Son Le, father of Michelle Le, a Northern California nursing student who… (Anda Chu / The Contra Costa…)
Reporting from San Francisco — The anguished family of a Northern California nursing student who vanished three weeks ago spends every day trying to find her, distributing fliers, organizing vigils and searches, and even retracing her steps.
"We wake up each morning and think, what can we do today to keep her story alive?" said Krystine Dinh, 23, a cousin of the missing woman. "We don't do anything normal anymore."
Michelle Le, 26, who grew up in San Diego County and moved to the Bay Area to attend college and nursing school, disappeared in Hayward at about 7 p.m. on Friday, May 27. Police believe she was murdered.
Volunteers scoured East Bay canyons over the weekend, chasing clues from Le's cellphone, which continued to emit signals until the middle of the day after her disappearance. A previous search of those same canyons by police and dogs failed to find a trace of her.
Her family and friends have erected billboards, launched a website and posted a $65,000 reward for information about her whereabouts. Neither police nor her family believes Le went away voluntarily or committed suicide.
"There is the agony of waiting," said Dinh, who moved to San Mateo for a job and planned to stay with Le. The family keeps busy and focused on finding Le, but "if she never came home, what would we do?"
Le and her younger brother lost their mother to breast cancer when Michelle was 14, and the children went to live with Dinh's mother, Le's paternal aunt. They graduated from Mt. Carmel High School in Rancho Penasquitos, part of a large, close-knit extended family whose elders fled Vietnam after the withdrawal of American forces.
Dinh said Le was her role model while growing up. They bonded as the only girls among more than two dozen cousins. When Dinh landed a marketing job in the Bay Area, she arranged to stay with Le. Dinh was to move in with Le a few days after Le disappeared.
Le was training at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hayward the night she disappeared. During a break, Le told other nurses that she was going to get something from her car, which was in a multilevel parking structure. She grabbed her keys and cellphone but left her purse and work gear behind.
She did not return to the hospital or meetwith a friend who was planning to go to Reno with her that weekend.
Police later found Le's locked car, with bloodstains and her laptop inside, about three blocks from the hospital. Hayward police said the results of DNA tests from the vehicle will not be ready for two weeks.
Based on video from the garage, cell records and searches, police believe Le was killed by someone she knew. Her family refuses to concede that she is dead. They are comforted by stories of other abduction victims who were found alive long after most had given up hope.
Hayward Police Lt. Roger Keener said detectives are examining "a few" persons of interest, including Giselle Esteban, 27, who was a friend of Le's in high school and had also moved to the Bay Area. Esteban contacted a local television station after police questioned her, saying that she hated Le but did not kill her.
"She told an assignment editor that she openly hates Michelle because she blames Michelle for her current breakup with her boyfriend, the father of her child," Keener said.
Esteban's former boyfriend, who was friends with Le, obtained a domestic violence restraining order against Esteban three days before Le disappeared. The boyfriend has primary custody of his child with Esteban.
Dinh said the family does not believe Le was romantically involved with him. Esteban lived in Alameda County but has since returned to family in San Diego, police said. Police searched Esteban's home, removed several personal items and released her after bringing her in for questioning.
Asked about animosity toward Le by other potential suspects, Keener said: "I don't know what their enemy status was. We haven't uncovered anyone else who was as open about her feelings as Giselle was."
Esteban could not be reached for comment, and her attorney did not return messages.
Le, 5 feet 6 and 120 pounds, with brown eyes and black hair, was wearing white nursing scrubs when she went missing. Family members said she was emotionally stable, upbeat and excited about a nursing career. She always thought the best of people, Dinh said.
After Le's mother died, Le decided she wanted to be a nurse like her, Dinh said. Her father, Son Le, was in Vietnam when she disappeared and is now with other family members in the Bay Area searching for clues.
Dinh said she retraced Le's movements in the garage where Le had left her car. "After a loved one goes away, you always want to be where they were," she said. The family has no idea what happened to Le and knows little about Esteban, Dinh said.
"During the first few days, it was almost as if the news wasn't true," Dinh said. "In the days after that, we were all very shaken. It has been exhausting, very emotional and hard. We just want her back."