Stiffed

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

Nix took her complaints to the department's command staff, the Police Commission, the Office of Citizens' Complaints, the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, and the mayor's office itself, though the mayor refused to speak with her or the family. "It's a problem of leadership," she says. "I don't know how Gavin Newsom thinks he's going to be elected governor with that kind of record on crime." Nix also took her case to the media (see SF Weekly, "Who Killed Hugues de la Plaza?," July 18, 2007); the story later ran in the Chronicle, The Washington Post, and People magazine.

A federal court stepped in and ordered that a French judge should be allowed to subpoena witnesses and that the San Francisco Police Department should turn over the forensic evidence to French investigators, who have taken it back to Paris. Fong held a rare press conference to claim the SFPD was conducting a parallel investigation and insisted the French authorities were not taking over the case. But Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin called the handoff "simply outrageous," and Mirkarimi says it was a clear sign the police department needs a change. "I like Chief Fong, but she has been chief for four years, which exceeds most chiefs," he says. "So the question is begged to the mayor, why not make a change when homicides and violent crime have gone so wrong? All the mayor is doing is biding time until he can fire her without offending certain constituencies."

One high-ranking police officer who asked not to be identified says the department is still confident that ultimately the de la Plaza investigation will show the Frenchman committed suicide. "As goofy as that case is, we're certain the suicide theory will pan out," he says.


Paul Trapani
The vacant lot off San Jose Avenue where the nude body of John “Daniel” Schirra was found in the fetal position.
Photo courtesy of the Schirra family
The vacant lot off San Jose Avenue where the nude body of John “Daniel” Schirra was found in the fetal position.

Criminology professor David Klinger says that police could be correct in their four murderless stabbing theories. "Someone can commit suicide with a knife and throw it off a balcony onto a roof or in the street, where someone could pick it up," he says. "The mere fact that someone is found stabbed to death and there is no knife does not mean it's a fabulous suicide."

But Klinger says when police are faced with solving such bizarre cases, their credibility means everything with the families' confidence in their theories. "If you have a homicide inspector with years of experience and a reputation for being straightforward and thorough, you're going to give a great deal of weight to his theory," he says. "But if you have a police department with a history of bad recordkeeping, poor collection of evidence, and sloppy investigations, you're not going to have much confidence in what they say."

Barbara Peplies says she is waiting to be confident. She always felt protective of her younger brother. After Bert died, she felt helpless when homicide inspectors appeared to lack interest in solving the case. She traveled to San Francisco, but did not know what to do. She wanted to see the house he died in, but inspectors would not tell her where it was. Out of frustration, she went down to Van Ness and Market and approached people who looked like heroin addicts, on the remote chance they knew him or had heard about the murders in Ingleside Heights. "They were all very nice, but none of them knew him, of course," she says. "I know it was a stupid thing to do."

Shortly after Peplies returned to Tennessee, where she works as a dietician, she went to an emergency room because she was overwhelmed with stress. She still thinks about her brother all the time, and says it has affected her work. "I don't want to think of him as a murderer, but I could accept it if there was some real proof," she says. "But there's nothing we can do until we get hard facts, and we've been waiting."

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