I've known two murderers in my lifetime.
The first one I knew even more poorly than the second. His name is Osman Charles Fero. He went by the name "Chick" Fero. He was the vice-principal of attendance and Dean of Students at Farmington High School (the one in New Mexico, not Illinois or Connecticut or Maine).
My mom was an English teacher at FHS. She frequently referred to him as "Pharaoh" because of the unseemly pleasure he seemed to derive from his role as a petty authority figure.
I only had one personal conversation with Chick Fero. When I was a junior, I took a class called "Humanities" that was taught by a Miss Bishop and a Mrs. Fuller. Mrs. Fuller, for whatever reason, constantly marked me "tardy" in spite of the fact that I was always there at least two minutes before the bell rang. I think there must've been someone near me on the attendance list who was constantly tardy, and she kept marking my slot instead.
At any rate, I was eventually summoned to see the Pharaoh. The chairs outside his office were filled with the usual motley collection of thugs, stoners and burnouts. They all stared at me as I took a seat next to them, then burst into laughter. I was the Straightest of the Straight Arrows. The Ubernerd. I was also pretty big and well-muscled even then, so none of them did more than giggle at my predicament.
Eventually the stoners and burnouts were dispensed with, and I was called into Fero's office. He never looked up at me as he asked me, "So, do you have a problem getting to class on time?" I explained that Mrs. Fuller must've made a mistake. I was never late. He noted my response on a pad of paper, and without looking up, he said, "All right, don't let it happen again." With that, I was ushered out by his secretary.
So that was my close call with the Pharaoh. Pretty tame stuff. My mom laughed about it when I told her the tale over dinner that night.
Two years after I graduated, I was going to school at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. I had a little 12 inch black and white TV in my dorm room. I turned it on one night to watch the news. To my astonishment, the reporter was talking about a murder committed by the Pharaoh.
Fero evidently either quit or was given his walking papers in Farmington one day, and he wound up taking a job as principal of a very small high school in the reservation town of Tohatchi, just north of Gallup, New Mexico. The rumors are that he was well-liked, but evidently the superintendent of school in Tohatchi, Paul Hansen, was not happy with the Pharaoh's performance. He scheduled an employee evaluation.
Fero spent the days just before the evaluation in a reportedly agitated and near-suicidal state. According to a legal document I found via Google, Fero wrote up a will, boxed up his personal belongings, wrote some goodbye letters, and even left his life insurance policy on a chair in his office. Perhaps he intended merely to kill himself. Perhaps not.
Fero went into the office of Paul Hansen around 9:00 on the morning of February 22, 1985. An hour later, five shots rang out. Fero emerged from the office, told the secretary to call the police, and told two other employees in the office that everything was okay. He went down the hall, handed his keys to Hansen's assistant, along with a portfolio with the murder weapon inside it, and said that he had shot Hansen because of the superintendent's negative criticism and refusal to acknowledge the positive aspects of Fero's performance as principal.
One of the reasons the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder was that he had already shot Hansen in the head and neck from the front three times before administering the final, instantly fatal shots. Hansen had fallen face-first onto the carpet, and Fero took careful aim and shot Hansen twice through the back of the neck, severing his brainstem. The cool deliberation of this act was all the jury needed to decide that Fero had acted with malice aforethought, not in the heat of the moment.
When I was researching this blog entry earlier today, I made the astounding discovery that following the summary dismissal of Fero's appeals, he eventually found Jesus, and has been ordained as a priest by the liberal Apostolic Catholic Church of Antioch.
So what stirred up these long-buried memories of the murderous principal of Tohatchi?
The confession of Hans Reiser.
I first met Hans at Synopsys, where I worked as a Mac systems administrator, back in 1995. I met a lot of my current circle of friends there, too. It was a great place to work, and the Network and Computing Services Group (NCS) had a lot of seriously talented employees. Hans was one of these.
He was highly intelligent, I could tell, but he was also distant and reserved. As someone who was at one point in my life introverted to the point of social paralysis, I can empathize with people who are socially maladapted. Hans seemed a step beyond maladapted, but no more so than many others I've met in the computer field. My cube was next to his, for a time, and I had a couple of occasions to work with him on certain projects, but I never progressed beyond the point of acquaintanceship with him. Some of my other friends were much closer to him, and socialized with him at work and even away from the office.
When I left Synopsys for WebTV, I fell out of touch with Hans and didn't miss him. I barely knew him, after all. I developed much closer friendships with some of the other ex-Synopsys folks, and thus began an eleven year period in my working life in which I was employed at the same company as a pretty significant number of the same people. Meanwhile, Hans had gone on his own direction, creating ReiserFS and founding a company in Russia and eventually marrying Nina and having children.
The next time I saw Hans, it was when I was employed at Digeo (following the acquisition of Moxi, Inc.). Hans was doing some consulting on file systems and profiling the hard disk performance for our product, and I saw him around the office quite regularly. He was running Namesys (his company in Russia) from the States at the time, and I suspect that he was funneling the money he made as a consultant at Digeo into his payroll. I also noticed that he seemed really physically fit. He is compactly built but very muscular, and I was told that he was a black belt in judo or some other martial art. I could believe it.
I played several card games with Hans at a mutual friend's house up in the Santa Cruz Mountains one day. My group of buddies and I occasionally went to lunch with Hans at work. It was on one of these lunch trips that I began to think that Hans' thought processes might not be very similar to those of everyday people. The subject of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict came up, and Hans became peculiarly animated in his (I must say) rather stereotypical leftist defense of the Palestinians.
I won't go into specifics, as it would take much too long. The issue was not Hans' arguments, but the way he made them. He made quite a number of odd assertions and leaps of inference and came to illogical conclusions in his arguments. We were all somewhat taken aback by his vehemence, which was really uncharacteristic of him, and I for one was amazed that someone of such ostensible intellectual talents could even posit such outlandish claims. But people will often speak irrationally when they're emotionally invested in certain beliefs.
Toward the end of my employment at Digeo, Hans sometimes discussed the apparently contentious divorce he was having with Nina. He didn't seem angry at her, just rather nonplussed by her insistence that letting their son play what could be considered as inappropriately violent video games was a bad idea.
I myself play quite a lot of video games, including some that are fairly violent (World War II first-person shooters are a big favorite of mine), but I was a bit puzzled by the emphasis Hans seemed to put on this issue in particular. Of the many disputes one could have with one's ex-spouse about how to raise their children, I think this would've been one of the most minor and easily dealt with. But it seemed to come up in conversations with Hans rather regularly.
I heard about Nina's disappearance on the TV news while operations at Digeo in Palo Alto were winding down. (They closed our office in order to centralize their operations near Seattle.) There wasn't any real development work going on at the PAO office any longer, so I didn't see Hans around the office again. I didn't hear about him again until he was arrested for Nina's murder.
Perhaps it's because I was never close to Hans that I immediately suspected him of foul play. My friends were adamant in their refusal to believe that Hans could have done anything to her. I don't know what kind of environments my friends grew up in, but mine included witnessing and being the victim of a fair amount of spontaneous familial violence. I know that people who seem perfectly normal in everyday life can do horrible things to each other when they're angry.
As the circumstantial evidence against Hans began to mount, my belief in his guilt began to strengthen. It seemed very unlikely to me that Nina would have fled back to Russia without anyone noticing. The whole KGB angle to the story never seemed remotely plausible to me. I like to shave with Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation, all other things being equal, is most likely the correct one. The simplest explanation was that he killed her in the heat of the moment and hid her body where it was unlikely to be found.
I paid close attention to the trial, reading Henry K. Lee's blog every day, and the testimony he detailed made Hans' innocence seem more and more unlikely to me. Hans' testimony on the stand, as it was related in the blog, convinced me of his guilt.
None of the excuses he made about removing the chair from his car, about the water found in the vehicle, the thousands of dollars and the passport he had on his person, or the reasons for the presence of books about police interrogation tactics and "masterpieces of murder" in his car, seemed even slightly plausible to me. Hans was disorganized and scatterbrained, according to my friends who are better acquainted with him, but the degree of incoherence in his testimony was too far over the top for me. His excuses smacked of desperation, and his behavior in front of the jury was bizarre and disturbing.
I was not surprised when he was convicted. I was a bit surprised when the news came out at the end of last week that a possible deal was in the works concerning Hans confessing and leading the police to Nina's body. At that time it was just a rumor. Monday, it became a reality. I saw the news break on Channel 2, and by this evening, Nina's body has been recovered and positively identified.
I'm not happy that my belief in Hans' guilt was vindicated. But I find myself detesting him even more thoroughly now than I did at the conclusion of the trial. I buy the claim that he strangled Nina in the heat of the moment. My friend J argues that Hans couldn't plan his way out of a paper bag. I buy that too. What I don't buy is the notion that he's entitled to a lesser sentence just because he finally came clean.
The charge of first-degree murder is appropriate for premeditated murder. I'll accept the premise that Hans killed Nina in an unpremeditated way. But his cover-up was deliberate, if ineffective, and he clearly didn't give a damn about the feelings of the rest of his family as he vainly tried to evade the responsibility for his crime. How much trauma has he put his children through by maintaining his innocence, only to finally confess to murdering their mother? How much pain must Nina's parents have experienced, knowing but not knowing that their daughter was dead? All because that craven bastard refused to own up to his evil deed?
If the judge approves the deal between the prosecutor and the defense, Hans Reiser is entitled to a lesser sentence because of his confession. With any justice, though, he will rot in jail for the rest of his days. I don't believe in an afterlife, so I don't expect he will burn in Hell. But as long as he's alive, I hope he wakes with the knowledge of what he has done fresh in the foreground of his mind, and that it never leaves his thoughts until he finally manages to drop off to a fitful sleep in his uncomfortable prison bunk.
Every... single... day.