San Francisco's Medical Examiner is refusing to rule the gruesome June 2 death of French national Hugues de la Plaza a homicide, releasing an autopsy only recently after the man's friends and family waited six months for its conclusion.
There's no doubt de la Plaza's life ended due to multiple stab wounds, but the December report describes the manner of his death, i.e. who wielded the knife, as "undetermined."
Assistant medical examiner Venus Azar admits that no one close to him was aware of any suicidal inclination on his part, and therefore, it was not possible for her to rule out homicide. But the scene at his apartment where he was found "was not inconsistent with self-inflicted stab wounds," she wrote (our emphasis).
The Guardian reported in September that no obvious weapon or suicide note was found at de la Plaza's small Linden Street apartment in Hayes Valley where his body was discovered. A neighbor told us he heard a distinct set of footsteps running away from the apartment shortly after de la Plaza's front door slammed three times around 2:30 in the morning.
The neighbor, Orion Denley, said the questions asked of him by police all revolved around whether or not de la Plaza suffered from depression, one of many clear indications that the San Francisco Police Department believed from the start that de la Plaza took his own life.
"It's fucked-up in retrospect," Denley told us at the time. "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."
Pools of spattered blood were later found outside the front door by emergency personnel, but if de la Plaza was killed by an attacker, he managed to return inside his apartment and deadbolt the lock before succumbing to the stab wounds. His back door was deadbolted also, and that fact no doubt further led officials to believe he'd committed suicide.
Police found a knife in the sink but hesitated for months to publicly release the results of a DNA analysis, which did not appear in the recent autopsy. Based on what we learned, it's highly unlikely that the very minimal unidentified substance found on the blade turned out to be actual blood.
Besides, consider that logic for a moment: de la Plaza would have had to first stab himself in the neck, breast and abdomen, then transport the knife into the kitchen and clean it off before returning to the living room where he was found. You don't have to be a script writer for "The Wire" to determine that story line doesn't work.
The knife appeared to be the only evidence remaining that allowed the police department and medical examiner's office to seriously consider suicide as a possible alternative to murder. On the other hand, no clear suspect has emerged -- at least not publicly -- and with the city's record homicide rate in 2007, a complex unsolved case is not welcome news for anyone at the Hall of Justice.
Photos of the grizzly scene depict what appears to be a struggle; de la Plaza's blood is spread across the apartment from the bathroom, up the hallway, into the kitchen and ending in the living room where a wine glass was found shattered and a television toppled over.
Police kicked in de la Plaza's back door later that Sunday morning after being notified of the blood outside his apartment. They found de la Plaza lying on the floor. "There were copious amounts of frank and partially dried blood on the floor and wall near him ... Bloody hand prints were noted on the wall across from the subject," the autopsy states.
Assistant medical examiner Azar concludes that the initial blood trail began in the kitchen, but curiously, the report also states that footprints consistent with de la Plaza's shoes crossed the front room to the kitchen and back again rather than the other way around, which doesn't suit where he was found.
Friends told a private investigator hired by de la Plaza's parents (who live in France and visited San Francisco to meet with investigators from the SFPD and the French consulate) that everything about the weeks leading up to his death pointed away from suicide.
He'd recently purchased land in Argentina, earned a promotion at work, acquired a new laptop and made plans for the week following his death. The night before de la Plaza was found dead, he'd gone with a date to an art show and later had drinks with friends at SF Underground in the Lower Haight.
De la Plaza's death made headlines in France, and his parents, we reported, received a letter from the French ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, who promised a thorough probe. The SF Weekly's Mary Spicuzza scooped us on an earlier version of this story, but the Chronicle's top crime reporter, Jaxon Van Derbeken has all but ignored it.
Regarding the possibility of suicide, de la Plaza's ex-girlfriend, Melissa Nix, who's been on a campaign to prove he was murdered, doesn't buy it.
"It's something that I don't think Hugues would have ever considered doing," Nix told us in September. "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."
*The photos above were obtained by the Guardian and depict de la Plaza's apartment after he was found by police.