Eight years after her disappearance and several months after her fiance was convicted for strangling her to death, a Bakersfield woman's remains have been positively identified from bones found three to four years ago in the Mojave Desert.
California's Department of Justice identified two human femurs and a pelvis as belonging to Azita Nikooei, an exotic dancer who went missing in 2004.
"What you got to keep in mind is the desert where we were at is pretty desolate, and the chances of finding something like that is pretty remote," Detective Herman Caldas of the Bakersfield Police Department said Friday.
Nikooei has been presumed dead for years based on lack of contact with family members and lack of activity on her bank accounts and credit cards.
In March, her fiance, Nathan Mowers, was sentenced to 11 years in prison after pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter. He told prosecutors he strangled Nikooei after an argument and then drove to the desert to dump her body.
Because Mowers had already been sent to prison, finding some of Nikooei's remains will not affect his conviction and sentencing, said Melissa Allen, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case.
"At this point, it's just closure and something for the family to bury," she said.
On Sept. 6, 2004, Nikooei was reported missing. For the first time in four and a half years, she had missed picking up her son up from his visitation with his father and her ex-husband, Bobby Nikooei. Bobby Nikooei told Mowers she had not shown up, and Mowers reported her missing to police. At the time, Mowers told police he had last seen Nikooei at Baja Fresh at The Marketplace, according to police.
Then, a few weeks later, Mowers also went missing. On Sept. 30, 2004, he was arrested in Wisconsin on weapons charges with several guns and more than $20,000 in cash in his possession, police have said.
It wasn't until May 2011 when Mowers would be arrested for Nikooei's death. Though the body hadn't been found, investigators built a case on numerous interviews, cellphone records and a wiretap of Mowers' phone. He later confessed and pleaded down from first-degree murder to the voluntary manslaughter that sent him to prison.
As part of the plea deal, he told investigators where he dumped Nikooei's body. He said he had taken her north of Highway 58 and six miles east of Highway 395 to a remote swath of the desert, Detective Caldas said. Bakersfield Police and the San Bernardino Sheriff-Coroner's Department searched the area. The only thing they found was an acrylic fingernail, which has never been positively identified as Nikooei's.
"You got to keep in mind, you have wildlife out there," Caldas said. "You have coyotes, you have mountain lions and all kinds of rodents that usually move carcasses around."
But on Nov. 17, 2008, gold miners found a right human femur in the Mojave Desert southeast of Red Mountain and five miles east of Highway 395, police said. Then, on April 16, 2009, more gold miners found a left human pelvis and another femur in the same general area the first femur was found.
The remains were extremely bleached, meaning they had probably been exposed to the elements for a long period of time, Bakersfield Police said the San Bernardino coroner told them. That timeframe lined up with the length of Nikooei's disappearance.
The San Bernardino coroner forwarded the remains to the Department of Justice, which had Nikooei's DNA profile, for identification. Three years later, the department found the remains positively matched Nikooei's DNA. On Sept. 11, the San Bernardino coroner called the Bakersfield Police Department to alert them to the match.
Law enforcement are not going to resume searching for more of Nikooei's remains now that some were found, Caldas said.
Police have told Nikooei's family about the discovery, and they expressed a sense of closure, Caldas said.
They were relieved, he said, "especially now that they will be able to have a proper burial."