Deeper than the Ocean: the Mysterious Death of Michelle Von Emster
On the night of April 14, 1994, a twenty-five-year-old woman in San Diego died a horrific death.
Everyone who examines the handful of known facts in the mysterious death of Michelle von Emster is in agreement on that. The contentious speculation begins when people talk about how she died.
On her last night alive, Michelle von Empster had planned on attending a Pink Floyd concert with her roommate and friend, Coco Campbell. The band was playing the Jack Murphy stadium as part of their “Division Bell” tour, and Michelle and Coco thought they had purchased tickets for this show. In actuality, these were the wrong tickets for that particular show and the young women were turned away from the stadium that night. On the drive back home to their Ocean Beach neighborhood, Michelle asked Coco to drop her off at the pier six blocks from the two bedroom house they shared as renters. One can’t help but think how much differently von Emster’s life would have played out had the tickets been the right ones and had she attended the concert as planned. Because everything changed as a result of that disappointment.
It was around 8 P.M. when Campbell dropped Michelle off by the ocean and she is the last person known to have seen her alive. She said Michelle was wearing a green trench coat at that time. We can speculate that Michelle was probably bummed, possibly even a little depressed. She had expected to see a great rock concert and now the night was a bust. She didn’t feel like going home and stewing. But what was she planning on doing at the night ocean? Taking a walk? Blowing off some steam? Taking a night swim? That last option probably sounds crazy to most people (this was April and the ocean was sixty degrees) but Michelle had a very intense relationship with the ocean. It was her spiritual touchstone.
Michelle’s body was discovered the next morning a few hundred yards offshore, floating in kelp beds. A group of seagulls “standing on something” caught the attention of two nearby surfers who paddled over. The two men who discovered her must surely have been traumatized, since her injuries were nightmarish. “According to the official report, Michelle’s right leg was missing from the thigh down. In addition, von Emster suffered a broken neck, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, and various scrapes and contusions on her face and torso. There were also large quantities of sand found in her mouth, throat and stomach. The autopsy states that Michelle was alive when her injuries were inflicted, and she would have had to have taken a large breath or gulp for all the sand to end up inside of her.”
Her death was initially ruled an accidental death, with the cause listed as a probable shark attack. Because of the nature of the injuries, it was assumed that only a great white shark could be responsible. Other postmortem injuries were assumed to be the result of scavenging by smaller blue sharks.
This cause of death was later cast into serious doubt once a shark expert, who had initially been consulted only by interview, saw the actual autopsy photos. Others with much experience in this field confirmed that Michelle von Emster almost certainly was never attacked by a great white shark. There were no large punctate wounds like you see in the stomach-turning photos of great white victims, no telltale tooth or teeth left behind, as often happens. The leg that was largely missing was not taken off clean, as is seen in great white attacks.
What remained of Michelle’s largely missing leg terminated in a bone that was described as “whittled.” It came to a point. That bite pattern has not been seen in attacks by this species. And only a great white, the experts told us, can take a human leg off in one go.
Additionally, great white shark attacks on humans are exceedingly rare occurrences in San Diego county. There are really only two documented fatalities in almost a century, and even one of those incidents, the 1959 death of Robert Pamperin, is sometimes seen as suspicious, since no body was recovered and there was only one witness.
The best writing on this mystery in my estimation is the article written by Dave Good published in the San Diego Reader just before the twentieth anniversary of Michelle’s baffling death. Some facts which appear nowhere else are divulged in that piece. If the unnamed lifeguard source quoted in that article is legit, then Michelle was one of the bravest and most daring swimmers in that community, someone who thought nothing of taking to deep waters where others would fear to go. And his account also confirms that she liked to swim (at least partially) nude. Michelle’s body was nude when it was recovered, and this had initially confounded some.
I also like the way Dave Good sings the “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Edwin Decker?” song. He makes no overt judgments on this short term acquaintance of von Emster whom many regard with suspicion to this day. But you get the impression that although Good remains coldly silent and makes no such judgments on some questionable things Decker did after von Emster’s death, that those things probably left a bad taste in his mouth.
For example, people are often put off by the tone-deaf poem dealing with the death of Michelle von Emster which Decker published, wherein his puppy dog infatuation with her and her terrible death are given equal weight, and the savaging of her body by sharks, postmortem, is compared to his love nibbles.
Edwin Decker claims to have had one brief, romantic encounter with her at his apartment the night before she died. Allegedly, this was (weirdly) witnessed by a male coworker who trailed the two home and then hung around as an unwanted third wheel who kept falling asleep on the couch next to them. The account strains credulity somewhat. Decker published some purple prose accounts of that alleged erotic fumble with Michelle on his couch which some will probably consider cringeworthy and in bad taste. Frankly, they read like stalker fan fiction about a stalkee. The general consensus, however, is that he is unlikely to have had anything to do with her death. He pushed to have her case reopened many years after the cause of death had been incorrectly “settled” as a shark fatality. And maybe with the hindsight of age and maturity, Decker regrets the poem and the softcore prose pieces he’s shared online. One hopes so.
Let me for the moment agree with the small handful of people who expressed the belief that Michelle’s injuries were largely consistent with a boating accident and subsequent opportunistic predation by sharks. If she had encountered a human predator on the night beach she was walking, she would have probably died in the usual ways, strangulation or shooting or stabbing. The boating accident theory could be made to fit, if one is willing to believe she would willingly enter that cold night ocean. That’s a hard thing to believe. There was massive trauma (her pelvis was broken) which could be consistent with a boat that never even saw her slamming into her while she was swimming at the surface of the ocean. Who would expect a swimmer off a beach which isn’t usually used for that purpose? And if it was at night, that’s even more reason for boaters to expect no one to be in the very chilly waters.
Probably the leg amputation was the result of contact with the propeller of this boat, followed by postmortem shark predation. In this scenario, she must have bled out very quickly, mercifully. The pathologist consulted by Good on this death (and other pathologists) stated she had to be alive to inhale the sand. I’m not sure if sinking to the ocean bottom after impact could explain this. Or did she end up on a sandbar? For that matter, if she drowned, is it problematic that she’s found floating the very next morning? There can be extreme variability on the time it takes a dead body to float.
Harry Bonnell, the pathologist quoted by Good in his article, states emphatically that, “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.” And yet one can find articles like this, talking about how doctors must sometimes deal with the consequences of such occurrences, where the ingestion/inhalation of sand during near-drownings causes a serious and ongoing threat to life after the initial rescue. It does seem, however, to be a rare thing. And the patient whose case is discussed in that article was in a vehicle that flipped and ended up on the bottom of a body of water.
Bonnell also seemed to imply Michelle was most likely not dead in the ocean for a very long time if the limited wrinkling of her fingertips was to be trusted. I suppose it is possible that Michelle hung out on the beach and ultimately fell asleep there, finally taking that fatal swim the next morning. Or could this mean whoever hit Michelle with a boat the previous night removed her from the water and later returned her to the ocean? This seems far-fetched to me. Most likely it is some anomaly where the finger pruning just doesn’t follow the textbook pattern that pathologists come to expect. So many indices like that are subject to variations due to environmental conditions or other unknown factors.
If you do even a cursory search for the sort of damage inflicted on the bodies of swimmers by boats, you discover that the pelvic injury Michelle sustained is sadly typical. While some of Michelle’s massive injuries might match up with the fall from the cliffs some postulate to be the cause of her death, in that scenario it is harder to make sense of the most serious injury, the missing portion of her right leg.
Not that I don’t think one could make a convincing case for an accidental fall or a poorly misjudged dare dive from the treacherous cliffs. Because the frequency of serious and fatal falls from the Sunset Cliffs and surrounding bluffs is truly astonishing. So this scenario actually has probability on its side. And the medical examiner said many of Michelle’s injuries were consistent with a fall. So maybe she did fall like so many others do there every single year. Maybe she was alive and breathing in the sand of the hard-beating surf and then she was later taken out to sea with the tide. Maybe a boat and its propeller impacted her after that, while she floated, unconscious or already gone.
Maybe that scenario makes more sense than someone deciding to go for a midnight swim in water that could cause hypothermia if one stayed in it too long. But the problem there is that her purse seemed to be neatly placed down on the beach level. Had she been up above, would her purse be down below? I doubt she would leave her purse on the beach unattended if she had climbed up from the beach. But who knows. Maybe she would feel okay doing that if nobody was around or she thought it was unlikely to be noticed while she was briefly up above. If she had fallen, could she have gone undiscovered for the period of time it would take for her body to wash out to sea? How frequently did one see others there at that time of year, at that time of night?
Also, if it was a matter of a fall and she ended up in the ocean that way, would she be discovered nude? Could the force of the ocean currents remove all her clothes?
If Michelle did fall from the cliffs, there is always the possibility that she was pushed or hit by a car. But she could have just fallen doing exactly what so many people were doing when they fell: inching close to the edge to admire the beauty of a sunset over the Pacific.
While theories involving various stalkers, opportunistic murderers and the more outlandish possibilities continue to be floated about, the most likely explanation for the death of this beautiful and spirited young woman is either a boating accident during a night swim or a fall (followed by a postmortem encounter with a boat). I think it’s quite possible the individual or individuals responsible for that brutal leg injury never had a clue what their vessel hit that night. Possibly they thought they ran over driftwood or just the usual Pacific flotsam or jetsam. I suppose this would depend upon the size of the boat.
Unlike the private investigator quoted in Good’s article, I don’t see any sinister meaning in the fact that (in the night swim scenario) someone might have stolen her clothes and yet her purse wasn’t interfered with on that beach. I don’t think that indicates any staging. That sort of thing, what’s nicked and what isn’t, is totally random, and the beach probably was not very well traveled at that time of year, at that time of night. It took until the next night for the purse even to be located and collected. Whether the person who finds the personal effects is the sort to try to return them to their rightful owner or the sort to steal them is pure randomness. It all comes down to what sort of person is walking down the beach at that moment.
I suppose the worst case scenario is that a madman (or madwoman) pushed her off the cliffs and then stripped her of her clothes as she lay on the rocks below, barely alive, gasping sand. And then this monster launched her into the water where her body sustained the last postmortem injuries. But I don’t think it’s likely. Most people who murder people just don’t choose this method of doing it. I’m not saying it never happens. But usually when you hear about murders involving people being pushed from a height, it’s murderers who have an established relationship with the victim, husbands and wives, and so on. (Often the motive is an insurance payout for an accidental death.) This configuration makes sense. Because there is a trust established where you will stand in a dangerous place like that with someone you love and trust. Most people would not want to stand close to a precipice with a stranger they don’t really know. Michelle went to the pier alone that night, a largely random decision. Chances are the only people she encountered there that night were strangers to her. An accidental fall alone could explain everything that happened. Or an ill-advised night swim.
It is unfortunate that the medical examiner didn’t do a rape kit examination, but I think that would have probably yielded a negative result. For an assault, the body’s injuries would have been unimaginable overkill. For a boating accident or a sixty foot cliff fall resulting in a fatality, these are probably horrifically typical injuries.
It makes me so sad to think of Michelle’s fate. She was a cancer survivor, at that young age, and obviously a very brave and self-sufficient woman making her way in the world. She was relying on no one but herself. I find the mystical connection she felt with the ocean and its energy fascinating. One thinks of all the people she would have become in a long life filled with the inevitable vicissitudes. Instead, we are left only with this haunting story and a lingering mystery whose solution may remain one of the sea’s many secrets forever.