Open and ShutRevisiting the mysterious death of Michelle von Emster

July 23, 2008

I just got off the phone with Ralph Collier of the International Shark Committee and am utterly blown away. My knees are weak. My brain is in a haze. And now I’m looking at the blank screen that will become this column thinking, Where on Earth do I begin?

In 1994, a “friend” of mine was killed by a “shark” in the waters off Ocean Beach. I put quotes around the word “friend” because Michelle von Emster wasn’t a friend-friend, nor was she a girlfriend. She was a young woman whom I fancied for several months, whom I eventually asked out on a date and who accepted.
We went out to Winston’s, a bar in Ocean Beach, watched bands and drank liquor. At about midnight, we left the bar, bought some beer and cigarettes, returned to my pad and sat on the couch, where we talked and flirted all night. At one point, she let me take off her shirt so I could see the large butterfly tattoo on her right shoulder blade, after which we kissed and fondled each other until well past dawn.

I was crazy about Michelle and was looking forward to seeing her again, and again, and again. But late the next night, Michelle went skinny-dipping off Sunset Cliffs and was attacked and killed by a “shark.”

I put the word “shark” in quotes because now (thanks in part to phone my conversation with Collier) I don’t believe that’s what killed her.

Here’s your backstory:

Remember the shark attack in Solana Beach this past April, when Dr. David Martin was killed by a great white? Well, that incident put Michelle’s name back in the news, having been one of only three people killed by a shark in San Diego, Dr. Martin being the third.

However, I noticed something peculiar about the reporting. Not every news outlet cited the same statistic. In fact, some of the reports listed Dr. Martin’s death as only the second shark fatality in the area, such as ABC News, which reported that “the last fatal shark attack in Southern California was in 1959.” And Surfline.com reported the same thing. Even the Union-Tribune (North County edition) reported back in April, “The only fatal shark attack in San Diego County listed by the International Shark Attack File… is the 1959 death of Robert Pamperin at Alligator Head in La Jolla.”

I was very confused. Michelle was killed by a shark in 1994. The police said it, the media said it and the county Medical Examiner confirmed it. So why was Michelle being ignored by so many news organizations?

Rush to judgment

At the time of Michelle’s death, journalist Neal Matthews wrote a controversial story, published in Boating magazine called “Who Killed Michelle von Emster?” In the article, he chronicled the reasons why it may not have been a shark that killed Michelle and that there may have been a rush to judgment by the police (who passed the case off to the coroner without batting an eye), the coroner (who neither performed a sexual-assault examination nor took her liver temperature to determine an accurate time of death) and the media (which didn’t view the official story with skepticism).

It was Matthews who told me that the reason for the conflicting stats is because the International Shark File (ISAF)—the world’s leading authority of all known shark attacks—did not list Michelle as a confirmed shark fatality based on a lack of evidence.

So why the rush to judgment when the shark experts said otherwise?

The manner in which I learned Michelle had been killed by a “shark” was brutal. It was three days after our dream date, and I was watching television. I was depressed because she had not called, assuming she was not all that impressed with me after all.

I remember sitting on the couch, sullen, watching a local news channel, when a live, on-the-scene report came on about a dead woman who’d just been pulled from the water. They didn’t know who she was yet, but the field reporter mentioned an identifying mark on her right shoulder blade. It was half of a large butterfly tattoo, apparently just the wing. The rest of the butterfly, it was surmised, was bitten off by a shark.

It can’t be her, I thought.

I don’t remember much else about that day, except that, from the first utterance of “shark,” the snowball started rolling down the mountain, increasing in size, momentum and ferocity. The verdict was in long before the autopsy. The harbor police said “shark,” the lifeguards said “shark,” the coroner said “shark,” the media said “shark,” most of the public said “shark”—so I believed shark. But the shark experts, unbeknownst to me, all said, “Um, no, probably not shark.”

A plea for due diligence

Shortly after he contacted me last June, I met Matthews for coffee. It was a productive meeting; we decided that there’s enough evidence to justify a request to reopen the case. We knew it was a long shot, but we concluded that it was one worth taking, especially since a new chief medical examiner had taken office. His name is Dr. Glenn N. Wagner, and we sent him a formal request, by post:

“Dear Dr. Wagner, We are writing to ask you to take another look at the accidental death finding in the case of Michelle von Emster…. We are writers with special interests in the von Emster case. One of us dated Michelle briefly before her death, and the other investigated the case for a story published in Boating magazine in 1994. We believe Dr. Brian Blackbourne’s [the previous coroner] conclusions may have been biased because others in the community rushed to judgment about this being a white shark attack.

Neal Matthews, Edwin Decker”

Dr. Wagner responded by post about a week later. The gist was that there did seem to be some questionable evidence, or lack of, but not enough to amend her death certificate, and he closed his letter by saying that “any case can and will be reopened if additional validated information surfaces.”

So what of this questionable or missing evidence? Before we begin, it should be noted that smaller, blue sharks did feed on Michelle’s body post-mortem. It’s whether she was killed by a shark that Matthews and I question.

Here’s why:

1. The Severed Leg Problem: Michelle’s leg was cut clean off—not particularly splintered or sheared, as you would expect in a great white attack. In Matthew’s 1994 story, George Burgess of the ISAF says he never saw a cut like that in a shark attack. Furthermore, large sharks leave distinctive tooth scrapes and bite marks on bone, yet the leg stump had no such markings.

2. Blunt Force Injuries: Michelle’s autopsy revealed that she had a broken pelvis, broken neck and bruised and broken ribs. The coroner said this probably happened when the shark took Michelle’s body down to the bottom and collided with the ocean floor. Only problem is, every shark expert I, and Matthews, spoke with has said they never saw a case where this has happened. White sharks are known to bite and back off. Even Wagner, the current coroner, in his response to our June 7 letter, said that these injuries were “atypical for shark injuries.”

3. Clothes Never Found: Michelle’s body was discovered nude; her clothes were never found. So where did her clothes go?

4. Conspicuous Purse: Michelle’s purse was found the next day by the seawall, out in the open, its contents—$27, cigarettes, driver’s license and makeup—seemingly undisturbed. Question: If you’re going to go skinny-dipping late at night, would you leave your purse in such a conspicuous location? And wouldn’t you keep your clothes and your purse together, in one spot?

5. Conditions: It was a midnight swim, in April, when the water was still quite cold—60 degrees, to be exact, which is not a pleasant swimming temperature, especially without a wetsuit, which she owned and kept in her apartment a few blocks away but, for some reason, did not use.

6. Improbability: In 1994, not counting Michelle, there had been only one shark attack in San Diego, and that was nearly 50 years ago. The sheer improbability of it should’ve been enough to make investigators thoroughly scrutinize her case. At the very least, they should’ve questioned me. I was one of the last people to see her. And, I went on a date with her. Everybody knows that when you have a suspicious death, you look at the romantic interests: the husband, the boyfriend or, in this case, the suitors. It just seemed like nobody wanted to be bothered, that the snowball had already rolled down the hill, and the snowball said “Shark.”

Enter Ralph Collier

Collier, president and founder of the Shark Research Committee (SRC), is a consultant to all medical examiners along the Pacific Coast of North America. He has published more articles on great white shark attacks than any other ichthyologist in the world. He wrote a book called Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century, which details every shark bite on the Pacific Coast. Collier reviewed Michelle’s case in 1994 and re-reviewed it in 2003. Today, Monday, July 7, 2008, I spoke with him on the phone.

Collier said the blunt force trauma could’ve happened from a fall off the cliffs. He said her leg could have been cut off by a passing motorboat’s propeller. He said she could’ve run into some bad people who did something terrible to her and dumped her in the water. He said there were a thousand possibilities as to what might have happened to Michelle—except being killed by a shark.

“Michelle von Emster,” he said, “was unequivocally not killed by a shark.”

He also said I was wasting my time trying to get the case reopened, unless a witness comes forward, which brings me to the reason for this column.

After our conversation, I couldn’t get the “what if” scenario out of my mind. What if somebody hurt her? What if her killer is still out there? What if there is somebody reading this right now who knows something. I know it’s probably futile, but maybe that person is ready to come forward with some information that might provoke the coroner to reopen this case. So, are you out there? Come out, come out wherever you are.

Edwin Decker


Click here to read my original column about Michelle


  1. No intelligent idea can gain general acceptance unless some stupidity is mixed in with it.FernandoPessoaFernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

  2. excellent work.very poor investigating by the police. My guess is the sharks fed post mordum

  3. Was it necessary to include the weird tales of flirting with Michelle the night before? Even if true you would think you’d keep that bit private. Makes me wonder what else you might be making up about this poor unfortunate victim of man or beast, not like she’s around to say “who the heck is this guy anyway!” Perhaps you should write about your date with Miley Cyrus.

  4. Did you kill her?

  5. Saw the coroner’s photos in a forensics class. Sure looked like shark bites to me. Yes, the leg is gone neatly but consistent if it grabbed her in a lateral bite. As I recall, there is also a torso or upper thigh wound with an elliptical edge, which would be consistent with the curvature of the shark’s mouth. Did not look like propeller cuts at all. Feels like the original conclusion was correct. Did not know the vic’s ID at all, but remembered the case–and the photos–very well.

    • Wow, thanks for the information Thinker, mind if I post that on my website?


      • Sure. Go ahead. No prob.

  6. If this is the same case (not sure) I knew a guy who was dating her at the time. He was from Illinois and came back a year or so after her death. It was well known by everyone that he had known this girl in some capacity because he was interviewed on a Current Affair. The story I always heard was that they (Jason Ducey and Michelle) had been at a Pink Floyd Concert, they were also tripping on LSD. They were headed back and she decided that she wanted to skinny dip and Jason declined. I also heard that she was going through her monthly female cycle at the time which some have speculated might have contributed to the attack. It is very strange that her clothes were never found and swimming in 60 degree water is not only unpleasant but dangerous. If you were dosing on LSD it might be tolerable on some level but the cold would still get you eventually. I haven’t seen that guy in years. He was my roommate for a short time and judging from that experience I can tell you – Jason could not have been behind “planting” the purse because if he was there would not have been $27 dollars in it! That guy was always broke as a joke and probably still owes me money!

    • Scott — I’ve gotten a book deal to write this story. Please contact me davegoodmail@gmail.com

    • Jason Ducey was my brother. Her death haunted him until the day he died last December.

  7. Nice work. I was living in OB at the time this occurred and found the whole situation kind of odd. In a city where surfing is a huuuge activity, it seemed really odd to me how little press it got.

    I figured maybe the Mayor got to the news stations or something and didn’t want tourism to get hurt. But it was all but forgotten within a week.

    As a surfer in San Diego, I had researched shark attacks and shark sightings and knew that great whites were common throughout socal, and Sunset Cliffs was definitely a hot spot. sea lions in san diego bay, plenty of fish off the reefs, etc, made it a prime location… So the thought of a great white attack occurring seemed plausible enough…

    But then I noticed that it was not talked about as a confirmed shark attack, and strangely enough, no surfers I knew talked about it. Ask any surfer and they’ll tell you about the diver in la jolla, the swimmer in solana beach, numerous bumps and sightings at blacks beach and la jolla cove (only a matter of time till another attack happens there with all the sea lions). As surfers we are drawn to news of shark attacks, as it is a fear each of us has, especially those who have seen large sharks in the water with us.

    I think the powers that be breathed a sigh of relief when the shark attack story faded, and the last thing they wanted was for it to be replaced by a homicide investigation of a pretty young woman.

    Lets face it, after surfers and tourism, the next major industry in San Diego is the 100,000 + college students at the major universities in the area. That couldn’t be good for recruitment or tourism.

    The City wanted this story dead, they weren’t going to look into it any more than they had too. Kudos to your efforts. Perhaps if Michelle was a city councilman’s daughter, it would have been met with a bit more attention to detail.

  8. This analysis seems flawed in two material respects.

    First, the attack is entirely consistent with almost all other White shark attacks on humans along CA: a single or series of bites where a single leg is consumed, with the rest of the human victim left untouched.

    Second, White sharks are known to attack people in the same manner as described by the coroner. However, unlike Tiger sharks, White sharks are not known to actively scavenge on humans. If they do, they typically devour the entire body.

    Just this: if the decedent was indeed swimming alone, at night, in deeper water…she was “breaching” three known rules that should be followed to avoid a White shark attack. The fact one happened tends to prove she broke the rules and paid the price. RIP

  9. Keep on ’em on its way…people all of the implement this type of best wishes with these Principles…cannot explain what amount WE, understanding enjoy all you can!

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