Something you don’t see every day: seagulls standing on the ocean. A 20-year-old surfer named David Corriea would tell this to investigators and reporters later. It was a couple hours ahead of sunset and there they were, just standing out there, maybe a half dozen, roosting and pecking on something or other floating outside the break at South Garbage. When curiosity got the better of him, Corriea called out to the only other surfer who was in the vicinity.
William Dostal lived in Loma Portal then. He was a good ten years older than Corriea. He was the closer of the two, so he paddled over. The seagulls scattered at his approach. He took a look at what the birds had been using for a perch, hollered something back in Corriea’s general direction, then turned and paddled in to shore.
Sunset Cliffs abut the Pacific in a rutted sandstone face made unpredictable as all hell by wave and weather action. Chunks of it break free and drop into the sea without notice. Signs warn visitors to observe the heart-achingly romantic expanse of Pacific Ocean from behind salt-rusted guard rails and chains. People get married here. People fall to their deaths here.
The surf breaks along the cliffs all have cryptic names imparted by the locals: Luscomb’s, Subs, Pillars, Needles, Rockslide, No Surf. And, so designated for the stink of rotting kelp, South (and North) Garbage, which lie at the foot of Sunset Cliffs Regional Park. That same Friday morning, an O.B. lifer named Jimmy Johnson had surfed Garbage. When he heard the news about what they found out there later in the afternoon, he renamed the break and started calling it Torso’s until someone in a bar got offended and told him he was in bad taste and to shut the hell up.
On this particular afternoon, there was little surf, which explains why the often jam-packed break at South Garbage was vacant. With the small sets going flat and the evening glass-off coming, Corriea stayed out there for a few more minutes until he too saw in astonishing and horrendous detail what had spooked Dostal: a lifeless body floated up the face of a swell, crested, and slid down the back side of it. It was Friday April 15, 1994.
The first call came in to lifeguard communications at 3:18 p.m. A bystander named Andrew Todd said something about a couple of surfers almost straight out from Point Loma Nazarene University. They appeared to be holding a body. John Liddle and Tom Thayer rolled from the Ocean Beach station at 3:19 p.m. Bruce Robinson and Joe Wade deployed from the lifeguard dock in Mission Beach in a rescue vessel. Lt. Frank Powell and Chief Brant Bass likewise rolled from Mission Beach in separate vehicles.
Liddle and Thayer arrived at the scene at 3:24 p.m. Powell arrived three minutes later. Bass never made it; he was dispatched to another emergency while in transit. Liddle, Powell, and Thayer scanned the expanse of sea from the cliffs at the foot of Ladera Street, but saw nothing. They drove north up Sunset Cliffs Boulevard slowly, and searched all the coves and breaks along the way.
Four minutes later, Robinson and Wade powered through the kelp beds in the rescue boat. They found the victim floating face down a couple of hundred yards off the coast in line of sight of the Point Loma Nazarene athletic field. It was a woman. Except for a few bracelets, rings, and a butterfly tattoo, she was nude. Her long brown hair undulated in the cold currents. Robinson and Wade thought she might have been in her early 20s.
A second lifeguard vessel arrived at the scene to assist in the recovery. By 4:00 p.m., Rescue One was back at the dock at lifeguard headquarters at 2581 Quivira Court with a body bag. The victim was unidentified and since trauma was involved, the Medical Examiner took jurisdiction. An examiner was waiting. His name was Robert Engel.
Engel examined the remains on the deck of Rescue One. In his report, he noted that the body revealed “large, tearing type wounds with missing tissue.” Most of the right leg was gone. He estimated that the woman had not been in the water long. Not a scrap of ID or clothing was recovered with the body. Engel’s report did not specify a precise cause of death, but all involved assumed that at least one shark, and probably many more, had mauled the woman.
During the formal autopsy on Saturday April 16, the extent of the Jane Doe’s injuries told a difficult story of her final minutes. Her face was raw with scrapes and contusions and bruises. Her neck was broken. Her right leg was sheared off mid-thigh. Shredded tissue and bone was all that remained of her mangled buttocks, parts of her arms, and the remaining leg. There were busted ribs, and her pelvis had been pulled apart by brute force. She bled internally, and then she drowned. In other words, she was alive when whatever it was inflicted all this damage.
By the end of the procedure, given what remains he had to work with, San Diego Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne knew a lot about the victim, everything except who she was and why exactly she’d been in the ocean naked and alone.
“We were watching the 10 o’clock news, and they mentioned the unidentified body of a woman with a butterfly tattoo on her shoulder.” It was Saturday night, April 16, 1994. Denise Knox owned Cabrillo Stationary and Office Supply on Newport Avenue in the heart of Ocean Beach in 1994. She had an employee that fit the description. The girl with the butterfly tattoo had not shown up for work on Friday or Saturday. “My husband and I just looked at each other.” Knox dialed the police. They routed her call through to the office of the medical examiner.
“I talked to the coroner for about half an hour.” Knox gave a general description of the woman. He pressed for personal details; there’d been dozens of bogus calls already. Knox told him that the woman in question didn’t shave under her arms. “And she didn’t shave her legs either. And the coroner goes, ‘Okay. Do you think you can come out here?’ And I said, ‘Why? Do you think you have a match?’” Knox called her shop manager, and together they drove to the morgue in Kearny Mesa. They arrived after midnight during the early morning hours of Sunday April 17.
Knox was asked to ID the corpse, but by that point her nerves were shot. Understandably, she didn’t want to look at actual remains. The ME snapped a Polaroid of the victim’s face and brought it out to the waiting room. Knox recognized it immediately. “She looked, I don’t know, peaceful,” Knox recalls of the image. “It was odd.”
Michelle’s body was found in kelp beds a few hundred yards off the coast in line of sight of Point Loma Nazarene University.
Yes, it was her employee, Michelle Von Emster. She was 25. She’d been drifting around Ocean Beach for a couple of years. She was saving up money to move back home and now here she was, dead.
The phrase “white shark” fueled headlines up and down the coast in the days and weeks to follow. “And then, our phone started ringing after that. Reporters, reporters, reporters.” Knox says television news trucks lined up along Newport Avenue and parked in front of her store. A local news crew showed up at her front door. “They thought things didn’t add up. They wanted to get investigators to look into it a little more.” But by then, the case was pretty much closed.
April 15, 2014 marks 20 years since Michelle Von Emster died off Point Loma. The official verdict calls the death accidental, that she drowned in the aftermath of a great white shark attack. Case closed. Local law enforcement followed suit. The ruling of shark attack closed their books as well.
But the community of white shark experts and shark behaviorists and shark defenders in general refuted the autopsy findings for lack of proof. There was no evidence that a white shark had been within 50 miles of that poor woman, they told reporters. To that extent, Blackbourne hadn’t proved his case. But with all of their science and expertise, the shark authorities couldn’t prove it had been anything else.
“If it wasn’t a white shark,” Brian Blackbourne asked in the days following what surely was the highest profile case of his career to date, “then what was it?” That’s a question that remains unanswered to this day. Shark authorities refused to list Von Emster as a fatality with any of the accredited records-keeping institutions such as the Shark Research Committee and the International Shark Attack File. Von Emster’s official death status went from being a statistic to one of morbid limbo in which there is no end to the speculation.
During two years of investigation, I heard stories to the effect that Von Emster dove or got pushed or accidentally tumbled to her death off Sunset Cliffs; she got run over by a boat while night surfing, or hit by a car and pitched over the sea rail; she overdosed at a party and her body was dumped off the side of a boat; she was in a pornographic snuff film; she loaded up on LSD at a concert and went for a fatal ocean swim later; she committed suicide; she went over the falls and face planted in a body surfing accident that snapped her neck; she cheated a dope dealer and he drowned her; she was the victim of a stalker or an O.B. nut job — take your pick.
Michelle Von Emster grew up in San Carlos, California on the San Francisco peninsula, one of five girls. She graduated from all-girl Notre Dame High School in 1986. She did a couple of years at St. Mary’s college, but cancer put her plans for a higher education on hold. When she emerged a year later from that chamber of radiation horrors, she hit the road. Von Emster told a friend in San Diego that she’d gone to Europe but her mother, Bernadette, cast doubt on that story when she told local reporters that her daughter had never really gone anywhere.
During the fall of 1992, Von Emster settled into a rented house on Poinsettia Drive in Loma Portal. She drifted to Ocean Beach next, and thereafter from one living situation to the next over two years. She took rooms in nicer homes that were similar perhaps to the one she grew up in at first. But each subsequent move took her a little further down the hill each time toward the beach until she reached her final destination. It was a shared two-bedroom at 4999 Muir Avenue in a sleazy Ocean Beach neighborhood known as the War Zone, known for drugs, mayhem, and cheap rent. She lived off the grid. She did not own a car. She settled for minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet.
“I am personally very interested in art,” she wrote in a perpendicular, feminine scroll across the top of what would be her last job application. Von Emster came to Cabrillo Stationary and Office Supply in 1994 with a story: she was being stalked at her other job at Rumors coffee shop. She figured that working days would get the stalker off her back. No, the stalker didn’t have a name, but he rode a motorcycle. She knew that much.
“I first met her at Rumors, probably around February 1994,” an O.B. writer/bartender named Edwin Decker says. “The coffee shop was owned by Bill Winston, who also owned Winston’s, the bar I worked in. The two buildings were connected so the back door of Winston’s was also the back door of Rumors. I would often go into Rumors through that door and get a coffee before my shift. I was instantly attracted to her.” He remembers a pretty woman who dressed in jeans and girly tops and who sported much patchouli oil. A hippie vibe. “Aside from her beauty, which was soft and warm, and wholly feminine, she was intelligent.” She told him she liked to surf naked.
People who knew Michelle talked about her to the media in the days following April 15, but their accounts rarely jibed: she was a health food purist, or, she partied and drank and smoked cigarettes. She’d had leukemia, or, was it Hodgkin’s Lymphoma? She had a C-section scar, or, she’d had an abortion. She meditated daily on the beach, or, she feared the ocean. All of them, or none of them, could have been true with one exception: Von Emster, in fact, loved the ocean. And although not a single one of the old timers that still surf O.B. regularly can recall ever seeing a naked woman out on the waves, she spent a lot of time in the sea.
“I saw Michelle Von Emster twice. Once in the ocean, and then again when they brought her body in to the lifeguard dock,” says a lifeguard who asked to remain anonymous due to what he called the sensitivity that lingers around the story to this day.
He says he was off-duty and free diving for lobster off South Garbage beach one afternoon in 1993. He thinks it was sometime during October. “The water was still fairly warm, so it must have been October. I saw someone swimming far out, farther out than you’d expect to see a human swimming.” The lifeguard was wearing a six mil wetsuit against the Pacific chill. “It gets too cold after 10 or 20 minutes.”
The swimmer was angling back toward the beach. As the swimmer got closer, he realized that it was a woman. At the time, he couldn’t have known her name, just that she was a strong and obviously fearless swimmer and impervious to the cold. The lifeguard was in 20 feet of water and looking down at the bottom. “Maybe it was a little deeper. It seemed odd to see her. I said, ‘What are you doing out here?’”
There was a man swimming near her too. “I took him to be a military guy by the haircut.” The lifeguard and the woman treaded water for a few minutes and chatted. Then, she continued her swim on back to shore and he resumed his quest for bugs.
Was she naked?
“Topless. I wasn’t going to say that, but you asked. She was topless.”
What no one could have known on that fall day was that in seven months, the woman’s remains would be recovered from that same stretch of ocean.
Denise Knox keeps a folder thick with newspaper clippings in her home in Ocean Beach. Von Emster’s application for employment is in there, along with dozens of little pink post-it-note accordions jotted with fragments of details from the tsunami of calls that clogged Cabrillo Stationary’s telephone in the days after the media learned that Von Emster had worked there.
The folder contains a copy of Boating magazine, the one with Neal Matthews’s feature story in it titled “Who Killed Michelle Von Emster?” and a photocopy of Von Emster’s autopsy report. How Knox got it was via an O.B. local who had somehow gotten his hands on a copy. He would come again and again to Cabrillo and demand that duplicates be made. Knox kept one for herself. On the last page “Blue sharks? Bullshit!” is scrawled in the man’s big shaky block lettering.
“The weird guy who wanted all those copies of her autopsy?” Knox says. “He rode a motorcycle too.”
Three days after the recovery of Michelle’s body, a shark expert named Ralph Collier was quoted in the San Diego Union-Tribune as saying that “on the basis of preliminary reports, the shark attack diagnosis was probably valid.” Barring new evidence, he said Von Emster’s death would be the first confirmed shark-bite fatality along the Pacific Coast of the United States since 1989. But that was before he’d seen the actual remains of the leg bone, which was all the evidence he needed to change his mind about what had killed Michelle Von Emster.
“One of the things that struck me was the condition of the limb,” Collier said when I reached him by phone in 2013. “When a white shark bites off part of a limb, the break is clean, almost like you put it on a table saw. What remained of Michelle’s femur was anything but. It looked like what happens when you get a piece of bamboo and whittle it down to a point with a knife. The bone came to a point. This type of injury is caused when a bone is twisted under a great deal of force.”
For example, he said, a boat’s propeller could have caused such an injury, but not a shark bite. “I’ve looked at close to 100 photos of cases that I have reviewed over the years, and I’ve never seen any bones that came to a point.”
Collier is recognized internationally as the leading authority on Pacific coast white shark behavior and ecology. Founder of the Shark Research Committee, he is the author of Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century: from the Pacific Coast of North America. He spoke with Brian Blackbourne in April 1994.
“They had finished the autopsy by then, and she [Michelle] was not available to me.” He said that Blackbourne had preserved part of Von Emster’s femur for examination.
But something else in the autopsy report bothered Collier. “Sand was found in her mouth, in her throat, in her nasal passages, her lungs, and in her stomach. For all this to have happened in accordance with the autopsy findings, the shark would have had to have grabbed Michelle and pushed her face first into the ocean bottom in order for her to have ingested all this material.” He said white sharks don’t do that. And in order for sand to have gotten into her lungs, Collier says she would have to have been alive, which would have been impossible if a white shark had indeed bitten off her leg.
“The damage would have severed her femoral artery and she would have bled to death quickly. But for her to have sand in her stomach, she had to take a big gulping breath as she made contact with the sand. After I reviewed the data, that’s all I could come up with. He also noted numerous cuts and bruising. “She likewise had to have received those injuries while she was still alive.”
The last straw was the complete absence of any white shark tooth impressions among the many bite marks visible on Von Emster’s torso. Collier said that white shark fangs leave specific and easily identifiable impressions. “We can even determine the size of the shark from the tooth impression.” There were no such tooth impressions anywhere on Michelle’s body from a white shark. “There are too many things in this case that are not consistent with white shark behavior.”
By his own admission, Brian Blackbourne had never seen a shark fatality during his time in San Diego. Nor had anyone else working on the investigative teams witnessed anything like this. In all fairness, few people have; death by shark along the California coast is an extraordinarily rare event. In 1994, there had been seven recorded since 1926, and only one in San Diego. So Blackbourne did what anybody else might do when faced with a sea monster of unimaginable proportions: he reached out to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
“A body had been found of a woman, with a leg off, naked. It was very peculiar.” Long since retired, 84-year-old Richard Rosenblatt was chairman at that time of the graduate department and professor of marine biology at Scripps. “Her clothes, I think, and her purse was found up on the cliffs. How did they get there? And what in hell was she doing in the water at this time of night?” He tells me by phone that he consulted Blackbourne from afar, as he put it. “I never saw the body.”
Instead, Rosenblatt invited Blackbourne and a forensic dentist named Skip Sperber to meet him at Scripps. “I told them that if a shark had taken the leg, it could only have been a white shark. But there were other wounds on the body in addition to the leg that was gone.” Rosenblatt made a display of local shark jaws from the lab’s collection for his visitors.
“You can tell a lot about the type of shark by the bite marks it leaves. I showed them the different shark jaws, and I explained how they worked.” He performed a gruesome puppet show with the shark cadaver jaws for the medical examiner. True enough, the only shark in the sea big enough to inflict such damage on a human femur bone is the great white shark, a beast that can reach 5000 pounds and has a bite, according to experts, comparable to a T. Rex. But even Rosenblatt had his doubts.
“This was not great white shark behavior, to hunt at night.” White sharks, he explains, have light-activated retinas. “They come up from the bottom and aim at the silhouette of a seal in daylight.” Rosenblatt says that the multitude of other wounds on the woman’s body, based on the measurements provided, were not a white shark’s.
“They could have been done by blue sharks, but blues generally favor deeper water than where the body was found.” Von Emster’s body was recovered in about 10 feet of water. “The smoking gun,” he admits, “would have been to have found a [white shark] tooth broken off somewhere in the body.”
No such fragment was ever recovered.
If Edwin Decker’s memory is correct, Michelle Von Emster likely woke up on the last day of her life with a hangover. On the night of Wednesday, April 13, after weeks of flirting, Decker convinced her to have drinks with him at Winston’s. After, they bought a 12-pack of beer and smokes and walked the few blocks to Decker’s apartment over on Lotus Street. They stayed up and drank until dawn. During the course of numerous email exchanges, Decker forwarded the details of how that night went down. What he sent me is basically a rehash of the same story that he published under titles such as “Send in the Sharks” and “Open and Shut: Revisiting the mysterious death of Michelle von Emster.”
“On the walk home, a car drove up beside us. It was the bouncer from Winston’s who was still supposed to be at the bar working. He pulled over, nearly in tears, and said that Bill Winston had just fired him. Apparently, just after we left, some guy came in and started some shit. I guess the doorman was unable to handle the situation and the guy ripped the front door off its hinges. Bill told him, “You’re the doorman. At the very least you have to protect the door,” and sent him packing. Anyway, so there he is in his car on the side of the road, this big guy fighting back the tears, and he asks if he could come over with us. Wow. Talk about a cock block.”
The ex-doorman settled in for the night. He drank beers until he passed out. “So, [Michelle and I] went for it, kissing and groping, second base stuff only, and he would wake up every 15 minutes and grumble, ‘I gotta go to work,’ and then pass out again.” They drank until dawn. They exchanged numbers. At 5:00 a.m. on the morning of April 14, Michelle took a cab the few short blocks home to 4999 Muir Street, and that was it. Decker never heard from her again.
“There was a total intellectual connection. I felt there was an emotional connection too, at least on my part there was, and we also had a physical connection.” He was certain she’d ring him. “I was so bummed when a couple of days went by and she hadn’t called. I was about to give up on the idea.”
Right about that time TV news began to broadcast reports about a young female shark victim off Sunset Cliffs. “I remember them saying something about a butterfly on her shoulder, probably because they were trying to identify her. I remember a cold sinking feeling that it was Michelle, even though I knew the odds were against it. Still, something told me it was.”
Decker did not contact the police. He assumed they already had the victim’s identity and were withholding it pending notification of her family. Instead, shaken, he wrote a poem titled “Shark Attack,” which was later published in a collection of his poetry titled Barzilla and Other Psalms:
“The reports said there was a tattoo/ a butterfly on her shoulder/ which I remembered that night/ on my couch when I/ like the shark/ chewed on her lips and took off her shirt.”
Coco Campbell, Von Emster’s roommate at the time, according to police records and newspaper accounts, told investigators that early on the evening of April 14 she and Michelle had unsuccessfully tried to gain admission to a concert. (Pink Floyd was at Jack Murphy Stadium (now Qualcomm) on that night; possibly this was the show she referenced; in any event, Campbell has repeatedly declined to make comment for the story.)
Campbell told SDPD that she dropped Von Emster off somewhere along Newport Avenue after 8:00 p.m., that Michelle was in a strange mood, and that she didn’t want to go home just then. Police notes (the file was destroyed per department policy seven years after Von Emster’s death; what remains of the death investigation today is only a fact sheet) say that according to Campbell, Von Emster was wearing a green trench coat. She told them that Michelle never came home that night.
Based solely on Campbell’s account, Brian Blackbourne’s timeline puts Von Emster in the ocean sometime around midnight. Records show the air temperature was 57 degrees, and that the water temperature was hovering around the 59-degree mark. The tide was high and the incoming surge generated three-foot waves that would have been smacking the coastline. The sky was overcast and blocked out the new moon. The sea would have been dark and foreboding on that night but Von Emster went in anyway, alone and naked. There was not a single witness to this, but that was Blackbourne’s story, and he was sticking with it.
Some 14 years later, Glenn Wagner, Blackbourne’s replacement as medical examiner, would stick by his predecessor’s story as well.
On a bright fall day, one ripe with late season heat, I meet with Harry Bonnell, MD, at his home in San Carlos. Long since retired from a career as a pathologist, Bonnell is wearing shorts and an old T-shirt of the sort a man would wear to rough house with dogs. He has two of them, both mutts, both staring with pitiful expressions through a sliding glass door. They have been banished to the patio for the duration of our visit. He and I sit in opposite chairs at a dining table in the breezeway as if preparing for a card game.
I’ve asked Bonnell, who is listed as having been witness to Michelle Von Emster’s autopsy, to decipher the medical language in the death report. “I didn’t witness this autopsy,” he says for starters, “even though Blackbourne says I did. I’m sure I would remember a shark attack like this one. But I wasn’t there.” He explains the discrepancy away as more or less being a CYA habit of Blackbourne’s. “It was his custom to list witnesses, in case there were any questions. He was covering himself. It’s a policy in the case of homicides,” he adds, “that there will be a witnessing pathologist.”
For the next couple of hours we conduct a line-item examination of the documents. “There is no evidence [in the autopsy report] that says the shark attack was ante mortem,” he says, meaning before death. “There was a neck injury gotten while she was alive that could have incapacitated her. There is good evidence that she drowned, and that she was alive when she went out into the water.”
We talk about the sand found in her lungs. “She inhaled it. It didn’t get there passively. The sand was in the bronchi. To get there, it had to have been inhaled.” He explains that soot in the bronchi is a criterion for determining whether a victim was alive or dead during a fire, for example. “If there’s soot down in the lungs, they were alive.” Bonnell says sand is never seen in the lungs of drowning victims. “They are not at the bottom inhaling sand. They are at the top, thrashing about.
“Next, the fracture with hemorrhaging: this is not what you would expect in a case of shark bite. This is not common in shark attacks, where a body gets shaken hard to the point of a whiplash. This is something you’d see in an attack by a land animal.”
He notes what he thinks are interesting things in the investigator’s report. “No wrinkling of the fingers (a slight amount of wrinkling is accounted for the next day in the autopsy report), which you’d expect if she’d been in the water any length of time. I don’t think she was [deceased] in the water very long.” I press him to come up with a number. “Take away the finger wrinkling, and it is hard to tell. There is no way to tell how long.” Alive, however, is a different story. “I would say that she was not alive in the water for more than 30 minutes. The subcutaneous bleed only lasted for a few minutes.”
I ask if in his opinion Von Emster died in the manner suggested. “It could have happened if she was at the bottom and couldn’t get away. It’s possible,” he says, “but it’s not probable.” I tell Bonnell the medical examiner’s backstory about what happened that night reads like the opening scenes from Jaws.
“Well,” he laughs, “Brian Blackbourne did work in Massachusetts once.” Blackbourne eventually retired to North Carolina. He died on a Sunday in October of 2012.
There has only been one undisputed shark fatality in San Diego waters. On Friday, April 25, 2008, a 66-year-old man was fatally attacked by what authorities suspect was a great white shark. Dave Martin was swimming with a small group off the coast near Solana Beach when he was bitten. No one saw the shark, but the breadth of the gashes across the man’s legs indicated that a great white was to blame.
“I did see his body,” Richard Rosenblatt says. “That shark had both legs in its mouth. There is no doubt it was a white shark.”
News reports following Martin’s death invoked the names of San Diego’s other two shark victims: the controversial tale of Robert Pamperin’s disappearance off Alligator Head in La Jolla in 1959, and that of Michelle Von Emster. Except that in her case, reporters noted, she was no longer considered a shark fatality by experts, and that her name had subsequently been erased from all such registries worldwide. When writer Neal Matthews got wind of this, he reached out to Decker. In 1994, Matthews had written the only investigative piece of journalism about the case. On June 3, 2008, the two writers crafted a letter to Glenn Wagner:
“In light of the fatal shark attack off Solana Beach April 25, we are writing to ask you to take another look at the accidental death finding in the case of Michelle Von Emster, whose remains were found floating off Pt. Loma on April 15, 1994,” they wrote. “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.” They wanted him to re-open the case.
It took Wagner only two days to reply. He noted Ralph Collier’s impression that Von Emster had drowned first, leaving her body to be scavenged post mortem by sharks. “I suspect that is why the case is not listed as a verified great white shark attack.” Such listings, he noted, “are independent of coroner/medical examiner rulings.”
In nearly two pages of terse single-spaced script, Wagner answered the author’s layman claims with what he considered was good science on Blackbourne’s part. He agreed that there are issues for which there are simply no explanations. He even agreed that the broken neck, ribs, and pelvic trauma, for example, were “atypical of shark injuries.”
Wagner also made mention of the curious disposition of Von Emster’s personal effects: “There is no further information that I am aware of today relative to why she was found nude and some distance from where her purse [sic] and its recovered contents.”
Von Emster’s body was found about a half-mile south of where her purse was found on the beach. There were reports at first of the purse having been found on a bluff overlooking Sunset Cliffs. But police records say that a local found Von Emster’s purse at around 11:00 p.m. on Friday, April 15. He’d been flashlight-walking along the seawall not far from the O.B. pier with his girlfriend. His beam picked up the purse sitting on the sand at the base of the wall. He turned it over to authorities on Sunday after he realized what he’d found.
The contents as inventoried: Von Emster’s driver’s license, some keys, a pack of cigarettes, a pay stub, and a few items of makeup. Inside was a fanny pack, and inside that was $27 in cash. According to Denise Knox, her next-to-last paycheck was never recovered. Nor was it ever cashed.
By day, that strip of beach is heavily used. If Von Emster stashed it there and went for a swim sometime after 8:00 p.m. the night before, then the purse had to have sat out in plain view all day Friday. But this, and the fact that it was found with money intact, sent up no red flags among the police who investigated the case. They said as much to U-T reporters. A retired private investigator I presented this information to had a different opinion:
“It still had money inside it,” said Ben Harroll, “because it hadn’t been on the beach that long.” And that means that someone else was involved, he said.
None of Von Emster’s clothing was recovered by authorities. That green trench coat and whatever she had on underneath it simply disappeared, just like her final hours on that Thursday night in Ocean Beach.