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Photograph by Chad Pilster

Lost and Found: Specially trained cadaver dogs led police investigators to the body of Ping Wang Friday in a creekside area behind the Almaden Valley apartment complex where she lived. The discovery re-ignited interest in a case that, in the shadow of high-profile missing-persons cases this past month, had all but disappeared from public view.

Vanishing Point

Police pursue new leads in the killing of Ping Wang, the 38-year-old Silicon Valley accountant and single mother who disappeared last month with scarcely a blip on the radar

By Jim Rendon

DETECTIVE JEROME DAWSON was not expecting much from his search on Friday. The subject of his search, Ping Wang, a 38-year-old Chinese immigrant, had been missing for a month and police had no leads.

Although her disappearance had all the marks of foul play--she was a dedicated single mother who had vanished after a late-night business meeting and not returned to her Almaden Valley home and her two children--this case had registered little more than a blip on the media radar screen.

But Dawson was not going to give up. For this morning's search, he had arranged for yet another team of dogs to check the area near Wang's residence. Four different specially trained cadaver dogs and their owners spread out across the area. Dawson watched calmly, walking along the narrow southernmost end of Almaden Lake, balancing a red-and-yellow bag of McDonald's french fries in his hand while he talked and ate.

"In a typical homicide, where you find the vehicle you find the body close by," Dawson said, looking around at the water, the cars passing by on Almaden Expressway, the condominium complex behind him and, finally, the thick reeds alongside the water. "If there is a body in there, no one will know till the creek flows over. We bring the body dogs out to eliminate the area from our search. Elimination is a big part of police work."

Across the lake's narrow neck, David Kovar, a volunteer with the canine search unit from the county coroner's office, waved his arms above his head. Dawson looked up. "I don't have a radio," he said. "I don't know what they are talking about."

Adela Morris, a dog trainer, called Dawson over. They talked for a minute, then Dawson left to make a call on his cell phone. Morris's 4-month-old puppy, who is still in training, dug at rocks in the hard-packed earth while Morris explained how the group uses blood, synthetic scents, clothes from cadavers and a lot of positive reinforcement to train the volunteer dogs.

Dawson returned. "You're going to have to leave now," he said to us. "This whole area is now a crime scene. I think we found what we came here to find."

Within minutes squad cars filled the parking lot behind the apartment complex. Detectives arrived in unmarked cars and ducked under the orange crime-scene tape to walk slowly and carefully through the scrub alongside of the river. Other officers in jeans and black vests circled in the reedy ditch, video cameras in hand.

Four hours later, decomposed human remains were zipped into a blue body bag and removed from the scene.

INVESTIGATORS confirmed Monday that the unclothed and partially decomposed body was that of Ping Wang, who was reported missing Dec. 9. Her body, covered over with foliage, was found lying in a ditch less than 100 feet from her apartment near the intersection of Coleman Road and Almaden Expressway. Investigator's believe she was probably not killed there.

Wang's disappearance took place just two days before that of Xiana Fairchild, the 7-year-old girl who vanished in Vallejo. But unlike Fairchild's case, which garners daily television reports and hundreds of volunteers, Wang's mystery quickly slid from public view after only a few days.

Area media briefly covered the case for the first few days. San Jose's daily newspaper, the Mercury News, ran one last brief story just before Christmas when the Carole Sund Carrington Foundation offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the location of Wang. But there was no follow-up until the body was discovered.

"Having the media involved from the beginning of any case is the most important thing anyone can do," says Kim Petersen, the foundation's director. "If people do not know about the case, they cannot help. The Carringtons and the Sunds went to great lengths to keep the media interested in their case." That interest, she says, was part of what pushed authorities to act and people to help in the effort to locate the three missing women last winter.

In memory of the women who were murdered outside Yosemite, the foundation offers reward money, in part to help entice people to come forward with information in missing-persons cases, but also to help engage the media.

Family members, friends and employers can often help. Reporters need someone who can continue to release information, even if it's just a new picture, Petersen says. And, as Xiana Fairchild's case shows, drug abuse, drama and suspected family involvement go a long way to fuel media interest in a missing person.

Wang's life had none of these salacious details. She was a quiet, hard-working woman who loved her children. And she was in San Jose without a large family. She had separated from her husband, who now lives in Arizona. Shortly after her disappearance, her children went to stay with their father. It is not easy for those without the resources of the Carrington family to set up a home away from home while they push the police for answers and generate media interest.

Last Friday the only volunteers who showed up in Almaden to search for Wang's remains were with the Canine Specialized Support Team.

Ping Wang FOR MORE THAN A MONTH, investigators were at a loss to determine what happened to Wang. "Basically, she just vanished," says Dawson, who has been a detective with the missing persons division for a year. "There was no trail whatsoever."

In the weeks since her disappearance, police have pieced together bits of Wang's life which they hope may reveal clues to her death.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Wang's husband, Xuming Chi of Peoria, Ariz., gave his wife what Sgt. Armondo Realyvasquez with the homicide unit describes as "a large sum of money." Wang was supposed to invest the money in an initial public offering of a communications company. Realyvasquez says that officers have been unable to account for the money and cannot confirm whether Wang ever invested in the stock.

Just two weeks later, on Dec. 8, Wang, who worked in the accounting department at the Silicon Valley Capital Club, stayed at work until about 10:30pm. Instead of going home, she went to a late-night meeting. Dawson says that Wang had been working as a sales representative in a multi-level marketing company. She also had an insurance sales license. On Dec. 8, according to police, Wang left work to meet with a business associate at WMA Securities in Cupertino to finish her application for a securities license.

At the WMA office in Cupertino, Wang completed her license application and gave her associate a $500 check to cover the processing fee. The meeting was brief, and at 11:30pm, according to witnesses, Wang left the building. No one else that police have spoken to ever saw Wang again.

The next morning, Wang's 7-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter woke up to find their mother gone. They called their father in Arizona, who then notified the San Jose police. Three days later, on Dec. 12, officers found Wang's blue Dodge mini-van locked and squarely parked behind a condominium complex on Furlong Drive, several blocks from her apartment building.

Dawson says that when he began work on the case in early December, investigators scoured the van and Wang's home for any evidence of blood, but nothing unusual was found.

Dawson says his next step was to determine if Wang might have just up and left on her own. But he says it did not take long to determine that it was unlikely Wang would have abandoned her family.

Additionally, Wang had just paid $500 for her sales license. Dawson says that people who are about to abandon a family generally save up money and don't invest in something they will not use. She was also a very responsible, motivated person. "She was a reliable accountant for the club," Dawson says. "I read her emails; she was involved in self-motivation clubs. She was a single mom trying to do the best she could. People only had good things to say about her."

The investigation became more and more complex as it went forward, Dawson says, and each step seemed to lead to a new dead end.

Through her sales work, Wang met so many people that it left investigators with a vast ring of people to contact and talk with. Many of them were in China, requiring the use of a translator.

The woman who last saw Wang alive went back to China right after their meeting. Dawson tracked her down on the other side of the Pacific for questioning, using a Mandarin Chinese interpreter borrowed from the city's juvenile investigation unit.

Early on, Dawson brought out hound dogs to determine what direction Wang might have traveled from her van. He says that the dogs did not reveal much, but adds that that effort revealed relevant information he cannot discuss.

After a month of dead ends, the detective says that he decided to search the field on a hunch. And while Wang lived in heavily populated Silicon Valley, her home was near Almaden Lake Park, an area that has open fields, rivers and running trails.

"The cadaver dogs are looking for a needle in a haystack," Dawson said before the body was discovered. But it took them only a half an hour to find that needle.

DAWSON SAYS WANG and her estranged husband were both in the process of getting their American citizenship. They emigrated to the United States from Beijing and settled in Arizona. But after having marital difficulties, the couple separated. Wang moved to San Jose with her two children but continued to see her husband on holidays.

At the Capital Club in San Jose, Wang's co-workers remember her as a very shy but conscientious person. Wang's children were the center of her world, says Christie Cooley, who worked at the club's front desk in 1988. Wang was her supervisor.

"She talked about her kids all the time. She was always concerned about them, making sure they got picked up and dropped off. They were definitely in the forefront of her mind."

Cooley says that Wang was shy, but there was something about her that made Cooley want to learn more about her. "It took a lot on my part to get her to open up, but I wanted to. I'm not usually like that, but she was very sweet."

Wang taught Cooley a few Chinese phrases, and once they got to know each other, Cooley says, Wang would smile and giggle a lot when they talked.

POLICE OFFICIALS ADMIT that unraveling what actually happened to Ping Wang on the night of Dec. 8 will not be easy. Department spokesman Rubens Dalaison confirms that both suicide and accident have been ruled out. As of press time, Realyvasquez says police have not yet determined a cause of death and are awaiting the results of toxicology tests. Investigators do not yet have any suspects, but they will continue the process of interviewing Wang's husband and her associates that Dawson began a month ago. Soon, officers will return to Wang's apartment overlooking the gully where her body was found, to search once again for blood or other clues.

"At this point the case is very challenging," Realyvasquez says. "There are a lot of leads we are looking at. It will take time to come to some sort of conclusion."

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From the January 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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