Authorities solved one mystery surrounding missing nursing student Michelle Le when they found her remains in a rugged Northern California canyon. Now they're trying to nail down another key piece of the puzzle: How did the 26-year-old woman die?
As Alameda County coroner's officials worked Tuesday to make that determination, police called the discovery of her body an important step toward closure for Le's family and a significant development in the legal case against a pregnant, ex-friend of Le accused in the killing.
"This case in and of itself is an anomaly, but the reality is that this family stayed involved and never gave up in their search," Hayward police Lt. Roger Keener said. "They were determined to find her."
Le's discovery also lightened the legal load for prosecutors.
"The prosecution certainly no longer has to prove that a homicide occurred because Michelle has been found," Keener said.
Police suspect Le's former friend Giselle Esteban, 27, of Union City attacked Le in the parking garage of the hospital where she was doing a clinical rotation. Esteban knew Le in high school in San Diego and was charged with murder earlier this month.
Esteban told KGO-TV in June that she hated Le because Le was friends with Scott Marasigan of Fremont, the father of Esteban's 5-year-old daughter. But she denied having anything to do with Le's disappearance.
Just three days before Le's disappearance, Marasigan filed a temporary restraining order against Esteban, citing bizarre and threatening behavior against him and his family.
Marasigan wrote that in December, Esteban threatened to shoot herself if he did not talk with her on the phone.
Marasigan said he called police, and Esteban was arrested after officers found live rounds of ammunition but not a gun.
Keener said police believe Esteban acted alone in Le's death. Esteban did not enter a plea when she appeared in court Monday. She is due back on Sept. 28.
On Saturday, police and volunteer searchers discovered the remains off a dirt trail. Police said cell phone signals from Le and Esteban had been received from the area.
Le's remains were discovered Saturday in a remote area near Sunol by a search dog being used by Carrie McGonigle, whose daughter Amber Dubois was murdered after vanishing while walking to school in the San Diego suburb of Escondido in February 2009.
Krystine Dinh, Le's cousin and family spokeswoman, said in an email that grieving loved ones were preparing "a proper goodbye" for Le. Dinh also thanked police and those who helped search for Le.
At the time of her May 27 disappearance, Le was working on a bachelor of sciences nursing program at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, combining classroom work with clinical training.
Her family said Le decided to go into nursing because she wanted to follow in the footsteps of her mother. She was scheduled to graduate in December.
University president Sharon Diaz said in a statement Tuesday there was profound sadness on campus over Le's death.
"This kind of senseless violence is difficult to understand," Diaz said. "Michelle had so much to live for and sought only to give to others _ her life was so pointlessly taken."
Records show that Le's and Esteban's cell phones "traveled on a similar path" from the hospital to other locations in Alameda County immediately after Le disappeared, a police inspector wrote in an affidavit.
Difficulties in traversing the thick brush led Le's family and authorities to conduct some 15 searches in the area during the past four months before the remains were found.
"The greatest impact is that it does provide the family with some level of closure and help them begin to heal and move on," Keener said.