Murder or Suicide?

S.F. investigators explain why Hugues de la Plaza's stabbing death wasn't ruled a homicide.

Hugues de la Plaza, a 36-year-old French sound engineer living in San Francisco, began the evening of June 1, 2007, in pursuit of what writers for Paris Match deemed his avocation as an “anarchist-sensualist.”

According to investigators, he went to a local bar hoping to meet a woman, but failed. He called a friend on his cellphone to set up a double date, but the friend said it was late and time for bed. Back at his Hayes Valley apartment well past midnight, de la Plaza fired up his laptop and began perusing pornographic Web sites before turning to Craigslist. He went outside to the stoop, then came back inside and locked the deadbolt. Bleeding, he walked around, touching light switches and doorknobs, leaving bloody smears on each. He went to the kitchen sink and paused before walking to his living room, lying down near his coffee table, and thrashing around on the floor until he bled to death.

Between the point when de la Plaza stopped browsing the Internet and when he expired on the floor, something happened to cause a knife to enter his chest three times.

But the failure of the San Francisco Medical Examiner's office and city homicide inspectors to determine whether he committed suicide or was killed has provoked an international scandal. Forensic and crime investigators have been accused of incompetence or worse: possible complicity in a conspiracy aimed at disguising the number of homicides committed in San Francisco.

“It was a calculated case of not wanting to investigate this as a murder,” said Melissa Nix, who used to date de la Plaza and remained friends with him. “With a mayor who was thinking about running for governor, they just wanted this to go away.”

In mid-September, I was at the Hyatt Regency attending the annual meeting of the National Association of Medical Examiners, where I watched forensic pathologist Venus Azar and SFPD homicide inspector Antonio Casillas make public for the first time their rationale for failing to resolve the case. Their presentation was called “A Disturbing Case: Suicide or Homicide: A Team Approach.”

The evidence surrounding de la Plaza's death was so baffling as to give them no choice but to leave his cause of death as “undetermined,” they asserted. It came in advance of what is sure to be an explosion of renewed public interest. On Nov. 14, the CBS true-crime series, 48 Hours, will show an episode dedicated to the case. A French documentary is scheduled to air the same month.

Azar and Casillas' presentation may have been a self-serving attempt to spin their peers before they see the latest round of embarrassing news stories. But I left the conference convinced that the evidence isn't nearly as clear-cut as reporting about the case has made it out to be. It's possible to wonder whether de la Plaza might have been victim of a very peculiar suicide. “It really is a mystery,” 48 Hours producer Josh Gelman said.

The case for SFPD incompetence has been easy to make. There was no bloody knife — strange, for a self-stabbing. There were blood droplets on de la Plaza's stoop and on the wall outside his apartment door, meaning it was plausible a visitor attacked him. And San Francisco police have a reputation for being too deskbound or overwhelmed to solve murder cases. In 2007, the SFPD arrested, charged, and turned over for prosecution only 25 percent of homicide cases, when the national average was 53 percent.

De la Plaza seemed to be in an unusual place in life to want to kill himself. “He'd just gotten a promotion, bought a new computer, and he was looking to buy property in Argentina,” Nix said.

Azar and Casillas, however, argued that the evidence offered a baffling scenario for murder, irrespective of what critics have said. At the conference, they showed a series of crime scene slides showing a blood-smeared apartment, with the young man's athletic body sprawled in a pool of red. They also dwelled on a cluster of blood droplets on the cement outside his apartment door. San Francisco investigators have been criticized for failing to test the drops for DNA that might possibly have come from an assailant; it's common for knife-wielding attackers to accidentally cut themselves.

Casillas, however, said during his presentation that there had been no sign of a struggle outside. Instead, the drops seemed to suggest that de la Plaza might have come outside briefly after he'd stabbed himself indoors. “They appear to be vertical drops with no sense of directionality,” he said. “The blood is dripping down; they're well-rounded drops, spaced close together.”

Azar said de la Plaza's post-stabbing behavior didn't fit with the theory that he'd been attacked. “There were no 911 calls,” she said. “He walked around the apartment bleeding, touching light switches and doorknobs. There was a low-velocity blood drip. And he had minimal defense wounds, though he was a black belt in karate. And his injuries were not inconsistent with knives at the scene.” Azar displayed a photograph of de la Plaza's coffee table. A TV remote sat atop a copy of the Bay Guardian, near a cellphone and next to a laptop. In the kitchen was a knife whose blade was wet — possibly because blood had been washed from it, police theorized.

Ironically, investigators said they were swayed toward a suicide theory through early interviews with Nix, who has since crusaded to refute that idea.

“His ex-girlfriend, with whom he had remained close, is the only one who had raised the possibility of suicide,” Azar said.

Azar continued narrating an interview Casillas conducted with Nix while he looked on.

Casillas: “Did you at any point express concern for his safety?”

Nix: “Yes.”

Casillas: “What were the circumstances?'”

Nix: “I think I asked him, at one point, if he was going to kill himself. And he said no.”

Casillas: “Why did you ask that?”

Nix: “It was just intuition.”

According to Azar, Nix said she asked de la Plaza “if he'd ever hurt himself. He denied that. And then [Nix] asked, specifically — because [de la Plaza] was into Japanese culture and watched a lot of samurai movies — if this was hara-kiri, which would go into his stomach.”

Nix is outraged at the idea that her own statements might be evidence of de la Plaza's suicide. It had been four years since they were a couple, and six months since they'd even seen each other. She said she had merely speculated based on what Casillas claimed was a suicide crime scene.

“I'd been purposefully misled by Casillas,” she said. “For me to be the person they pin this to is quite scary. I'm in no capacity to make a statement about a man's state of mind when I hadn't seen him in six months.”

Josh Gelman said the 48 Hours piece makes no firm conclusions.

“After watching the show, our audience will be much better able to develop their own position on this story, whether they side with the San Francisco Police Department, or they think it is murder,” he said. “The most effective thing we're going to do with this story is putting a national spotlight on what locally is considered a big problem, which is the effectiveness of the homicide division of the San Francisco Police Department.”

Fixing that ineffectiveness has been the top priority of new Police Chief George Gascón, who has ordered an outside review of the case by Los Angeles investigators — a move that spurred further interest among the French public. “It may ultimately be the American police that will resolve the enigma,” the September 1 article in Paris Match declared.

But the San Francisco Chronicle recently quoted an SFPD homicide lieutenant as saying that the L.A. detectives are leaning toward calling the case a suicide. Their final report has not been made public yet.

Meanwhile, French police investigators, who obtained a U.S. court order to review the evidence, had no problem coming to a definitive conclusion: They have reportedly called de la Plaza's death “100 percent murder.”

The French documentary that will soon air relies heavily on French law enforcement's perspective, Nix said: It “will blow their [the SFPD's] spin of this being a suicide out of the water.” For Azar, however, the evidence indeed tells a confounding story. “This was treated as a homicide, which is what we all thought at the beginning. And it still may be,” she told the audience of coroners. “But what makes you wonder is, the doors were locked. … By all accounts, he did not make any attempts to get help. … We went with 'undetermined.' We just don't know how to explain some of these unusual findings.”

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