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