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tv   Dateline  MSNBC  July 29, 2018 11:00pm-1:01am PDT

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and it's so real. she mainly comes in dreams, and it's so real that it feels like her. and she'll just give me a hug. >> why'd it have to happen to our family? why'd it have to happen to michelle? why that day?
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>> what happened to michelle? >> this case is not going to be over. >> i'm lester holt and this is "dateline." they're watching us. they know where we are.
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how we shop, how we play, what we do. electronic eyes. they follow us almost everywhere. and the weird fractured personal diary they write remains forever. of course, it's meaningless, most of it. meaningful, that is, until it's not. until it's terrifying. the san francisco bay, may 27th, 2011. 6:55 p.m. a young nursing student named michelle le walks across a foot bridge to her parking lot. she is not supposed to be here. for reasons unknown and without permission, she has left her post at the hospital. she walks to her honda crv, just out of camera range. 7:17 p.m., here is michelle's honda leaving the garage. why then, just an hour or two
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before the end of her shift? good questions. questions about to engulf her whole family. >> why couldn't she have stepped out and avoided this whole thing? why did it have to happen to our family? why did it have to happen to michelle? >> but it did. much of it recorded, as you will see, by those electronic beeps, and pixels, just enough to make it a puzzling history. enough to not quite know what happened to michelle le. >> one of the things i was so angry about was that nothing made sense. nothing made sense. >> especially this. same night. 8:56 p.m. michelle's nursing instructorer, no idea, baffled, looks in the parking lot for her car. 9:05 p.m. michelle's car reenters the garage two floors below. it arrives on the third floor. off camera, the nursing instructor sees it, waves frantically.
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the car suddenly stops, backs up, races down the ramp and out of the garage. but why? alarmed, the nursing instructor calls the police. and the next morning, 400 miles south in san diego, michelle's cousin christine was awakened by a text from michelle's former boyfriend. >> he messages me, he goes, hey, just to let you know, we don't know where michelle is, have you heard from her, try calling her. i looked at his message and said, gosh, what did michelle do this time? she's usually out having fun. >> she's fun loving person? >> yeah, she's always out with her friends. and getting lost sometimes. i honestly didn't think much of it at the time. i read the message and i like rolled over back in bed. >> michelle, after all, could look after herself, had been looking out for christine for years. she was just 26 but seemed somehow older than that.
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the eldest of a clan of 15 cousins who grew up together with very little except each other. and michelle was smart and studious and attractive. the leader of this very active pack. strong, loving center of the family. a loving figure to her younger brother michael. michael who was the next person to get the call from the boyfriend. where was michelle? >> i go, yeah, yeah, ex-boyfriend just trying to get ahold of michelle. i didn't pay it any mind. but just in case, i wanted to see if she was okay. i checked on her facebook. she had plans to go to tahoe with some friends. i sent those friends facebook messages to make sure she was okay. >> michael went to work and didn't think much more about it. then he got another call. this time it was that nursing call instructor. >> she told me the story of how she went out to the garage and
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saw what matched the car's description just taking off. and suddenly it wasn't a game anymore, it wasn't something you could excuse. >> by then christine was calling michelle's cellphone. >> she didn't pick up. that's when i had this feeling where something might have been wrong. after she didn't pick up a few times. >> at 9:30 a.m., 12 hours after michelle was reported mitigate, police found her car parked outside this apartment building, just a few blocks from the hospital where michelle was last seen. odd. hayward police inspector frazier richie was called in to have a look. >> the car was locked. it was secured. that's why we believe michelle was possibly somewhere around here. we had no clue were to start looking. >> what could be seen through the tinted windows looked fine, as if michelle left the car here herself all morning. a flurry of worried phone calls went back and forth among
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michelle's friends and family. what should they do? >> it was chaotic. but we weren't thinking the worst at the time. >> christine and her family began packing for the eight-hour drive. michael rushed over to nearby hayward to join michelle's friends and fellow students who were already handing out "missing" posters near the parking garage. had anyone seen her? >> we just wanted to find her. we didn't think anything bad happened to her. >> where was she? they hammered her iphone with more than a hundred calls and texts. and heard in response -- nothing. then 12:45 p.m., 15 hours after michelle was last seen, finally a text from her phone. i'm not missing, it read. my phone has been acting crazy. it deleted everything. all these texts have killed my battery.
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michelle sent a flurry of reassuring texts to friends and family, i'm fine, take it easy. her ex-boyfriend texted her back. her response from her phone? "who is this?" uh-oh. did michelle really send that text? >> i asked, is it possible she could be out there, all stressed out? they said, yes, it's possible. >> but soon, questions about michelle's friends would lead police closer than they knew to the key to this case. the moment you realize your family grew but your washer didn't. at lowe's we have appliances to fit your family's lifestyle. backed by our 30-day satisfaction guarantee.
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popped up in the phones of her friends, her cousin, her brother. "i just needed some time without anyone." "i had a bad night last night." "i don't really want to talk to anyone right now." but then after three hours of that the texts stopped just as suddenly as they had begun. the last one simply said "i'm sick." so strange. so out of character. to michelle's family and friends it seemed obvious, someone had michelle's phone. someone who was not michelle. >> the more that they went out, it felt like it was becoming -- >> sinister. >> having this person text back as michelle was just extremely, extremely terrifying. >> what did that feel like to go through that? >> it's hard to put into words. living nightmare, i think, is the closest thing. >> reporter: in a strange way as chilling as these messages were they gave michelle's friends and family some hope. to them it seemed obvious they
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were communicating with someone who had abducted michelle, and so their mission was now clear. michelle didn't just need to be found. michelle needed to be rescued. >> it's a time-critical situation. every second you that waste is a second that she's hurting. we had to find her. >> reporter: saturday afternoon, 18 hours after michelle vanished, michael and a group of michelle's friends met with inspector fraser richie at the hayward police department. >> we had about 10 or 15 family members and classmates and friends at the police department. they were all talking about how responsible she was, how out of character this would have been for her to just get up and leave. >> did you try to call michelle or anything? >> yes. >> get a response? >> yes. i sent a message out. this is inspector ritchie with the hayward police department, you need to get a hold of me right now. >> yeah. >> i got the response within several minutes saying that my phone is dying, i need to find a charger, i'm having car trouble.
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>> the same sort of response received by michelle's friends and family, who had now decided based on those weird text messages that michelle had been kidnapped. but as far as inspector ritchie was concerned, just about anything was possible. >> i kept an open mind. i didn't know whether michelle voluntarily went missing for whatever personal reasons she had or if this was a stranger abduction or if this was an abduction from somebody that she knew or she just left with a friend. >> did anybody say she would have just flipped out and, you know, stressed out and just left? >> i asked is it possible she could just be out there all stressed out? and they said yes, it's possible. >> inspector ritchie also asked if michelle had any enemies or problems with ex-boyfriends, for example. >> only problems that she seemed to be having with anybody was coming from gisele esteban. >> gisele esteban, one of michelle's best friends in high
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school down in san diego. but not just michelle's friend. a friend of the family. gisele was a fixture around the house, spent hours with all of those cousins. then after high school in 2002 the two friends both moved to san francisco to attend college. and that's where gisele fell in love and got pregnant, moved in with her boyfriend scott, and then broke up with him three years later. the trouble came when michelle stayed friends with scott, with that boyfriend, after the break-up, and that just didn't sit well with gisele. though really it wasn't such a big deal. still, just to cover all the bases, late saturday night ritchie dropped in on gisele to ask what she knew. >> we're here about michelle le. >> who? >> michelle. >> oh, god. what about her? >> she went missing last night from her work. >> okay. >> in talking to her friends and such, we understand you guys had
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a tumultuous relationship. >> a tumultuous relationship? she was my best friend who slept with my then fiance. >> i started talking to her and asking her questions about her relationship with michelle and if she could provide any information where she would be. >> gisele said she had no idea. and besides, they weren't seeing each other these days, so she wouldn't know. then just due diligence. that night ritchie sent another team of detectives to speak to gisele's ex-boyfriend, the father of her baby, who they were interested to learn now had sole custody of the child. >> listening to him, talking to him, and the relationship with him and his daughter and his family, things like that, he didn't seem to be the person, the type of person that could lie. that would lie. >> sunday, 48 hours after michelle appeared in that ghostly video at the parking lot, her large extended family began arriving from san diego
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and meeting with the police. and that's when detectives began to understand michelle a little. how kind she was and bright and self-reliant. very much like this young woman. phuong le. also vietnamese american. also a 20-something nursing student. also living in the san francisco area. who 13 months earlier also disappeared. >> there's a lot of similarities obviously in that she's the same age category, same ethnicity, same profession. >> reporter: even the same last name. was a pattern developing? coming, police look into the possible connection between those student nurses and a meeting with michelle's family. the meeting goes badly.
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>> reporter: it was april 2010. just over a year before the disappearance of michelle le. it was close, perhaps 50 miles away. and it was so -- coincidental. another young nursing student, almost the same age, same 0 ethnicity, even the same last name, vanished from this
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shopping mall parking lot. 00 her name, phuong le. police lieutenant greg hurlbut caught the case but couldn't find her. >> several weeks later, we got a call from a neighboring county, napa county, saying that they had a body out in the woods that somewhat matched the description of our missing person. >> reporter: it was indeed phuong le. but that was, by no means, the end of the investigation. >> to this day, we're trying to identify who, in fact, killed phuong le. >> reporter: so during that memorial day weekend in 2011, when detective hurlbut heard about the disappearance of a young woman named michelle le, he wondered -- was this a break in his case? >> you have somebody that looks almost exactly the same, almost the same name, the same circumstances. it's a real bizarre coincidence. >> reporter: michelle's family also heard about phuong le, so when they met with detectives for the first time on sunday, may the 29th, 48 hours after michelle's disappearance, they
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asked the dreadful question. could michelle's case be connected to the phuong le murder? >> the community brought that up and thought that they might be linked. and so we -- we brought that up with the hayward police and they said, "you know, we looked into it but we don't think there's any connection." >> reporter: so then there was a wash of relief. the detectives also told the family they'd found michelle's car. that it was locked, appeared undamaged. to the family that was good news. it meant to them that michelle must be alive, held somewhere. though, during that sunday meeting, the police gave the impression that they still had no idea what had happened to michelle. >> they asked us a lot of questions about her relationships and her friendships. and they told us they were working on it. >> we'd keep asking them, probing them for more information. they kind of just -- kind of threw their hands and said, "you know, we can't tell you much, and we're sorry." >> your level of frustration must have been pretty high? >> it was sky high. >> reporter: the le family now
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had the impression the police weren't taking the case seriously at all. >> because michelle's an adult. so we felt if she's an adult and she -- she's not a child. maybe she wasn't being prioritized. >> so what was it like leaving that meeting? >> it was -- chaos is probably the number one feeling. we didn't have a place to stay. we were hotel hopping. we were just waiting around most of the time, staying in the hotel. it was like you were -- you were blind. you know, you didn't know -- we had no idea where to go. what to do. >> reporter: the family couldn't understand why the police seemed to be moving so slowly. in their minds, michelle was being held against her will. a week went by. saturday june 4th, eight days after michelle's disappearance. her family held this vigil near the place where her car was found. >> we wanted the fbi to get involved and all this. and we were just making a lot of noise. >> reporter: quietly attending was scott, the young man the police had questioned a week earlier. giselle esteban's old boyfriend, remember, and father of her child.
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two days later, monday june 6th, the family was called back to the police station for an important meeting. the police finally had a chance to search michelle's car and the status of her case had been changed, from missing person to homicide. and the family felt blindsided. >> and they said, you know, "i think you have to get comfortable with - - with the fact that your sister is probably dead." we were horrified. >> reporter: and just like that, the information door closed. the hayward police told the family it was a murder investigation now. so department policy -- they could reveal nothing more. and therefore couldn't or wouldn't tell the family why they thought michelle was dead. but without hearing an explanation or seeing any evidence, how could the family believe the police? no. they simply wouldn't accept what the cops had to say. >> it was horrible. we were really angry. because, okay. you want to make it homicide.
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you're not going to tell us why. >> reporter: ritchie understood the family's anger. but as far as he was concerned, he had a murder investigation on his hands and that meant the family had to be kept in the dark. >> there's certain procedural things that we have to keep close to us, that we can't put out there. because we have to maintain evidence, we have to maintain the custody of certain information. and it's of evidentiary value to us that if we don't have the suspect in custody, that the only people that know about it is the suspect and us. >> reporter: so in the absence of official information, the le family, at least its younger members, decided the only option was massive publicity. an appeal to the public for whatever help they could offer. but that was the kids. the cousins. family elders were deeply reluctant to share their grief with strangers. >> they didn't want her story out there publicized like we had made it. they didn't -- >> why? >> well, it's -- it's very private. it was such a fine line between how much do you give away about your own family's misfortune
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to -- to do good for michelle? in the asian families, when you're younger, you're supposed to be very, very respectful of the hierarchy in the family. you're not supposed to boss anybody around. but i was just livid. i mean, i was so angry. >> reporter: the family elders knew far more about survival than most people ever do. they were boat people who had been forced to flee vietnam after the war. very nearly perished in their open boat in the south china sea. and then spent months in a refugee camp before being dropped in a land whose language and customs they did not know. and yet before long, they embraced it all. big family celebrations at christmastime and easters and birthdays. they went on all-american vacations like this one to the california coast. that's little michelle in the glasses. >> and here we are at santa
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barbara beach. we're having lots of fun. and here's my brother. >> reporter: they succeeded in america by doing what they had since their days of crisis on the south china sea. they stuck together. an epic, very american tale of grit and hope and self-reliance. lessons absorbed whole by their children. >> if i was missing and michelle was looking for me, she would -- she would, you know, tear up heaven and earth, you know, to find me. and so i had to -- i had to fight for her. >> reporter: so it was the new generation, the american-born generation, that finally convinced the family it had to go public. to put their story out in the press and on social media. >> until the hayward police department can offer conclusive and definite proof --
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otherwise, we will continue to believe she's alive. michelle is still alive and needs to be rescued. >> we're going to find you and we're going to bring you home. >> reporter: two weeks to the day after michelle's disappearance, the family organized this vigil to make a public case that michelle was not dead. but instead, a kidnap victim in urgent need of rescue. >> we're just focusing on getting her home and what we can do to get her home. >> i truly, truly believe if she's out there we'll find her. >> reporter: if michelle was going to be rescued, the family decided it would be up to them to do it. but where is michelle and who could have taken her? an outside investigator zeros in. >> this is someone that knew her, knew when she'd be at work. >> when "vanished" continues.
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keith morrison: what happened to michelle le? >> reporter: what happened to michelle le? vanished on a sunny evening, from a well-lit parking garage under the protective watch of 18 surveillance cameras. detectives with the hayward police department went over this footage again and again. of camera range and before her car
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went racing out of the garage? it was infuriating. there was one camera right above michelle's car, would have revealed everything. but that night, the camera wasn't working. what happened in those missing minutes? the police, remember, weren't talking to the family. so the family pursued its own line of investigation. we're looking to human trafficking patterns. human trafficking patterns? yeah. you thought that was a possibility? we did, yeah. keith morrison: but that was a dead end. then 34 days into michelle's disappearance the le family contacted us to say they'd begun working with a private investigator, a man named michael frame. and in the midst of his investigation, frame sat down with us to tell us what he had learned. this had to happen quickly. this was a public parking garage. people come and go from that garage all night. someone was lying in wait. they knew that at some point she would return to her vehicle. it was a number of hours before her shift was going to be over.
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and they were prepared to abduct her at that time. did anybody know why she went to her car? not that we know of at this time. unusual thing to do at that stage of the shift? i think it was either a quick break or something drew her out to her car. that we still don't know. but she was still dressed in white hospital scrubs. it was evident that she was going to come back, because she left her belongings in the hospital. keith morrison: remember, though police found michelle's car about a half a mile from the hospital parked and locked in a residential area, they hadn't revealed yet what evidence they'd found inside. but frame had found out a thing or two about the car and how it got there. did anybody see the car arrive? there's a report of a witness who stated they heard conversation coming from-- headlights shining in their house and conversation coming from the car at about 4:00 o'clock the following morning. conversation coming from the car? conversation. which would mean there's more than one person. people talking. the people that reported this saw headlights
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shining through their window. and they believe that it came from the general direction of where michelle's car was found. keith morrison: multiple kidnappers. almost had to be, said frame. i think when you look at the circumstances in their totality, how this person was waiting for her. and the fact that she was put into her vehicle obviously quickly and driven out quickly, that there may be a possibility of more than one person. keith morrison: and he was almost sure not strangers. this is someone that michelle had some type of contact with. that saw her, that knew her. that knew where she parked her vehicle, knew what she drove, knew where she worked, knew when she'd be at work. so it may be members of her family or her friends may already know who this is. i mean, may know the person who did it, just not be aware that they know. if they just looked through what those relationships were the answer may be in there somewhere. the answer, i think in this case, is not far off. keith morrison: the police had questioned michelle's family, current and former friends, old boyfriends.
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but it didn't seem like they were getting anywhere. frame thought the investigation was in trouble. when your investigation has run cold, when you don't have a viable suspect, when you don't have information that's going to lead you to a suspect, i think it's important that you start looking at viable alternatives. too often these cases go cold for five, 10 years. from what we've seen so far, i think this is a possibility. keith morrison: the le family was working with frame because they were frustrated with police. and now frame tried to do something the police couldn't. what we've done is put out information to anyone that may know something or potentially be involved or think that they know who's involved to call us confidentially without contacting the police. and we'll provide any information to the right authorities, and at the same time, protect these people if they need protection. keith morrison: soliciting tips from people who were afraid to call the cops. would his plan work? wait and see.
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lester holt: coming up, "dateline" is there when that private tip line gets a dramatic call. what is this guy saying? what can he tell you? he said he has information to a potential site where michelle may be. lester holt: will he lead them to michelle? when "dateline" continues. look at all those wet dishes to dry... ...if only there was a way to skip this. skip drying with finish jet dry. it dries 100% better versus detergent alone. finish jet dry. for cabinet-ready dishes, right out of your dishwasher. oikos triple zero greek non-fat yogurt gives me fifteen grams of protein and zero added sugar. whether i'm on the field or off, every decision matters... including how i fuel. oikos. fuel your hustle.
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keith morrison: michelle le had been missing for weeks, no break in the case at all. and then, just before we sat down
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for an interview with a private investigator named michael frame, his phone rang with a tip from an inmate who claimed to know where michelle could be found. so who do you think is involved in michelle's disappearance? what is this guy saying that he has? what could he tell you? he said he has information as to a potential site where michelle may be. keith morrison: frame made the trip out to the jail for a face to face interview. the parolee's information was that she had been abducted and was being held at a house in hayward. and it turned out, unfortunately, that this information was related to another criminal act and had nothing to do with michelle's disappearance. keith morrison: back in hayward, the police might have been accomplishing something, but they were saying nothing beyond their belief that michelle was dead. and as far as the family could tell, the police investigation seemed to be getting nowhere. now the family's own private investigator seemed lost in the weeds as well. hoping to shake loose a lead, they increased the amount of the reward money from $20,000 to $40,000
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to $65,000 to $100,000 all from private donations. much of it out of the family's own pockets. so every day was precious, said her brother michael. and every day that passed a missed opportunity to find her. you know, she was always looking for me. and so i-- this was my time to do everything i can to look out for her, to make sure that the hell that she was going through she wouldn't have to go through a day longer. so you must have this sense that any day now we'll find her and we'll bring her back and everything will be ok again. every day we were hoping that today was the day. you know, every day. keith morrison: it was obvious, as we talked to michael, the intensity of his devotion for michelle. the reason for that? he told us a story about their mother. our mom was pretty much our superhero. she worked long hours as a nurse practitioner
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and she was an incredible mother to us. she was so loving. she would always tell us stories and-- stories about what? one that we always loved was one called the woman on the moon. and it's a vietnamese love story about if you look really hard enough that the shadows of the moon looks like a woman with long, flowing hair. at the same day of the year she would come down looking for the one that she loved. but ultimately, she was trapped on the moon to watch over him. keith morrison: folklore is the kind of reality that is like armor for a child, it protects in a time of terror. michael was 11 when his mother learned she had breast cancer, but she did not tell him. she protected him from the worst of it, both he and his 14-year-old sister, michelle. and so when the cancer finally took her life-- it came as a shock. she died december 1, 1999. and we had just seen her for thanksgiving
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maybe about a week ago. keith morrison: now alone, michael and michelle were taken in by krystine's family. she told me a story about how after her mom passed away she didn't even know what to do at first until she saw michael in the garage holding something of his mom's and crying. she told me, you know, that was the time i knew it was time to be a big sister and be a mother figure for him. overcome her own sense of loss and save this boy. oh, yeah. so you couldn't even tell she's having any trouble. she made a sort of commitment to-- between her and i that she would look out for me. keith morrison: but not just michael. michelle also kept watch over krystine. she was my-- like my older sister. she dressed me, she helped tweeze my eyebrows, she taught me how to do make-up. taught you about boys. yeah, we talked about boys all the time.
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she helped me write my first love letters. oh my gosh, when we were growing up we were so alike that my family called me mini michelle. keith morrison: and now, mini michelle and michael and the rest of the le family held vigils, issued press releases, anything to keep michelle's case in the public eye. i needed to work on something all the time that was her every day, that was related to her every day. did you feel like you were getting anywhere? it felt productive, but it still felt hopeless. hopeless in the sense in the sense you just don't know what's going on. keith morrison: after weeks of casting about, they were no closer to finding michelle than they'd been that first chaotic weekend. and it was sad, but perfectly understandable, that public interest began to wane. it was during that period of darkness when one of michelle's uncles down in san diego begged for help from this woman, carrie mcgonigle. michelle le's uncle asked you know, what do i do?
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i'm completely lost. keith morrison: why her? because carrie had been through it all herself. two years earlier, she had to search for her murdered daughter, amber dubois. and now carrie ran a search organization called team amber in memory of her daughter. she couldn't know back then the role she was going to play, the events she would set in motion. for now, it was who she knew. so i put him in touch with marc klaas because it was up in northern california and they were up in the same area. keith morrison: marc klaas, a rare man with a rare skill-- how to find the missing. lester holt: coming up, a man who knows how it feels to lose a daughter and had learned from personal experience how to lead the search. we needed help from the police. and when we pressed them, why should we be looking there? they finally said, because that's where the cell towers take us. lester holt: when "dateline" continues.
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keith morrison: the vigils, the reward, the facebook campaign, the flyers, the detective all kept michelle's family busy and hopeful, but had ultimately been unproductive. they were nowhere. and it was just at that point when marc klaas stepped into the life of the le family. i met the family in a dingy motel on the side of the freeway in hayward, california at about 11:00 o'clock in the morning. and they were all huddled inside this little room. keith morrison: to the le family, klaas was like the cavalry riding in. we were all in our pajamas like disheveled. and we were all together on our laptops trying to edit press releases, trying to organize all the interviews and reading the news, trying to talk to the police. and i looked around and i said, the first thing you people need to do is get out of this room.
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dark and depressing. it was horrible. it was horrible. and they were so downtrodden. they had absolutely no idea of what to do or where to go. and he sat down and gave us a list of what to do. we have to find a search center. we had to get volunteers. we had to position media in this sort of light. he was just giving us all sorts of tips. it made a world of a difference emotionally and on practical levels. keith morrison: but what mark klaas didn't do was burden the le family with his own story. didn't tell him about his own daughter, polly, kidnapped two decades ago. that was the worst time in my life. it shattered me, it shattered my heart. keith morrison: 12-year-old polly klaas was snatched from her room in petaluma, california in the midst of a slumber party. polly's body was only discovered when her killer, arrested at a traffic stop two months later, showed detectives where he'd buried her.
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do you still live with that awful week now all these years later? my work is my therapy. my work is my therapy. keith morrison: and that work through the klaas kids foundation is to help families find their missing loved ones by providing families with a now proven professional, methodical approach to their search efforts. you have to basically start in the center and work your way out, following statistics that the vast majority of people that are missing are going to be found a, within a half mile radius of where they went missing, or b, within a five mile radius of where they went missing. boy, this is dismal work you do. it's not dismal. no, nothing that we do is dismal. it's hard work. it can be heartbreaking. it can be so sad. but it's not dismal. it's really good work and it's important work. and there's just not enough people doing it. keith morrison: possibly because it's work that lays bare wounds.
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hundreds of times now since polly's death marc has shared his experience, learned through his own parental grief with families just like michelle's, adrift and in shock. and the first order of business, said marc, repair their relationship with the police, which has become very frayed indeed. we needed help from the police. and they slowly started to let us know where they thought we should be looking. and when we pressed them, why should we be looking there? why should we be looking there? they finally said well, because that's where the cell towers take us. keith morrison: michelle le, it turns out, went on a strange journey on the evening of may 27, 2011. or at least her cell phone did. in the two hours after michelle abruptly left a training session here at the kaiser hospital in san francisco's east bay, that phone of hers left its indelible footprint through the congested streets of the east bay. and then it turned onto a two lane back
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road, and then a major freeway. and then it pinged its way right back along the very same route. back to the parking lot at the very moment the nursing instructor saw michelle's car drive into that parking lot, then rapidly reverse course and speed away into the dark. a puzzle. but getting that cell phone trail from the police was also a huge break, said marc klaas, who is now deeply involved in the search for michelle. it enabled us then to really hone in on what we needed to do and why we needed to do it. it was to prepare viable search locations for search teams. keith morrison: but the area was vast, much of it rugged, rural. the search for michelle will be tough, labor intensive work. just the sort of thing marc klaas' organization knew how to do. when we saw the machine in motion was when we felt that wow, this guy and this foundation has really got it together.
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we would have never thought of that on our own. keith morrison: klaas even flew in his director of search operations who was one of the first volunteers to look for polly years before. we're going to be dealing in some pretty treacherous terrain today as well as tomorrow. canyon areas, lots of rocks into the ravines. keith morrison: this was day 49 since michelle disappeared. and once again, her san diego relatives loaded into cars around midnight and drove the eight hours north to the san francisco bay. "dateline" was there watching as they gathered for a morning briefing to prepare them for the long day of searching ahead. if you take nothing else away from this presentation, take this portion right here, ok. every single search that we put you on today, tomorrow, we consider a potential crime scene. keith morrison: the police suggested a zone to be searched, but that's about all the information they provided. we don't know exactly why, but they say it's based on all the evidence and their timeline they believe that something might
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have happened in this area. keith morrison: the area, a narrow canyon in the hills east of the san francisco bay. as the search party made its way up the canyon, they tied off here and there pink ribbons. we've got a system of tape marking that we use. and then we report in to the investigators and they follow up. everything we're doing here is to support the police effort and bringing back michelle. keith morrison: a complication. this area is a haven for the homeless. it's also a notorious dumping ground for murder victims. here, one of the searchers found an encampment and inside a sleeping bag. ian! yeah? do you want to check out, this looks like a sleeping bag. do you want me to pull this bag out? yeah. keith morrison: the bag was empty. but deeper inside the encampment, something else was uncovered, a large bone. this creek canyon, it soon became apparent,
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had been well traveled by both creatures great and small. it's an animal, some mammal. keith morrison: but there was another bone at a creek crossing. searchers had already passed it by when our producer noticed it lying there. cow bone, probably. and yet? where do you think it would be from? i'm not sure. i'm going to have ian come check it out. it does look like a thigh bone and hip joint. hey ian, can you take a look at this for me? there's no other bones around it, which is kind of interesting. it's big. looks pretty big, huh? that's just a really big ball. looking at a bone from a large mammal. let's tag it and let's do a more thorough article search around here just in case. and then we'll get somebody to get the gear. you think you can scamper up to that-- that little piece of rebar or whatever it is there and tie a pink ribbon on it for us? keith morrison: the bone was tagged, sent off to a lab, examined.
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and yes, it was from the leg of a large mammal, in this case, a human. lester holt: coming up, while michelle's friends and family are searching, police are making discoveries of their own. is one tiny clue a key to the mystery? we found a identification card from the nursing school, but it was not michelle's. lester holt: when "dateline" continues.
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[music playing] it's been months now since michelle le vanished from a hospital parking garage. her family remains hopeful that she's still alive. police have been tracking michelle's electronic trail-- video, audio, text messages, cell phone pings. so many clues that seem to have picked up signs of michelle, but they've also picked up signs of someone else. here again, keith morrison. keith morrison: 49 days after michelle le disappeared,
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we stumbled over a human bone in the same area where michelle's cell phone had briefly pinged off a nearby tower. there's shorts here. keith morrison: but as the searchers scoured the immediate area, they understood it couldn't be her. the bits of clothing weren't right, and the bone was bleached by the sun-- must've been there a long time. and when they looked closely-- that's a 6'-something. it's not a 5' 5'' female. keith morrison: appalling. some other poor soul wound up here. but relief, too, it wasn't michelle. so the search and the mystery wore on for days-- and then, for weeks. and by the middle of august, it all looked to be losing steam. on a typical san francisco summer afternoon as the fog rolled in, krystine and michael brought us up-to-date on their efforts to find michelle.
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how long has it been now? 27-- it's been over two months. it's been about 72 days. how are you doing, the two of you, with all this? i mean, how are you holding up? it's just weird-- just trying to stay active and just trying to keep the word out. and trying to stay positive. right. it's just really-- trying to stay positive is the hardest part. krystine dinh: the hardest times for me are at night-- getting in bed and thinking, gosh, i wish michelle is in a-- i hope michelle is in bed. yeah. i mean, you clearly have decided she's still alive. it's not over. and it's not going to be over until we get her home. keith morrison: and so, that very evening, they hosted a fundraising event at a nearby restaurant. and a few days later, the 85th day of michelle le's disappearance, the san diego family again piled into their cars just after midnight and made the long drive up the coast to launch their eighth search. time had faded the posters taped to their cars,
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the creek bed to be searched seemed desperately far away from anyplace where a body might be dumped or a woman might reasonably be held captive. still-- krystine dinh: her cell phone last pinged there. so, you know, they tracked where her cell phone ended up after she disappeared, and it's all around the rural east bay-- it's such a huge area. keith morrison: it was 100 degrees in the waning days of summer. and it seemed to have impacted turnout, as the number of volunteers dwindled. suddenly the search leader called in a discovery-- some female clothing partially buried in the sand. danny-- i'm down by the creek. it's a woman's underwear by the tree-- almost like light pink, white. keith morrison: it is, it turns out, another false lead. so they pack up-- another fruitless day in a case gone cold. or so it seemed to michael and krystine. but, oh, what they did not know that during all those weeks
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and months in which the family had been searching for a living woman, a police murder investigation had been very active indeed. and now, in the last days of august, the hayward county inspector at the time, fraser ritchie, was in fact closing in on a very hot target. but to understand how he got there, we need to go back almost to the beginning. it was minutes before midnight, may 28, 2011-- 29 hours after michelle le disappeared. ritchie had gone to pay a midnight visit to michelle's old high school friend, giselle esteban. keith morrison: so clearly there was some animosity between giselle esteban and michelle le. and so, ritchie and his partner brought
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giselle downtown to the police station for a more in-depth conversation. keith morrison: and then, giselle told a strange little story. she was pregnant, remember, with her second child, and said she went to the hayward kaiser hospital for a prenatal checkup just hours before michelle disappeared. she said she spotted her old friend at a distance.
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keith morrison: strong feelings. but giselle esteban, herself, was not so strong-- tiny and pregnant. hardly seemed physically capable of overpowering and murdering the larger michelle le, let alone finding a way of disposing her body. so they sent her home, and later that afternoon finally got a look inside michelle's car-- as we did much later, when the detective showed it to us. nothing had changed, nothing was touched. here, the morbid sense we were somehow violating a sad and very personal space. this is what inspector ritchie found-- a crime scene. once we get the car opened, you can see there's blood wiped across here in the plastic-- a little bit on the floor mats. and then, as you can see, there's more droplets-- or blood dropping down, going in a straight down pattern.
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keith morrison: police also found some blood smeared on the floor of the garage where michelle's car had been parked. were you able to make a judgment about what would have happened when she got to her car? she was attacked, most likely here-- because from the looks of it, it looks like she ended up being placed in the back seat. there was a bloody confrontation here, and then there's more blood back there. but you can see here, it's been moved around a bit. it's a little bit smeared up, and there's more than one location. keith morrison: clearly, a very violent and physical assault. who could have done this? a fresh look at the surveillance tapes may offer a clue. watch what michelle does as she walks to her car, parked to the far right-hand side of the lot. michelle makes a wide, sweeping turn to the left, away from the car, then walks back to the right. a few seconds later, it appears she stopped. what happened? did she see somebody she knew? or somebody she didn't want to see?
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ritchie felt he may have answered that question when he found, on the passenger seat of michelle's car, a little piece that would end up fitting into a very large puzzle. we found a identification card from the samuel merritt nursing school that michelle was attending, but it was not michelle's. there was no reason for that to be there. keith morrison: the name and face were plainly visible on the card, partially wedged into the seat cushion as if somebody had left it there by mistake. so ritchie called the school and was told-- oh, that's our new instructor that's starting in a week. and then i could hear in the back of the phone, her id card's gone-- it's missing from my desk. keith morrison: the card had been stolen. but by whom? here's the thing about these identity cards-- they are actually key cards. this is mine at nbc here. and whenever i'm in the headquarters building at 30 rockefeller plaza, i use them to swipe the key card on that little box there-- it makes an electronic recording
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of the use of the card at that moment in time and at this place. and then, of course, it'd be watched by a security camera at the same time. in fact, you can't go anywhere in this building without being seen by security cameras. the security team of the nursing school did the same thing. they just looked for the computer record of the key card being used, and they pulled up the security video from that moment and that place. and voila-- there was their thief. so i had him-- had them send me the still photographs. and when i looked at it, i immediately identified it was giselle esteban. keith morrison: the picture was dated may 26-- one day before michelle le disappeared. so what else did she do that day? ritchie got a subpoena for all the school's security camera footage from may 26. what he saw in those videos was both strange and disturbing, and moved giselle esteban to the top of the list
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of persons of interest. lester holt: coming up-- the strange video trail of giselle esteban the day before michelle disappeared. fraser ritchie: it shows giselle walking around with a lab coat on pretending to be an instructor. keith morrison: weird. yeah. lester holt: what was she up to? when "dateline" continues. [music playing] who's already won three cars, two motorcycles, a boat, and an r.v. i would not want to pay that insurance bill. [ ding ] -oh, i have progressive, so i just bundled everything with my home insurance. saved me a ton of money. -love you, gary! -you don't have to buzz in. it's not a question, gary. on march 1, 1810 -- [ ding ] -frédéric chopin. -collapsing in 226 -- [ ding ] -the colossus of rhodes. -[ sighs ] louise dustmann -- [ ding ] -brahms' "lullaby," or "wiegenlied." -when will it end? [ ding ] -not today, ron. -when will it end? [ ding ] for my constipation, my doctor recommended i switch to miralax. stimulant laxatives forcefully stimulate the nerves in your colon.
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keith morrison: what you're watching is far better than any eyewitness-- what you're seeing is an exact record of a strange moment in time. this is giselle esteban at michelle le's nursing school, the day before michelle vanished. why she was here was a mystery-- but what she did? that, ritchie pieced together from giselle's electronic trail, which picked her up in the morning at the nursing school posing as a prospective student. while there, she stole an instructor's key card, then appeared to test whether it would work
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by entering this break room. and then at 5:30 in the evening, when the campus is closed, she gains access through the back door using that electronic key card. same swipe card. yes. throughout the campus, there are-- in the classrooms and in the hallways-- there's cameras. and it shows giselle walking around with a lab coat on, her glasses up, and she's going around turning on computers. keith morrison: weird. yeah. keith morrison: giselle can also be seen with a class roster stolen from an instructor's office. and you can see the class roster, because it has all the students' photographs on there-- so it's not just typed. keith morrison: yeah. fraser ritchie: it's photographs, so you can see that it's a class roster. and it looks like she's walking around as if she's pretending to be an instructor, or something like that. she's in samuel merritt for an hour and a half, or so, and then she leaves. keith morrison: all of this, the night before michelle le disappeared. what was giselle doing? and then ritchie learned, from questioning eyewitnesses, that on the morning after michelle disappeared,
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giselle esteban went, with her daughter in tow, to an apple store. and sure enough, there she was on the store's security camera. that's her there-- the top left of your screen-- having one of the employees unlock an iphone. she told the apple employee that her daughter had put a code into the phone and locked it. once he unlocked it, the phone started binging and ringing. keith morrison: and just at that very moment, as cell phone records showed, michelle le's iphone began pinging on a cell phone tower not far from the apple store. now, was a matter of following the signal, which led to this chuck e. cheese restaurant a few miles away, where the phone turned up again. giselle was seen on a video showing a white iphone. keith morrison: remember, this is the day after michelle's disappearance, when her friends and family were frantically calling and texting her. and look at this surveillance footage--
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looks like giselle is sending out text messages. and at that moment, as records show, michelle's iphone was pinging off a nearby cell tower. to ritchie it seemed quite clear-- giselle esteban was the one using michelle's phone to send those creepy text messages to worried friends and family, and to him. and giselle did all this, while on the shopping trip with her daughter. and she's on that phone roughly the same time that she's getting text messages from the classmates, and family members, and things like that. and then, i sent her a second text message at roughly at 3:15 in the afternoon saying, this is not a joke. this is the police department, you need to contact me right now. that was the last contact. that's when her phone went off. keith morrison: the evidence was mounting, so ritchie stepped up his surveillance of giselle. we placed a tracker on her car. why? to see if she would take us to a location
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that michelle would possibly be. keith morrison: but that didn't happen. not to say, though, her behavior wasn't suspicious. remember the vigil the le family held a week after michelle's disappearance? the one attended by giselle's ex-boyfriend, scott? it turned out, giselle was there too-- sort of. the tracking device showed giselle circling the block as michelle's family pleaded for help. and later, it showed her driving past scott's house. why? ritchie was all but sure now giselle had something to do with michelle's disappearance. the question now was, did she have some help? it was something that we had to look at. if so, who? yeah. dive into her life-- who's her friends? and who can we talk to that knows giselle? keith morrison: ritchie consulted an alameda county assistant da, now deputy district attorney, a guy named butch-- butch ford.
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some of my colleagues, their response was, well, who helped her do it? because she's a woman, she's pregnant-- in order to do this, she had to have help. keith morrison: prosecutors had a hard time believing esteban was physically capable of killing michelle le all by herself. we encouraged them to make sure they eliminated any possible suspects, such as the father of giselle's child. keith morrison: that would be scott, the ex-boyfriend, butch is referring to. and so, everybody's antenna went up. in late july of 2011, 63 days after michelle's disappearance-- as the le family searched the hills for her-- ritchie got a very strange phone call from scott who sounded out of breath. saying that he believed that he had found michelle's phone. i asked him, where did you find michelle's phone? in the backseat of his car. lester holt: coming up-- at first, police doubt scott's story. had we missed something? is he the other part of this?
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lester holt: or was he giselle's next victim? did you ever have any concern about scott's safety? yes. and we were advised scott that. if it is giselle, you have to be concerned for your safety as well. lester holt: when "dateline" continues. [music playing] yeah... but popping these things really helps me...relax. please don't, i'm saving those for later. at least you don't have to worry about renters insurance. just go to geico helps with renters insurance? good to know. been doing it for years. that's really good to know. i'll check 'em out. get to know geico. and see how easy homeowners and renters insurance can be.
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keith morrison: it's hard to tell from this video, but the prime suspect in michelle le's disappearance-- giselle esteban-- is tiny, barely 5' 2". and, at the time she was questioned by police, she was three months pregnant with her second child, which made detectives wonder-- is there somebody else involved with her? keith morrison: it was a question often repeated of the alameda county da's office. we have an able-bodied young lady who disappears from a public place, so automatically our minds went to-- where there more-- was there more than one person involved? keith morrison: and so when ritchie got a call from giselle's ex-boyfriend claiming to have found michelle's iphone, he was worried. i was very concerned that had we missed something? is he the other part of this? then it's, why is he telling us this? if he is that other part of this, why is he finding this and telling us about evidence? keith morrison: and that was the key question. why would scott admit to having incriminating evidence?
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was he trying to outsmart the cops by pretending to be helpful? to have found michelle's iphone, when he had it all along? or was he afraid? afraid somebody was trying to set him up. which might have been the reason why scott shared this document with detectives-- this is a temporary restraining order against giselle esteban. in signed declarations, both scott and his mother told how their family was awakened early one morning by scott's car alarm. scott went to investigate. and while he's out front, he hears his mother screaming. he goes inside, giselle is inside of his house-- she's inside his room tampering with his computer. keith morrison: sound familiar? it was the same thing esteban was doing at the nursing school. and when was this, vis-a-vis the murder? four days before, on the tuesday. keith morrison: but there was something else-- a piece of evidence you have to hear to believe. scott told the detectives that four months before michelle's disappearance, giselle harangued and threatened him.
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verbal attacks so alarming he recorded some on his iphone, just in case something bad ever happened. this one in scott's car-- their small daughter, sitting in the back seat listening. you listen closely. we're about to hear the real giselle esteban.
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keith morrison: ritchie listened to giselle's tone careen from aggrieved, to furious, to threatening-- all in less than a minute. this was far from the subdued woman he had met back in may. it was apparent that she was a violent person. did you ever have any concern about scott's safety? yes. and we advised scott that. if it is giselle, you have to be concerned for your safety as well. and he might well be a target. yeah. keith morrison: esteban, it was clear in the recording, had become fixated on her old friend-- was convinced michelle had somehow broken up her relationship with scott. and yet, as ritchie took pains to discover-- michelle and scott were nothing more than just friends. she had a boyfriend. scott was just one of the many friends that she had. but the only person in this world that seemed to think that there was more to it was giselle. keith morrison: prosecutor butch ford heard the audio too
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and read the 1,500 pages of texts and emails scott gave police. butch ford: for the better part of six years, she had an obsession with michelle. her text messages were filled with hatred towards michelle at every step of the way. and then towards the last four months, or so, they were filled with hatred towards scott-- wishing his death. wow. they were just filled with hate towards the two of them, with blame towards michelle for ruining her relationship, and, essentially, breaking her family. do you think there's any truth to that at all? only from the standpoint that giselle believed it was michelle's fault. so if, in terms of the responding to that question, the answer has to be, yes, there's truth to it-- from her perspective. butch ford: --but from giselle's perspective, because she had to blame somebody. this is a very disturbed individual. yes. there's no question about that. from my perspective, when we're dealing with, in particular, murderers, my position is that they're
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all sort of screwed up-- yeah. --because a normal person doesn't react that way. i mean, we have to believe that right? keith morrison: right. the normal person does not react that way. so, at some level, anytime somebody-- one person commits a murder, there's something that's loose in their head. keith morrison: yeah. there has to be. keith morrison: which ford more than most about the parameters of human nature. he helped raise eight younger siblings while growing up in south central la, worked his own way through law school. and now as a prosecutor, seeks out sound advice from someone who has seen it all-- his own grandmother. i have dinner every wednesday at my grandmother's house. keith morrison: the first female african american judge appointed in alameda county. i've never had a case that i haven't spoken to her about. and run ideas by her, in terms of trial presentation and closing arguments-- things like that. i always run it by her. keith morrison: but this case was special. ford's grandmother was struck by the le's devotion to michelle, by their determination to find answers.
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but it was clear there were still too many questions to take this case to court. the theory was that giselle had done something to bring about her demise. it just was a question of-- of what. yes-- of what and how we prove it. keith morrison: in fact, without a body, how could they prove there was a murder at all? lester holt: coming up-- in a strange twist of fate, the mother of amber dubois joins another search for michelle along with her new dog. she was barking. she jumps up on me and takes off again. and i followed her, and i noticed rope sticking out of the ground. lester holt: a dramatic discovery, when "dateline" continues. [music playing] the moment you realize a good backyard party [ indistinct chatter ] requires a good backyard. at lowe's we have everything you need to create the outdoor space you've always wanted.
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appointments avail [church music] keith morrison: all saints catholic church in hayward, california--
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hardly the sort of place a detective would expect to get a hot tip in a murder case. but that's exactly what happened. it was the priest who called the police. wound up talking to the inspector at the time, fraser ritchie, and told him a story about an odd encounter with a young woman who came to him seeking solace of some kind. it was actually outside of an office, in a patio area. then he asked her, several times, do you want to go into the confessional. she said, no-- so that's why he was able to talk to us about it. and he said that she was wearing a medical-type scrubs-- same physical build, characteristics of giselle. and she was asking for forgiveness for something that she had not yet done. wait a minute. she asked for forgiveness for a sin-- that's what the-- --she hadn't committed? that's the interpretation the priest had got. that was roughly at 3 o'clock in the afternoon-- the day that michelle went missing. keith morrison: ritchie was convinced giselle esteban killed michelle le. so was, then assistant da prosecutor, butch ford.
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but they didn't know how she did it, or when she did, or where she is-- or, more important, what she did with the body. if you don't have a body, it makes the case more difficult. keith morrison: and so, ritchie and the other investigators with the hayward pd continue the tedious work of building a murder case without a body. they ran fingerprints, they sent dna out for testing, they interviewed witnesses-- all quietly, out of sight of the family and press. they tested a strand of hair found in michelle's car-- it turned out to be giselle's. some of her touch dna on the turn signal too. but since the two knew each other, that wasn't enough evidence to make an arrest. so they checked giselle's cell phone records-- found that her phone, like michelle's, left a trail in the hours after michelle vanished. and what do you know? the location that michelle's phone went, giselle's phone also went. as if they were traveling together.
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yes. keith morrison: the eavesdropping electronics was closing in. here was surveillance video showing giselle trying to access the nursing school's computers the night before michelle's disappearance. and here, the scene of the apple store the day after michelle vanished. esteban, getting michelle's iphone unlocked. and later, using it have the chuck e. cheese. but still, it wasn't enough-- until the lab results finally came back, from evidence seized that very first night in giselle esteban's apartment. specifically, from her shoes. those tests uncovered a trace amount of blood. blood that belonged to michelle-- only one explanation for that. and so, on september 7, 2011, 104 days after michelle le's disappearance, inspector fraser richie to giselle esteban's house for a final visit. fraser ritchie: we showed up on that september morning, waited for her to come out of her house. i pulled up in front with two other investigators,
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we got out of the car. she looked at me very nonchalantly-- dismissive. what now? you're under arrest. not, for what? anything. it was just, like a matter of fact, she was waiting for it. it wasn't-- there was no sign of guilt, there was no sign of remorse, there was nothing. it was just-- she just, ok. keith morrison: and when the news was announced, michelle's family knew giselle-- knew her as one of michelle's closest friends. and they were stunned. i never suspected her and thought the worst until we knew for sure. you know. i didn't think it was her. when giselle was having problems, michelle would go to these counseling sessions with her. all because she felt that giselle would always be her friend. and that was her last text to giselle, was that, no matter what, you will always be my friend. keith morrison: and now with giselle esteban's arrest, the le family found themselves in a strange paradox-- glad someone would finally be held accountable for michelle's disappearance, yet refusing to accept she was dead.
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to them, the fact that no body had been found, meant there was still hope-- however slim-- that they might find her alive. i was still hoping-- without finding my sister's remains, i was still holding out hope. until it was definitive, we were going to fight for her. keith morrison: and so, 113 days after michelle disappeared, 10 days after the arrest, the family mounted yet another search. this time, they were joined by carrie mcgonigle-- whose daughter amber dubois had been kidnapped and murdered in san diego two years earlier. and like marc klaas before her, carrie formed an organization to help find the missing. she brought her new search dog with her-- a search dog in-training. and she was acting weird she was jumping all over the place. she was barking-- wanted to get away from me. and as i buckled her up, she took off from me and ran. and so i started running after, and she comes back
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and she jumps up on me-- and takes off again. and i followed her, and she was just standing still. and so i reached down to put her leash on and i noticed some twine rope sticking out of the ground. and then some bones next to it. keith morrison: it was the skeletal remains of a young woman unidentified. michelle's cousin, krystine, was back at the command center. krystine dinh: i remember earch [inaudible],, brad dennis, took a break and he looked at me, he was like, hey, babe-- we'll be right back. he never leaves his search [inaudible].. so he left and i was like, oh, something must have happened. they must have found something. but he was like, i just need a break. i'm going out there and looking at some random evidence they found. keith morrison: but then her phone rang-- a reporter, with a tip from someone in the search party. and he told me, oh, i heard they found michelle's body. can you comment on that? and i just started shaking.
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i told him, we haven't found her. but i knew that they did. when i got that call from the reporter, i knew. keith morrison: but there wasn't confirmation-- not yet. the medical examiner still had to match up dental records, and that, the family was told, could take a few days. it might sound really dumb now, but i still-- i was still really stubborn about it. i just didn't-- there was nothing that could tell me that michelle was dead. but we all stayed in a hotel room because we're just hiding. i think, we-- no one knew where we were. we were just in a hotel room for the next few days. and then, i think about four days later, the hayward police came to our hotel and they told us that she had been confirmed to be found through her dental records. at that point, you couldn't pretend anymore.
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yeah. keith morrison: after four months, the family's long and determined search to find michelle was over. but their goal, no matter how remote, was always to bring her home alive. that she was found dead, was a blow that took them to their knees. krystine dinh: that was one of the very few times i think i really let myself cry. part of me was relieved that it's over-- that we had found her and we had brought her home. and then, a majority of me was very angry. and i don't know, it just felt hollow. keith morrison: now, there was one thing left to do-- make sure michelle got justice. but that, it turned out, was not going to be so easy. lester holt: coming up-- giselle on trial and her defense strategy surprises everyone. marc klaas: i think that if you're
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going to defend against the indefensible, you have to find a better way of doing it than to vilify the victim. lester holt: would it work? when "dateline" continues. [music playing] ♪ protect your pet with the #1 name in flea and tick protection. frontline plus. trusted by vets for nearly 20 years.
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keith morrison: in october of 2012, when was giselle esteban went on trial for the murder of michelle le, prosecutor butch ford expected he'd have his hands full. i thought she would fight tooth and nail that she didn't do it, because she doesn't want her family and-- more importantly, probably her kids-- to know that she's responsible for that. keith morrison: so in his opening statement, ford laid out a devastating case-- all pointing to premeditated first-degree murder. motive? tons of it. esteban's life was in shambles, said ford. she'd lost custody of a daughter, her boyfriend left her-- she blamed it all on her successful,
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too-beautiful friend, michelle. and set about methodically to kill one of the few people left in the world who still tried to be her friend. why'd she sneak into the school? to find michelle's new address-- maybe kill her there, said ford. why'd she send those texts from the apple store and the chuck e. cheese? to cover up her crime. but she couldn't hide from the cameras, said the prosecutor-- the phone pings, her own electronic trail. and the dna in the car confirmed it. the evidence was overwhelming-- just no refuting it, said ford. and so the defense didn't even try. instead, they did something wholly unexpected-- a big surprise. giselle admitted she did it. so you're putting all of these building blocks together to show that she had to be responsible for this-- yes. --and then, she goes and admits it. yes. i could not believe she would allow her defense to be,
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"i did it." keith morrison: but there was a reason, said the defense. giselle had been provoked-- she killed michelle in the heat of passion. michelle, she claimed, was a lying schemer who had been busy stealing what little giselle had left in life-- her family. marc klaas watched from the back of the courtroom and was disgusted. i don't think character assassination is a defense. i think that if you're going to defend against the indefensible, you have to find a better way of doing it than to vilify the victim. keith morrison: but ford was worried the defense just might work. if i come in as a defense lawyer and i say, we're going to tell you that my client did it-- even though the district attorney has the burden of proof. but we're going to tell you why it happened, because that's the most important thing. and that's something the da can't tell you. exactly. and it has an air of credibility. and, thus, it's not first-degree murder. yes. a voluntary manslaughter.
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and then, you get out in nine years. so that was the big fight. yes. keith morrison: and there was another problem. even as ford methodically laid out the evidence for the jury, what he couldn't do-- and this turned out to be a big hole in his case-- was tell the jury how the murder took place. michelle's remains were so decomposed the coroner couldn't determine the cause of death. the pathologist report indicated that they, not only visually examined michelle's remains, but also examined it using an x-ray to look for any sort of trauma to her skull, her bones, anything of that nature. and they couldn't locate any. keith morrison: and, while security cameras seem to have recorded just about everything before and after the murder, they didn't capture the crime itself. it's my position that the evidence of the crime is most supported by an assault with a sharp object, a stabbing object-- a knife, a box cutter, something of that effect.
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truthfully, i believe that she snuck up behind her, grabbed her by her hair, and assaulted her with a sharp object. which would explain why that small woman could do that kind of damage. yes. it immediately incapacitates you-- you can't yell out, you can't scream. the forensic evidence-- the blood evidence-- all of that seems to indicate that type of assault. the only person who knows for sure, is giselle. keith morrison: but she wasn't talking, choosing instead to sit passively throughout the trial. michael le: we would constantly look at the jury, like, what are they thinking? are they buying this? are they believing all this nonsense that the defense is offering up? that this was heat of passion, that this wasn't planned. keith morrison: michael was in court every day, as well was krystine, and the aunts, and uncles, and parents, and cousins. all of them took time off work to be united for michelle. oftentimes, in homicide cases, nobody shows up for the victim.
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or maybe it's a mother, or father, or a sibling-- in this case, every day there were between i would say 12 and 20 family members. and knowing that the vast majority of them had traveled from san diego to be present, to show everybody that michelle was missed, it was really touching to me, and inspiring in that, again, it made me want to work even harder to ensure that i had done everything i could to bring about what was a just result. and i had mentioned that was the only thing i promised to the family was that i would work as hard as i could to make sure that the right result came. do you encounter families like that very often? on that level, no. keith morrison: when the case went to the jury, everything was up in the air. prosecutor ford didn't worry, particularly, when the jury stayed out a full day-- even when it stayed out two days.
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after three days, ford began to wonder if he'd done enough to debunk giselle's heat of passion defense. after four, everybody wondered. the longest deliberation i'd ever had was four days. this was now getting to four and 1/2 days, so i start to have concern. lester holt: coming up-- day five and the suspense is over. the jury sends word of a verdict. we're were just all holding hands in the front row. lester holt: will there be justice for michelle? when "dateline" continues. [music playing]
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keith morrison: giselle esteban readily admitted she killed her friend michelle le. but she claimed it was in the heat of the moment-- she was angry, provoked by michelle. the defense, which, in a way, blamed michelle for her own death. to friends and family sitting in the courtroom, the strategy seemed outrageous.
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and yet, after the jury had been out four long days, they all worried that it worked. i was wondering if the jury sat in the same trial that i sat in. we were going crazy. we were really afraid that either they felt sympathy for the defendant because she is a woman, or that she has children, or you never know. by the fifth day, we were thinking, what if they let her off easy? keith morrison: and then, finally, on the fifth day, the jury announced they were ready. there could be no acquittal-- their choices were first-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter-- a verdict that could have esteban back on the street before she's 40. i remember hearts were just pounding, and we were being lined up. and we sat down and we saw the jury walk in, and a couple of them, like--
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you could just tell on their faces that they were exhausted. they looked exhausted. and we were all holding hands in the front row, and we were all shaking. and you can see butch and he was just up there-- his, like, hands and his head. and all of us were just praying. and then we heard guilty of murder first. i burst right into tears. and there was-- that feeling was just so indescribable how much relief was there. keith morrison: 17 months after michelle le went missing, after endless searches, a relentless investigation, a tense trial, finally an end. the search for michelle and for justice was over. one of the things i was so angry about was that nothing made sense-- nothing made sense. why did it have to happen to michelle? and so i think the verdict brought reason.
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like get a sense of someone committed a murder, they will pay for the crime. it's just as awful as it was, and the loss is just as great, but the world is back on its axis-- or something like that. in some way, yeah. how was it to get that verdict? what was it like? in one word-- relief. what did your grandmother say? she asked, how is michelle's family doing? because i had talked to her about what a great family they were. i have nothing but respect for that family. and they had faith in the process, and, more than anything, i appreciated that they had faith in me. keith morrison: the le family's uncommon grace and dignity and determined togetherness infected many of the families that stood with them during those dark months. they were able to do what a lot of other families have never been able to do, and that's rally around each other in a time of great need to prop each other up. keith morrison: michael and krystine volunteered with marc klaas' organization.
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they helped to coordinate searches in the case of a teenager kidnapped near san jose-- their way to honor michelle. michelle, who still refuses, somehow, to leave them. krystine dinh: she mainly comes in dreams. and it's so real that it feels like her. and she won't say a thing. she'll just give me a hug, or something. i would flip out and be like, michelle, where the heck have you been? we had this huge thing where we thought you were gone, you know? and she laughed, and she said, i'm fine. [music playing] keith morrison: and michael? when he and michelle were little, they begged their mother to tell them the old vietnamese folk tale of the woman in the moon who protects and watches over them. the tale is very real now for michael le.
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i feel like-- i feel like they're always watching me. and, you know, at the very least, i like to believe that my sister is with my mom finally and that they're together. you know, it's not my time yet, but i just can't wait to see them again. [music playing] welcome to "kasie d.c." i'm kasie hunt. we are live in washington from 7:00 to 9:00 eastern. tonight the president lashes out against robert mueller claiming conflicts of interest. plus russia gate travels to the worst airport gate in america. don junior and robert mueller treated to the lucid nightmare that is gate 35 x at reagan


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