Stiffed

Amidst all the murders in San Francisco, some suspicious deaths are hidden in a secret burial ground of bureaucracy.

Jim Avery, who lives across the street from where Schirra was found, says police did not speak to him either. He says there was an active crack house operating across the street from the lot. Avery says he was attacked for no apparent reason one night. "Some guy punched me to the ground, kicked me a few times, and then ran into the crack house," he says. "There were a lot of problems there. I filed a police report but they never found the guy."


On August 31, 2007, Javier Almanza stopped by the Ingleside Heights home he owns at 26 Sargent Street and found a bloody scene. The body of his ex-wife's friend Robert Peplies, 45, was crumpled in a closed-in porch area near the entrance. Peplies had been stabbed several times in the torso. When police arrived, they found another gruesome scene in the upstairs bedroom. The stabbed and bludgeoned body of Almanza's ex-wife, Linda Almanza, 37, who lived in the house, was at the foot of the bed with gaping wounds in her throat and chest. A bloody metal pipe was near her body, and more than one bloodied knife was found in the residence, according to her autopsy report, which was released in January.

Police are not discussing the Sargent Street case more than a year after the deaths. But the Peplies family is. According to Robert's sister, Barbara Peplies, who lives in Tennessee, the San Francisco homicide detail has performed a very limited investigation. Initially police looked closely at Javier Almanza as a suspect, but once he was ruled out, they began to call the deaths a murder/suicide. The current theory is that Peplies first killed Linda Almanza in the bedroom, and then went downstairs and stabbed himself.

The Peplies family doubts that Robert, whom they called Bert, could be responsible for such a brutal murder, especially since he and Linda had been close friends for 17 years. But they admit it may be in the realm of possibility. Robert had a degree in philosophy, but in later years he developed a heroin addiction. Barbara Peplies says her brother had also begun to exhibit signs of mental illness, though he was never diagnosed. "My brother was a drug addict and he was on a lot of medications," she says, "but Bert was never the type of person who would hurt himself or hurt someone else. And he was so squeamish, I can't imagine him murdering someone and then committing suicide like that."

From the little that is known about the case, there could be a third party involved. Crime scene technicians found blood outside the house, and one neighbor told a reporter that two casually dressed men were seen walking up the stairs to the home the day before the bodies were discovered.

The Peplieses say they became concerned when lead homicide inspector Karen Lynch chose not to interview any of Robert Peplies' friends or the person with whom he shared a small apartment near City Hall. Lynch also declined to read a journal Barbara Peplies found among her brother's belongings.

"When we discussed issues with the inspectors, we got the impression they weren't doing anything," Barbara says. "They seemed to have concluded that Bert had murdered Linda and then committed suicide. My brother knew a lot of shady people, and Inspector Lynch wasn't interested in speaking to any of them. I don't think she cared about investigating this case. She was very cold."

Diane Rigda, who is married to Robert Peplies' stepbrother, says the most important thing for the family is to know what happened. "It's a very big difference whether Bert killed and committed suicide, or was killed by a third person," she says. "It's a big difference, and it would be comforting to have some answers. We've been so upset for the last year not knowing."

More than a year later, police say Peplies' autopsy is still not ready. The delay has been frustrating for the family, because there's a chance the autopsy and crime scene report could answer questions about what happened in the Sargent Street home.

The crime scene report should have fingerprint analysis on the bloody pipe and knives. It may also reveal if there were bloody footprints in the home other than Peplies'. The autopsy may be able to determine whether his wounds were consistent with self-stabbing, or if he had defensive wounds to his hands and forearms. But perhaps most importantly, it should contain critical DNA results. Linda Almanza's killing was so brutal that whoever killed her would likely have been covered in her blood. If the results show her blood was not on Peplies' hair, body, or clothing, there is a strong possibility he did not kill her. And, more chillingly, such a result could mean one or more particularly brutal murderers are still on city streets.

As in the Schirra case, the informational linchpins in the Peplies-Almanza case are the autopsies. The police and the medical examiner will not release any information about the case until the autopsies are complete.

The fact that the autopsies have yet to be completed more than a year after these deaths is troubling, medical and criminal experts say. "The standard time for autopsy reports is 30 days to 60 days," says Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. "There are cases where they take longer if there's complicated toxicology, brain, or cardiac examinations required."

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