Arrest in case of missing woman
Longtime suspect charged with killing Jeanine Harms

Alan Gathright, Chronicle Staff Writer

Friday, December 17, 2004

Maurice Xavier Nasmeh was arrested without incident as he... Craig Sanchez, brother of Jeanine Harms, holds up a photo...

A San Jose architect believed to be the last person to see Jeanine Harms alive in July 2001 was arrested Thursday on charges of murdering the 42- year-old Los Gatos woman, whose body has never been found.

Maurice Xavier Nasmeh, 40, was arrested by police investigators Thursday morning without incident as he drove away from his home. He was held without bail at Santa Clara County Jail on a single count of murder.

Los Gatos-Monte Sereno police Chief Scott Seaman said the arrest was the culmination of 3 1/2 years of dogged investigation and teamwork by local, state and federal investigators and evidence analysts. He also credited Harms' family and friends, who used the news media, billboards in San Francisco and San Jose and a Web site to keep alive public interest in the case.

Harms, a divorcee who lived alone, vanished July 27, 2001, after apparently inviting Nasmeh to her home following a night of bar-hopping in Campbell, police say.

"We reached this point by never giving up,'' Seaman said at a noon press conference. He said Harms' mysterious disappearance and presumed murder had been "our highest investigative priority, because it is a homicide. ...It is a case that has touched this community and this department.''

The key break in the case came after police made public a photograph of a Persian-style rug that was among objects missing from Harms' Los Gatos home. Police urged anyone who had a similar rug to share it with police for fiber analysis.

Amazingly, a woman came forward and said she and her daughter had discovered and picked up such a rug -- about the time Harms disappeared -- rolled up near a trash dumpster at a construction site a half-mile from Nasmeh's home.

Seaman said a painstaking, 18-month analysis by two crime labs confirmed that the rug the women found was Harms' missing rug, which contained unique wool and acrylic fibers. Those fibers, police say, matched ones found at the woman's home and in the cargo bed of Nasmeh's 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

"Thus the rug found a half mile from Nasmeh's residence one weekend in late July, 40 months ago, is linked both to Jeanine Harms and Nasmeh,'' Los Gatos police Detective Stephen Walpole wrote in a sworn statement supporting the arrest warrant. "The only reasonable explanation for that link is her death.''

"That was really a miracle that this lady found the actual rug and then called us up and told us, 'here it is,' '' Walpole, who's been the lead investigator from the start, said in a Thursday interview.

Nasmeh has been a suspect since he was seen leaving a bar with Harms after the two met at the Rock Bottom Brewery in Campbell, where the woman had gone to have a drink with another man. Harms, her late-arriving date, Nasmeh and a female friend of the architect had drinks and then smoked marijuana in the parking lot, police said.

Harms, her date and Nasmeh then went to another bar. But her date eventually left, and Nasmeh followed Harms, who drove a black Ford Mustang, back to her house, according to the arrest warrant affidavit.

Nasmeh, a short, stocky, balding man with a mustache, told police he had had some beers with the woman but left her half-asleep on the couch, police said. A neighbor told investigators he had heard a "loud percussive sound'' after midnight and had seen a bald, mustached man about 40 years old driving away.

After initial interviews with investigators, Nasmeh stopped talking to police at the advice of his attorney, John Hinkle, police said.

Calling his client "an upstanding member of the community,'' Hinkle said Thursday that "any case that could be made ... will be the weakest form of circumstantial evidence.''

Then, he referred to another circumstantial murder case, the trial of Scott Peterson. A jury found Peterson guilty of the double murders of his wife and unborn son and this week recommended a death sentence.

"I think that it's not coincidental that this case falls on the heels of the guilty verdict and subsequent death penalty verdict of the jury in the Scott Peterson case,'' Hinkle said. "I believe that it's very likely that the prosecution was emboldened by the success of bringing the Peterson case before the public in the way they did. I remain firm that our client is no Scott Peterson."

Santa Clara County Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu dismissed Hinkle's suggestion. Echoing police, Sinunu said the arrest was timed to the completion of a "sophisticated forensic analysis.''

Sinunu said her prosecution team, which has been working with police and DA's investigators on the case two years, was confident that the lack of a body would not hamper the prosecution.

The woman's older brother, Craig Sanchez, said: "Anybody who knows anything who can assist us in this process of finding Jeanine, finding out what happened to her and helping our family get justice, we'll be very grateful to them.''

Chigiy Edson-Binell, Harms' friend since childhood, said the fact that Harms' body had not been found was especially hard to bear as the holidays drew near.

"Christmas was her favorite season,'' the friend said. "She was always the one that brought everyone together.''

E-mail Alan Gathright at agathright@sfchronicle.com

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