Cold case - Page 2

The SFPD hasn't solved the homicide of Hugues de la Plaza -- so now the French ambassador is getting involved

Immediately, police and officials from the Medical Examiner's Office suspected a suicide. But Nix and others close to de la Plaza believe that persistent assumption has allowed the case's trail to grow cold despite evidence suggesting he was murdered.

"It's fucked-up in retrospect," said Orion Denley, a friend and neighbor who was briefly questioned by police the day de la Plaza was found. "I kept thinking, 'How come they aren't asking me if I heard anything?' All they did was ask over and over again if he was suicidal, like they had already made up their minds that he had committed suicide."

No one from the Police Department contacted him again, but Denley said he heard de la Plaza's front door slam three times, followed by two crashes and the sound of a distinct set of footsteps on the stairs leading from the apartment.

"It was definitely someone exiting the building," he said, "because you could hear the footsteps getting quieter as they ran away."

There was no suicide note or apparent weapon, nor was there an immediate suspect. Police found a knife in the sink with trace substances that could have been de la Plaza's blood. They've since missed at least two promised deadlines for the completion of a DNA analysis, and now there's no telling when the results will be available. It's the only real piece of evidence left allowing investigators to regard de la Plaza's death merely as suspicious rather than a murder.

"It's something that I don't think Hugues would have ever considered doing," Nix said of the suicide theory. "He had his ups and downs. He was a very private person. But if he were going to kill himself, he would probably write a letter. He was very precise and particular about how he conducted his life."

But there's no doubt the pressure's on. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has vocalized his disapproval of the way skyrocketing homicides in his district — which includes the Hayes Valley neighborhood, where de la Plaza lived — are being handled by the Police Department, and District Attorney Kamala Harris has paid special attention to the case. Her chief assistant met twice with de la Plaza's family, who visited for several weeks earlier in the summer.

The family also met with Inspector Tony Casillas and bureau captain Kevin Cashman but returned to France largely empty-handed. They've since discussed using insurance money they received after de la Plaza's death to establish a support group in San Francisco for the families of victims whose murders go unsolved.

"Is that what it takes in San Francisco? Hire a private investigator and involve a foreign police force?" Nix wrote to Mayor Gavin Newsom in July. "If so, shame on the leaders of San Francisco. If so, God help those in your city who do not have such resources."

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