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Statistically, they have reason to be skeptical. Self-inflicted stabbing deaths are rare. In 2005, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, 32,637 people committed suicide in the United States. Only 590 did so by cutting or piercing, and of those deaths, most were slashing or cutting to the wrists and, to a lesser degree, the throat, according to Lanny Berman, the director of the American Association of Suicidology. "Suicide by stabbing is very rare, and it's particularly rare for someone to stab themselves in the torso," he says.
Amy Hart, chief of the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, refused to comment for this story about the frequency of self-stabbing suicides, but last year she told de la Plaza's family she had seen only two such cases in her 30 years as a forensic pathologist, and in both cases the victims had a history of psychosis, according to de la Plaza's ex-girlfriend, Melissa Nix, who attended the meeting. (Of the four cases, only Robert Peplies had shown some signs of mental illness, though he had never been officially diagnosed.)
The night he died, Schirra had been at a barbecue. At some point he took his first-ever tab of LSD, according to friends, and began to have a bad trip. Around 11 p.m., he returned to the Oceanview house he shared with several roommates. One friend, Ricky Pugh, was worried about Schirra's state of mind and tried to stay with him. Schirra said he wanted to be alone; he abruptly left on foot in the direction of the Ingleside District. Pugh started to follow, but gave up when it looked like Schirra was heading to a girlfriend's apartment.
In the last few years, the Ingleside has experienced a rise in gang activity and violence. In fact, there had been four murders during the previous four months in the neighborhood.
There is no reliable information about what happened between the time Pugh stopped following Schirra and when Schirra's body was found. The anecdotal information, which is spotty, comes thirdhand from Schirra's friends, who got it from his parents, who got it from police in April.
Police found Schirra's clothes piled up by a bench at Ocean View Park. They told his parents they think he stabbed or cut himself several times, possibly once or more in the throat. The wounds were not life-threatening, but Schirra may have panicked at the sight of blood and tried to get help from two passing motorists and at one residence. At some point, police think he fell on a set of stairs and fatally struck his head. But the police won't say where those stairs are. After the fall, Schirra supposedly made his way to the grassy lot, where he collapsed and died.
Lieutenant Michael Stasko, who took over command of the homicide detail in March, verified some aspects of the theory and added that homicide inspectors spoke to witnesses who saw Schirra that night and claim he did not say he was being chased or threatened.
Lead investigator Kevin Jones could be right with the accident theory, though it is publicly unknown what facts he's using to support it, since the police report is not out yet. Schirra's parents, John and Robin Schirra, find no fault with Jones' work. "The police department was extremely generous with what they found," says John, an engineer who lives in Walnut. "They walked us on the route he took that night and took us to the lot and explained how they found him. We're satisfied."
But the lack of autopsy and police reports, fingerprints, or DNA analysis on a knife that was found have created doubt among some of Schirra's friends. There may be similar doubt among police ranks. Someone in the homicide detail reported his death as a murder by blunt force in its annual report to the California Department of Justice. The state finalized those statistics last month. Stasko says he has been so busy since he took over that he hasn't reviewed the 2007 list and didn't know Schirra's name was on it.
There are also lingering questions about the thoroughness of the homicide investigation. There is an overarching principle in criminal investigation that when there are two or more theories about a particular crime, the investigating agency should pursue them all to their logical conclusions, says David Klinger, dean of the graduate program in criminology at the University of Missouri. So unless police were able to determine for certain that Schirra stabbed himself and then accidentally struck his head, the principle would dictate that they should have continued an aggressive homicide investigation.
Stasko says it is policy to investigate multiple theories if there is not enough evidence to prove one theory over another. "We always investigate anything that could be a homicide," he says. "While we're waiting for the cause of death to be determined, it's full speed ahead." But homicide investigators did not interview residents who live near the lot where Schirra's body was found. "They didn't talk to me or anybody who lives in my building," says Samson Williams, who lives immediately adjacent to the lot. "I didn't see or hear anything, but I have to say it kind of surprised me."