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OAKLAND -- In her decades of advocacy for death row inmates, Sandra Coke zigzagged the Deep South collecting the stories of teenagers facing the death penalty. She got to know inmates on California's death row. In some cases, past and present colleagues say, her intimate interviews laid the foundation for obtaining new trials for convicts.

In a tragic twist, Coke may herself have become a victim of homicide.

Authorities on Tuesday announced that the body of a woman found last week near a Vacaville park was that of Coke, the missing federal defense investigator. Police would not say how she died or offer any more information on a possible link between her death and 56-year-old Randy Alana, a violent sex offender whom she once dated -- and a person of interest in the case, according to police.

"It's been real heartbreaking," said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, where Coke worked in the mid-1990s. "She was just a wonderful person and skilled and committed advocate. It's a terrible, terrible loss."

Coke, 50, spent decades working on behalf of death row inmates, her colleagues say. Beginning in the 1990s, she worked for the California Appellate Project, the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama and her own private investigation office. She was currently working for the Office of the Federal Defender in the Eastern District of California in Sacramento, where she helped overturn a wrongfully obtained murder conviction in Sacramento County in 2001, according to federal defender Heather Williams.

Coke came to Alabama in 1995, a time when juveniles could be put to death for crimes, and when the juvenile death row population, at 16 inmates, was the largest in the nation, Stevenson said. Her work collecting school records and interviewing family and friends uncovered that most of the juveniles suffered traumatic childhoods, evidence not presented during trial, he said.

It was Coke's gentle way of interviewing inmates and their families that Stevenson remembers most.

"She had a wonderful way of endearing people to her and persuading people to talk to her about difficult things," Stevenson said.

Coke was last seen by her 15-year-old daughter about 8:30 p.m. Aug. 4 after leaving their home in the 600 block of Aileen Street in North Oakland, reportedly to meet with someone with information about the family's missing dog. Later that night, Coke had been seen with Alana, a high-risk sex offender with a lengthy criminal history whom she dated some 20 years ago, police have said.

Sources said that video has been recovered showing Coke's car crossing the Carquinez Bridge after her disappearance. Coke's car was subsequently found in a West Oakland parking lot, and one of her cellphones was found in Richmond last week.

A massive search unfolded in Solano County, beginning at the Solano County fairgrounds in Vallejo late Thursday and Lagoon Valley Park near Vacaville on Friday, where her body was found.

Alana has been in custody on a parole violation since Aug. 6, and police will say only that he is a person of interest in her disappearance. He has not yet been named a suspect or charged in Coke's death.

Alana is a registered sex offender and has convictions for voluntary manslaughter, rape and kidnapping.

On Tuesday afternoon, Coke's family released a statement thanking law enforcement, the public and others for helping in the search.

"The Coke family is devastated by the loss of our beloved Sandra," the statement read. "She was a loving mother, daughter, sister and auntie, and a shining light in our family; her good cheer, easy laugh and generous hugs will be missed.

"Those of us who were privileged to know Sandra will remember her as an unusually kind, generous and big-hearted person. She passionately devoted her professional life to helping the poor and those who endured difficult childhoods. All of us will miss Sandra's beautiful, giving spirit."

The family also asked for privacy to mourn and thanked friends for creating a fund to provide for her daughter's care and education. Donations to that fund can be made at www.sandracokefund.org.

Staff writers Harry Harris, Erin Ivie and Robert Rogers contributed to this report.