SAN FRANCISCO – As officials prepared to examine a new set of human remains found in a canyon east of San Francisco Bay, relatives of a missing nursing student said Sunday they were grateful for search teams' relentless efforts to locate the 26-year-old woman's body and bring closure to their ordeal.
Police and volunteer searchers made the discovery Saturday off a dirt trail in a rugged region of Alameda County. Police said cell phone signals from victim Michelle Le and a former school friend they suspect in her death had been received from the area.
The remains were so badly decomposed that investigators were not immediately able to determine if they were those of a male or female.
Le, 26, disappeared on May 27 when she took a break from her nursing classes at a Hayward hospital. Giselle Esteban, a former friend of Le's from high school in San Diego, was arrested earlier this month and charged with murder.
"We are focused on finding Michelle and ensuring that justice is served," said a statement issued by family spokeswoman Krystine Dinh. "With a suspect in custody, the Hayward PD will continue to work with us to locate Michelle and to bring her home so that we may have a proper memorial for her and bring closure to our family."
Police believe Esteban, 27, attacked Le in the parking garage of the hospital where she was doing a clinical rotation.
Le had told colleagues she was going to her car but never returned. Her locked Honda SUV was later found a half-mile away.
Cell phone records show that both women's 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.
Since Le's disappearance, relatives, law enforcement agencies and volunteers have focused their searches in the craggy terrain between the cities of Pleasanton and Sunol.
Police Lt. Roger Keener said cell phone forensics helped investigators target the Niles and Sunol Canyon areas, but difficulties in traversing the thick brush have forced search teams to return to the area more than a dozen times.
Le's family has received help from the KlaasKids Foundation and Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was abducted from a slumber party in 1993 and later found slain.
The foundation has worked with the Le family from the beginning and helped register volunteers and establish protocols for the search on Saturday, Keener said.
The Alameda County Coroner's Office will begin examining the decomposed remains on Monday.
"This case is probably going to hinge upon DNA or dental records, so we can't say how long it will take yet," said J.D. Nelson, a spokesman for Alameda County Sheriff's Department.
Esteban, 27, is due back in court Monday after a judge postponed a plea hearing so she could get an attorney. She was being held without bail.
Esteban told KGO-TV in June that she hated Le because Le was friends with the father of Esteban's 5-year-old daughter. Esteban denied having anything to do with Le's disappearance.
In the affidavit, Hayward police Inspector Fraser Ritchie wrote that video surveillance footage shows Esteban at the scene before and after Le's disappearance.
Police said they found traces of Le's blood inside her SUV and physical evidence that Esteban had also been inside the vehicle, as well as Le's DNA on one of Esteban's shoes.
Le was about halfway through a 12-month accelerated bachelor's degree program at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, combining classroom work with clinical training, which is what Le was doing at the time of her disappearance.
University spokeswoman Elizabeth Valente has described the young woman as "a ray of sunshine" with a thirst for knowledge and a passion for nursing who was well-liked on campus.
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