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Posted on Sat, Jul. 20, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
What happened to Jeanine Harms?

Mercury News

Just a few days ago, Chigiy Binell hit the rewind button on her phone machine, accidentally recovering a year-old message that sent chills down her spine.

It was her best friend, Jeanine Sanchez Harms, talking about the fun they'd had at a dinner party and a part-time job Harms, a fitness buff, planned to take at a health club.

The chatter was just girl talk, the kind the two childhood friends shared every day -- until Harms mysteriously vanished from her Los Gatos duplex on July 27. Her disappearance has left an aching void in the lives of her close-knit circle of friends, family and co-workers at the longtime tech job she had in Sunnyvale.

``At first my heart jumped when I heard it,'' Binell said of the phone message. ``But somehow it was almost comforting, like maybe she wasn't gone and everything was OK. But I know she won't be coming back.''

Almost from the moment Harms was reported missing July 30, 2001 -- more than two days after she was last seen with a man she had met at a Campbell bar -- police believed she was a victim of foul play. Since then, the case has become the South Bay's highest-profile missing persons investigation.

A search of her duplex revealed a chilling discovery: Sofa cushions, a slipcover and an area rug were missing. So were her purse, keys and cell phone. But detectives did not find any signs of a struggle in or around the home on Chirco Drive near Los Gatos Boulevard.

Investigators, who will not comment on other evidence in the case, said that Luminol, a chemical used to detect even the smallest traces of blood, was sprayed in the duplex but no blood turned up.

``We feel she is not alive,'' Los Gatos investigator Steve Walpole said last week as the first anniversary of Harms' disappearance approaches. ``We felt that way 24 hours after she was reported missing. This is a homicide investigation.''

Binell and Harms' friends over the months have also come to accept that grim conclusion, but they are determined to find out how she met her fate.

Searching for clues

Binell has been a key force in keeping the story of Harms' disappearance alive in the hope that someone who sees a flier, billboard or news story about her might come forward with a clue to solve the case. She and other friends have worked tirelessly to organize fundraisers and memorial vigils for Harms. They've blanketed streets with posters, arranged for billboards and signs at bus stops, appeared in TV and radio spots, hired a private detective and landed a segment about Harms on TV's ``America's Most Wanted.''

The case has frustrated police because no body has been found. Investigators theorize that Harms' life ended at the duplex and her body was disposed elsewhere, or she was lured away from her home and slain.

Over the past 12 months, police have exhausted numerous avenues. Within days of her disappearance, they called in divers and cadaver-sniffing dogs to search Lake Vasona, Lexington Reservoir and the Los Gatos Creek Trail. Nothing turned up. Warrants were executed to search the homes of two men who spent time with Harms on the last night she was seen alive.

Nothing was found that could secure an arrest. In all, 70 people were interviewed by police, building a 12-inch-thick volume of information. But the probe has failed to crack the case.

That has been especially hard on Harms' family and friends, who have been tormented by grisly thoughts of how the loving daughter and loyal friend could have vanished without a trace.

``We're just so tired and disappointed,'' said Harms' mother, Georgette Sanchez, of Campbell. ``I feel like I've aged about 20 years this last year. I know the police have worked hard and tried everything, so what can I say? I'd love to blame someone because we can't get answers, but I just can't.''

Georgette and her husband, Jess Sanchez, intensely followed the Chandra Levy case and were stunned at how hard the discovery of Levy's remains hit them. ``We tried not to follow that case, but we were so drawn to it,'' Georgette Sanchez said. ``That day they found her was really bad for us.''

Several months ago the couple acknowledged there is no hope of finding their daughter alive. The best they can wish for now, they said, is to recover her body so they can bury her. And to find out who is responsible.

A night out

Harms, a 42-year-old divorcée who enjoyed dating and going to clubs, was last seen with a man she had met at Campbell's Rock Bottom Brewery on Friday night, July 27. Harms was to meet a different man at the brewery, police said, but when he didn't show up she began talking with the second man.

Harms' original date eventually arrived at the Rock Bottom Brewery and the two men and Harms hung out together. They later went to another Campbell bar and continued drinking. Harms invited both to her home, but police said only one went with her.

Both men were questioned early in the investigation, but when they were approached for further questioning and asked to take a lie-detector test, they refused to talk with police and retained lawyers. While they remain central figures in the investigation, police have not deemed them suspects. The Mercury News is not naming them because they have not been charged with a crime.

The man police say escorted Harms home told police that the two talked and drank beer for a couple of hours, then he left between 12:30 and 1 a.m. as she lay half-asleep on her living room sofa. She was never seen after that.

Binell, Harms' friend from the time the two were toddlers, believes Los Gatos police made several missteps in their investigation. She says detectives should have been more thorough in questioning the two men who spent time with Harms, and the department should have kept experienced detectives on the case rather than handing it to a rookie investigator after three months.

Police said they did not know at the time they interviewed the two men that they were believed to be the last people to see Harms alive. Detectives were still trying to determine what happened in the almost three days between the time Harms was last seen and when she was reported missing Monday morning after failing to show up at her job at Amdahl, now Fujitsu, in Sunnyvale.

Outgoing woman

Harms' friends said that because she had an active social life they assumed she was busy during the two-day weekend. Some called her and left voice-mail messages, but the last thing on their minds was that Harms was in trouble.

Binell said Harms' outgoing personality and trusting manner may have led to her fate.

``It's funny how she'd put extra locks on her doors, but then she could meet somebody and instantly trust them. She had this naive side.''

Binell said Harms, who was fit and tan and almost obsessive about working out at the gym, ``looked to men for validation, and that probably got her into trouble. She picked men who weren't good for her.''

The anguish of losing her best friend has led Binell to take anti-depressants to cope. She still needs them to get through the day.

Binell and other friends became obsessed with finding Harms, giving up days and weeks at their jobs and time with their families to organize events, meet with police and distribute leaflets. As time wore on and the unsolved case grew cold, the group became emotionally exhausted and efforts waned.

Renewed effort

Now, as the first anniversary of Harms' disappearance approaches, they're finding new energy to pour into the campaign, Binell said. They plan to restart regular strategy meetings and hold more events to keep Harms' story before the public. Harms' mother said the group will use money generated by fundraising events to hire trained dogs for more searches and possibly to hire a psychic.

Los Gatos' new police chief, Scott Seaman, on the job since July 1, plans to renew the department's efforts toward solving the case. One strategy is to tap more outside experts to give the case a fresh review.

``We're going to break down this case and build it back up to see if there's another way to look at it,'' Seaman said. ``This is the most important case to the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department.''

Meanwhile, Binell is making plans for the candlelight vigil marking the anniversary of Harm's disappearance, scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday at the Los Gatos Civic Center.

Harms, she said, is always in her thoughts. She cherishes the phone message with Harms' voice, one last trace of her missing friend. She said she'll never erase it.

``I saw her almost every single day. There is a huge space in my life that she used to fill. Nobody else can fill it.''

Contact Connie Skipitares at or (408) 920-5647.
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