after Harms' disappearance the rug had been in the hallway of a woman's home, where it was walked on and routinely vacuumed.
They say fibers deeply embedded in the rug, many just a few millimeters long, matched fibers found in the cargo area of Nasmeh's Jeep Cherokee. However, Moriyama also ended up with many fibers from the SUV that were different from the fibers in the rug.
"Mark Moriyama spent more than a year going through the fibers," said Peter Barnett, a partner in Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, who was hired as a consultant by Nasmeh's attorney. "In the end, he isolated about 35" from the SUV.
Another defense fiber expert, David M. Hall, a professor emeritus of textile engineering at Auburn University, said his analysis of the fibers showed they were common in many textile products across the country, including the insulation in Nasmeh's SUV.
Theory relies on fibers
The link matters because police and prosecutors believe Nasmeh killed Harms and wrapped her in the Persian rug before placing her body in his SUV. The two had met just hours before at a Campbell bar, where Harms had gone to meet a man she was afraid of and Nasmeh was having drinks with friends.
Harms invited both men home for a nightcap, but Nasmeh said he was the only one who showed up. Harms was in his car twice that night, once when the group from the bar went to Nasmeh's Jeep to listen to music and again when Harms and Nasmeh drove to a market near her home to buy a six-pack of beer.
Both men Harms saw that night were investigated initially, but police decided Nasmeh was their man. They just needed to prove it. Without a body, no blood stains and no sign of a struggle, that left trace evidence as their best shot at making a case.
"The fact it was an Oriental rug, it's going to have a number of colored fibers and a number of types of fibers," said Kelly Brinsko, a research microscopist with the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago, a nonprofit institute dedicated to teaching and research. The 3,000 hours Moriyama spent analyzing the fibers "sounds like a long time," she said but explained each fiber has to be examined individually and mounted on a microscope slide. Is it cotton, wool, acrylic?
"I can imagine it would take hours and hours to go through those tape lifts to isolate potential fibers of interest," said Brinsko, who teaches classes for other forensic scientists and stressed she was not familiar with the Harms case.
Once the analysis is complete, "as with all trace evidence, fibers can place someone in a location or in contact with somebody," she said.
Lab helped crack cases
Skip Palenik, the forensic microscopist now working on the Harms' case, also turned his microscopes on the chilling Atlanta child killings and helped convict Wayne Williams of murdering two of the 29 black children who were killed between 1979 and 1981. His work on fiber evidence in the murder of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach in Florida helped convict serial killer Ted Bundy after Palenik matched fibers from Bundy's van to the girl's clothes.
His work on the Green River killings is credited with convincing Gary Ridgeway to confess to killing 48 prostitutes along the Green River in Washington state in the 1980s and 1990s. Palenik was able to link tiny chips of a unique paint found on some of the victims to Ridgeway's truck. Investigators had not noticed the chips before Palenik made the connection under one of his microscopes.
A spokesman for the company said Thursday that Palenik and other Microtrace employees cannot comment on cases "one way or the other until after things are settled."
How the fibers will help resolve the Harms case is still unclear.
As trace evidence, "it's not trivial," Barnett said, "but it certainly does not prove he killed her."
Still, Nasmeh's mother, Doris, is bracing herself for the DA's report that will likely cement her son's legacy, even though she never doubted her son's innocence.
"They're going to announce that Maurice is the killer," she said.
Even though more answers may be known in two months, the 10-year anniversary of Harms' disappearance is just another painful reminder to her friends and family that she is still missing.
"I continue to be frustrated at how long it's taking for us to have any kind of answers from the DA," said Janice Burnham, her best friend. "It feels to me like we will never have closure, even when the DA makes their public announcement, we still won't know what happened to Jeanine or where she is."
Contact Linda Goldston at 408-920-5862.
What's next in the case: On Friday, Santa Clara's district attorney will receive the findings of tests conducted on a Persian rug that may link Jeanine Harms, left, with Maurice Nasmeh, right, who was accused of killing her.