Open and ShutRevisiting the mysterious death of Michelle von EmsterJuly 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.
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.
Click here to read my original column about Michelle