François de la Plaza held a photograph of his son, Hugues, and smiled sadly as he described the kind of man he was. “Very open-minded, very tolerant,” he said, tracing his finger around Hugues' face, which was beaming as he sat with friends. “This is the perfect picture of who he is. Listening and smiling.”
Hugues' mother, Mireille, sat next to her husband and cried, covering her eyes with closed fists. Frustrated with getting few answers about the death of her only child, and seeing little action on the investigation, the parents hired a private investigator and had gathered in his Mission District office, trying to piece together how and why their son died.
Hugues, 36, was found dead with multiple stab wounds inside his bloodied Hayes Valley apartment on June 2.
His French parents traveled to San Francisco and were here for five weeks searching for information. But, week after week, answers have been elusive.
Now the couple is so frustrated with the investigation into the death of their son, who had dual citizenship, that they headed back home to France this week to file a complaint with French authorities. They want French police officers to be sent to California to help with the case.
They argue that this extraordinary request is necessary because the San Francisco Police Department doesn't have enough resources to solve the case, and needs assistance from French investigators.
In addition to hiring a private investigator, the de la Plazas have also contacted the Consulate General of France in S.F., which assigned a French police officer based in Los Angeles to assist SFPD with the investigation. “We have nothing else in life except to find out who and how and why,” François said. “That's the only thing that carries us forward.”
But is this what it takes — hiring a private investigator and bringing in an international police force — to solve a mysterious death in San Francisco?
To be fair, the city's homicide detail has been especially busy these days. There's a 20 percent increase in homicides so far this year, and a surge in fatal stabbings.
For example, a 19-year-old named Jose Santillan died after somebody stabbed him near his home in North Beach at the end of last month. Earlier that same day the bodies of two teenage friends, Gregory Jones and Chris Garcia, were found with multiple stab wounds in Hunters Point.
Only, Hugues de la Plaza's death has not yet been ruled a homicide. It's being investigated as a “suspicious death,” according to police Sgt. Steve Mannina, and on Monday the medical examiner's results were still pending.
It's not just terminology that has Hugues' friends and family concerned. His friends and Linden Street neighbors said that when they spoke with police, many of the questions seemed to be focused on Hugues' state of mind: whether he'd been depressed, had a recent breakup with a girlfriend, or did drugs. One neighbor said he was asked if Hugues, a French sound engineer who moved to San Francisco four years ago, wrote poetry.
His friend Neil Zarama, one of the last people who saw him alive, said he went to the police station two days after the body was found, then followed up with about a dozen telephone calls to police. “No one ever called me back,” he said. When Zarama, who worked with Hugues at LeapFrog, a high-tech educational products and videogame company in Emeryville, eventually spoke with Inspector Antonio Casillas, he grew concerned when he was asked whether Hugues was right- or left-handed, and about his reported obsession with Japan. “I said, “I hope you're not insinuating it was hara-kiri,'” Zarama remembers telling Casillas.
Zarama had just been out dancing and drinking with Hugues at Underground SF, a Haight Street club, until about 2 a.m. on Saturday morning — just hours before the body was found — and said they had plans to go on a motorcycle ride that same afternoon. Hugues, who had been out celebrating a promotion at work, didn't seem depressed at all.
It's common for friends and family to insist their loved ones would never kill themselves. But evidence that's emerged in the case supports their theory that it was homicide. No knife was found in or near the body, and there wasn't a single bloody knife inside the apartment, according to François, who added that there was a washed steak knife found in the kitchen sink.
The cleanliness of the knife found is in stark contrast to the state of Hugues' apartment. Crime scene photographs recently obtained by the family look like scenes from a horror movie. Drops of blood trail along the floor and blood drips down a section of the wall in some photographs. In others, huge smears of blood cover the floor and a wall.
That's just inside the apartment. Neighbors — who said they heard loud footsteps and the door to Hugues' apartment slamming as many as three times just after 2:30 that morning — awoke hours later to what they said was a pool of blood about a foot in diameter on the front porch. More blood was reportedly smeared on the hand railing outside.
“Suicide is stupid,” François said, looking at graphic photographs as he waited for a meeting at the district attorney's office.
“Completely,” Mireille added.
Police officials said they have met with the family at least four times, and shared as much information as possible.
At that meeting with Chief Assistant District Attorney Russ Giuntini, the de la Plazas pushed to ensure search warrants were being obtained for Hugues' Gmail and Yahoo accounts. And they expressed concern about what they say is a lack of progress in the investigation.
It's a sentiment repeatedly echoed by his friends. “What this has kind of shown me is how easy it is to kill someone and get away with it in San Francisco,” his friend Ryan Beckwith said. “Maybe it's like this in other places, but it's real fucking easy.”