Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Amy Elk poses for a portrait where her sister Dominique "Nique" Leili was found dead almost a year ago in the wooded area near the intersection of Russell Road and Oak Village Lane in Lawrenceville on July 16, 2011. The case is still unsolved and Dominiques husband, Matt Leili is the only suspect. According to the medical examiner the cause of death is undetermined.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Amy Elk kicks dead, withered leaves with sandaled feet. She picks big ants off her legs in a patch of woods along Collins Hill Road that is girded by churned red dirt and new homes. Overhead, woodpeckers frolic among mature oaks and pines. Funny, Elk says, her dead sister was nicknamed the red-headed woodpecker.
About 10 feet into the woods, Elk points to a mound of branches and leaves that could be the mound, appearing as it did in this July swelter one year ago. The place where Elk saw her sister's hand and hair. Where an investigator with the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office found a face-down, decomposing, naked woman whose dominate identifiers were her sheer petiteness and fresh, pink toenail polish.
The last time Elk had seen her sister Nique Leili alive, they had gone together to have their nails done. Elk knew her sister had chosen pink. She knew the body was her sister.
One year since Elk and her family mounted a search party at Walmart -- a motley bunch that included truck drivers and IT professionals -- and found Nique at the mouth of her subdivision in about 10 minutes, investigators can't say for certain how the Lawrenceville mother of three came to be there. Despite laborious forensic testing that consumed months, they can't say for certain how Nique -- pronounced "Nikki" -- died. A 12-page medical examiner's report, completed in December, lists the cause of death as undetermined, yet notes it was "highly suspicious for homicidal violence."
No bullet holes, blunt-force trauma, stabs wounds or poison traces of things like cyanide or ethylene glycol, the report summarizes. What's left? The autopsy could not exclude "subtle asphyxial forms of death," despite high-powered X-rays, typically used on bombs, of Nique's neck area that showed no fractures.
Nique's body was in the woods long enough, in such a prone position, to muddle the answer. Investigators insist they haven't stopped looking for answers elsewhere. Specifically, in complex computer files.
"I wouldn't categorize the Leili case as a cold case -- it's never gone in the cold file," said Gwinnett police homicide unit Detective John Richter. "It's been active for the last year."
What's known is that the 44-year-old's death has cost her kin an entire branch of their family. Nique's husband, Matt Leili, 44, the only suspect police have focused on, has left Georgia. He uprooted with their two young daughters to a home owned by his brother in the scenic town of Londonderry, Vt., on Feb. 13, a day before their would-be 14th wedding anniversary. Ten days before that, he had dissolved a computer company -- M&N Communications Inc. -- he founded with his wife in 2006. Matt Leili has not been charged and was within his rights to move, police and others say. He has denied all wrongdoing, but has shied from interviews.
Like Nique's family, neighbors and objective acquaintances of the Leili family paint Matt as a brooding, cantankerous control freak. Pete Piedra, Matt's former personal trainer at a Suwanee gym, dropped him as a client in early 2011.
"I couldn't see myself getting along with Matt. He was very arrogant," Piedra said. "He would flash a gun at the gym. He'd have it right on his waist. Who does that?"
Matt did not return a message on his cell phone requesting comment for this story. His lawyer, Sumner Riddick, declined comment. Attempts to reach Matt's two brothers, father and other family members were not successful.
Before his cone of silence, Matt issued a statement through his attorney, four days after his wife's body was found by one of her Atlanta Computer Group coworkers; Nique worked there as a comptroller, managing finances. In the release, Matt lambasted the media and said his highest priority was the welfare of his daughters.
Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith said investigators have developed no other suspects in the intervening year. "We've not been able to eliminate (Matt) from suspicion, but we're not taking anything off the table in terms of a third party," Smith said. "We just don't have anything to support that now."
Nique's family says she had no enemies and never delved in nefarious activity. Patterns of mistrust were present before and after her death.
°°° °°° °°° °°°
The last day she was known to be alive, Nique called her mother while commuting to work in Alpharetta. She quoted her favorite movie, "Steel Magnolias," saying, "I'm not crazy, M'Lynn. I've just been in a bad mood for the last 40 years!" -- venting frustration that she couldn't get through to a radio station contest seeking the film's name. They talked about traffic, about Nique's girls, and then hung up. Her mother beams at the thought of Nique's intelligence.
"Oh, honey," said Harriett Garrett, a genteel Louisiana native, "she could make a computer stand up and beg for a cookie."
Born with a headful of tiny red curls, Dominique Gilmer Chatham was named after two of her father's beloved heroines, fictional character Dominique Francon in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" and her father's mother, Gilmer. A voracious reader, Nique played piano beautifully, including Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." She nabbed the lead in her senior play at The Arlington Schools in Fairburn.
"Nique was brilliant, always the smartest in our class," said Lisa Putnam, a close friend and classmate from third grade through high school. "She was a beautiful person."
A teacher at heart, Nique graduated from the University of Georgia with a master's degree in math education after stints at Vanderbilt and the London Theater of the Arts. She taught in Athens and Greene and Jackson counties until her contract wasn't renewed one year. She went into software consulting, getting her teaching fix through training.
In 2006, Nique met Matt in an AOL chat room. Both were once divorced. The similarities stopped there. She had a thick drawl to his prominent Queens dialect. She stood a shade over 5 feet tall, so short an endocrinologist had once prescribed growth hormones. Matt was more than a foot taller.
Matt moved from New York City to Athens, then followed Nique on her career path to Oklahoma and Mississippi, where they were married, then to metro Atlanta. Her family says she was the breadwinner, and that Matt sold surplus computer parts at government auctions on eBay for income, but he was never the police officer or LoJack employee he'd claimed to be.
"As far as we can tell," said Elk's fiancee, Chuck Robinson, "the man has never worked a day in his life."
About a decade ago, the couple settled in a woodsy Lawrenceville subdivision called Oak Village. From the street, their two-story home would seem a portrait of suburban normalcy -- white picket fence, swing set, pool. A closer look revealed a series of security cameras lining the front porch and a glass-eye camera above the front door.
Family and neighbors said the cameras fed two large, flat-screen monitors in Matt's office and bedroom. Two more cameras were poised in the living room and above the refrigerator, "so he could nail the girls for grabbing sodas," Robinson said.
Gwinnett police dispatch records portray Matt as a one-man neighborhood watch, using his cameras to hawk their Sydney's Cove cul-de-sac. Since 2003, he had logged 34 calls to police, involving property disputes, suspicious vehicle complaints and about a dozens gripes about loose dogs and other animals.
At least twice, he presented surveillance footage to responding police as evidence. In 2009, his claims that a neighbor was damaging his fence with an ax, as caught on camera, were unfounded, an officer concluded.
But in 2008, Matt provided police with surveillance footage as proof that two young thieves had broken into his car. An officer arrived to find that Matt had handcuffed one suspect and held them both at bay with a handgun. Matt identified himself as a security officer, a report states.
"Matt would call the police if someone stepped in his yard," said former neighbor Angela White. "I just always found him to be an extremely paranoid person."
°°° °°° °°° °°°
Nique's father, Doug Chatham, a federal Environmental Protection Agency chemist, said weeks before his daughter's disappearance on July 9, Matt started calling him at odd hours to drive the point home that Nique was losing her mind. Her mother says Matt had shut her out.
"(Matt) was blocking all the women in the family," Chatham said. "He was thinking that the men in the family would be his allies."
The first verifiable cracks came during a 57-second 911 call on June 28. A recording indicates the couple may have been having serious marital problems.
"My husband refuses to let me leave the house," Nique told a 911 operator at 6:47 a.m.
In dismissive tones, Matt told the operator his wife was throwing a tantrum and had awakened their kids.
"Do you really want the cops here?" Matt asked his wife. "You need to pick up the phone, otherwise they're going to come."
Seconds later, Nique Leili returns to phone. "You don't need to come," she said. "I'll stay in the house all day."
Gwinnett police were dispatched to the Sydney's Cove home, where neither Matt nor Nique wanted to leave. Investigators found no evidence of physical contact during the incident. They advised the couple of family violence laws and left.
Police and Nique's family believe she disappeared from the home sometime after midnight as Friday spilled into Saturday, July 9. By Monday, suspicions arose.
About 3 p.m. Monday, Matt met with an officer in the lobby of Gwinnett police headquarters to report his wife missing, claiming he waited to approach police until his wife did not report to work. He said they had been in and out of counseling, that "things lately have not been right" and that his father had moved down from New York to help calm the turmoil, according to a police report.
Matt told police his wife packed a suitcase in a heated argument about 3 a.m. on July 9, but had a change of heart when his father intervened and then unpacked. Matt said he dozed off in his office about 5 a.m. and awoke an hour later to find Nique gone -- her cell phone, keys, car, clothes and wallet left behind.
"The complainant advised that his wife is not in the right state of mind," the officer noted.
That same day, Nique's 19-year-old daughter from another marriage, who had been living with her father since age 16, called Gwinnett police to make her own missing persons report. "When I try to call (Nique's) cell phone, my step-dad (Matt) answers the phone," Alexandra Page told a 911 operator. "Is there a way for you to check to see if she's been checked into a battered woman's shelter or anything?"
Hours later, Nique's mother called police with the same purpose.
"I'm trying to find out if my son-in-law has placed a missing person's report on my daughter," Garrett said. "I have been begging him since this morning to do this ... Now I can't reach him. I'm desperate to find out whether it's been done or not."
A day later, Page called back, more forceful and desperate.
"We're concerned he may take the kids to New York ... He has security cameras around the house and trackers on her phone and car," Page said, urging the operator to dispatch officers. "Anything that can be done at all needs to be done. This is ridiculous to me because she could be dead in the house ... Nobody knew anything about her being missing until yesterday."
The following day, Wednesday, Matt filed for divorce from his wife, seeking sole custody, alimony and child support, according to court records.
By Friday, Gwinnett police said Matt retained an attorney and ceased cooperation with detectives, the day before searchers found the body, roughly a mile from the Sidney's Cove home. When Nique vanished, Matt was home with the two girls and his father, Smith said this week.
"He and his father were never cooperative with the investigation, as far as giving statements," Smith said.
Minutes after Nique's body was found, two officers went to the couple's home to speak with Matt. They found him talking on a cell phone. He told police he was sick and suffering from an anxiety attack, a report states.
"When (medics) arrived they informed us that all of (Matt's) vitals were fine and they could not find anything wrong with him," one officer wrote.
Two days later, police called Matt a suspect.
°°° °°° °°° °°°
A legal battle over control of Nique's remains was settled outside court when the two sides agreed to separate funerals. Nique's family buried her in Athens, next to her grandfather.
Chatham filed for custody of his two granddaughters -- Amanda, now 13, and Rebecca, 10 -- and months of wrangling ensued, mostly in juvenile court, where hearings are private. Outside one hearing, Matt's attorney was asked by the Daily Post if his client had considered hiring independent investigators, given that no arrests had been made in his wife's death.
Riddick said his client lacked the financial means to do so.
"These were very middle class folks," Riddick said then. "He relies on the wisdom of Gwinnett police investigators."
Nique's family is adamant that Nique had several life insurance policies that would bring a total payout of roughly $1 million, but they say that money is being withheld until the case is solved or her husband is no longer considered a suspect; police and other officials could not confirm that information this week.
Smith says surveillance footage captured at the Leili residence and stored in computer files remains of strong interest to police.
"We've investigated the video but have not found anything specific enough to make charges," Smith said.
Richter, the lead detective, says he's motivated to bring the case closure.
"Just like with any case without a conclusion, we're going to continue to chase down leads," he said. "I can't see the future of what may happen, but we're not putting this one away anywhere."
°°° °°° °°° °°°
Last month, Nique's family filed a contempt action in Gwinnett Superior Court, claiming Matt had violated court orders to let the girls visit Georgia on spring break and two weeks during the summer. They also claimed he has denied the family weekly conversations with the girls via Skype, as stipulated by a judge.
The family attorney did not return repeated calls, but Elk said that matter is being dropped, in fear it would be drawn out, futile and expensive.
"Essentially," Elk said, "it wasn't worth pursuing."
Danny Porter, Gwinnett District Attorney, said nothing could prevent Matt and his daughters from leaving Georgia outside a judge's civil orders, bond provisions or the Division of Family and Children Services taking custody of the girls. Porter concedes that not enough evidence has been gathered to bring an indictment against anyone.
The only glimpse the family has had into the girls' lives in Vermont has come via Internet postings by Amanda's middle school. The budding scientist and athlete completed an online social studies project. She made the honor roll.
The younger girl, Rebecca, hammy and histrionic like her mother, had been making progress at an acting studio in Decatur. Her middle name is JoAnne, after her father's ex-wife.
Garrett, clutching a photo of Nique one recent afternoon, said the repercussions of her daughter's death have been widespread.
"We lost a daughter, a sister, a loved one, but we also lost two grandchildren, two nieces," said Garrett. "You know, we got hit."