In 1994, Michelle von Emster was found dead on a beach with her right leg missing. The coroner ruled that she was a victim of a shark attack — but some experts suspected foul play instead.
On the morning of April 15, 1994, the mutilated body of 25-year-old Michelle von Emster was recovered from the shoreline around San Diego, California. She was naked with several broken bones, including her neck, and her right leg was missing from her thighbone down.
The state of her body led investigators to believe that she’d been killed by a great white shark, but experts familiar with shark attacks immediately disputed this theory. Others posited instead that von Emster either fell from the nearby Sunset Cliffs — or was murdered.
Even 27 years later, investigators are wondering what really happened to Michelle von Emster and whether something more sinister was afoot in her demise.
Who Was Michelle Von Emster?
Born in 1968, Michelle von Emster was a California local all her life and grew up in San Carlos, located just outside of San Francisco. As one of five girls in the von Emster family, Michelle would attend and ultimately graduate from the nearby all-girls Notre Dame High School in 1986.
Von Emster then went on to study at St. Mary’s College, but her university career was derailed when she was diagnosed with cancer. She valiantly beat the disease a year later and celebrated by lighting out to San Diego where she rented a house in Loma Portal, which was and is known for its breathtaking, hilly views overlooking San Diego Bay.
But she wouldn’t stay in Loma Portal for long.
As many Southern Californians are wont to do, Michelle von Emster was a drifter and flitted between her comfortable home on Poinsettia Drive to a down-trodden bedroom in a shared home at 4999 Muir Avenue in Ocean Beach. While some residents described Ocean Beach as “bohemian” and “vibrant,” others noted the city’s high crime rates, which exceed the national average.
Indeed, von Emster lived in a part of town known as “The War Zone,” which was an ominous portend of things to come for her.
While on the outside, von Emster’s life was perhaps filled with contradictions — some saw her as a party girl while others saw her as a health nut who meditated on the beach daily — one thing was for sure: she loved the ocean and was a free spirit. So much so, in fact, that she seemed to commemorate her lifestyle with a butterfly tattoo on her right shoulder.
This same tattoo would help identify her body just a few years later.
The Suspicious Death Of Michelle Von Emster
On the night of April 14, 1994, Michelle von Emster planned to attend a Pink Floyd concert with her friend and roommate, Coco Campbell.
But when the pair got to the stadium, they were turned away as they’d purchased the wrong tickets. Disappointed, the two women began driving back to their Ocean Beach house, and on the way back, von Emster asked Campbell to drop her off at the pier located about six blocks away from their house. It was the last time anyone saw her alive.
According to Campbell, von Emster was wearing a green trenchcoat and was carrying a purse — which was later found more than two miles away from her body.
The next day, two surfers noted that there were seagulls swarming an area near the ocean below Sunset Cliffs. Curious, the surfers went over to investigate, and it was there that they discovered von Emster bobbing lifelessly in the surf, face down.
Von Emster’s eyes were found to be wide open and she was naked save for her jewelry. When Robert Engle, the medical examiner, described her body, he said that it had “large, tearing-type wounds with missing tissue,” and that a part of her right leg was missing. Von Emster also hadn’t been in the water for long before the two surfers found her.
Michelle von Emster’s initial cause of death was listed as “unknown,” and many believed that she’d died from a shark attack.
Her Autopsy Yields More Questions Than Answers
Von Emster’s body was brought in for an autopsy, which was performed by the San Diego examiner at the time, Brian Blackbourne. According to Blackbourne’s official report, von Emster suffered a broken neck, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, and various scrapes and contusions on her face and torso. Blackbourne also reported that von Emster had sand in her lungs, mouth, throat, and stomach, which indicated that she’d been alive at the time her injuries were inflicted.
Blackbourne, who had never conducted an autopsy on a shark attack victim prior to the Michelle von Emster case, nonetheless ruled that she’d died as a result of a great white shark, and that blue sharks scavenged on her body after her death.
But shark experts doubt this theory.
Ralph Collier, a shark expert who spoke to The San Diego Union-Tribune upon von Emster’s death, initially believed that the “shark attack” theory was valid. But when he saw von Emster’s remains, he changed his mind.
“One of the things that struck me was the condition of the limb. When a white shark bites off part of a limb, the break is clean, almost like you put it on a table saw. What remained of Michelle’s femur was anything but. It looked like what happens when you get a piece of bamboo and whittle it down to a point with a knife. The bone came to a point. This type of injury is caused when a bone is twisted under a great deal of force. I’ve looked at close to 100 photos of cases that I have reviewed over the years, and I’ve never seen any bones that came to a point.”
In addition, Collier said that had von Emster truly been attacked by a great white shark, her femoral artery would have been sliced immediately, making it impossible for her to have taken a breath and inhaled the sand that was subsequently found in her mouth, lungs, throat, and stomach because she’d have been dead before she could do so.
It also bears noting that the Global Shark Attack File does not officially recognize Michelle von Emster’s death as a fatal shark attack.
Other Theories Around The Case Of Michelle Von Emster
To date, the most popular theory to explain the gruesome demise of Michelle von Emster is that she was murdered.
Investigators did manage to pin down some possible suspects, including a man who von Emster claimed was “stalking” her. This man rode a motorcycle and was noted by one of von Emster’s former co-workers, who remembers seeing him making several copies of von Emster’s autopsy report and then driving away.
Another suspect, however, was a man by the name of Edwin Decker, who went on a date with Michelle von Emster but whose romance with her was cut short upon her death. Decker wrote a mysterious, yet rather morbid, poem after von Emster’s death that made reference to both the alleged shark attack and “tearing away” of her flesh.
But at the 2008 Southern California Writers Conference, Decker and journalist Neal Matthews pleaded with the San Diego medical examiner to reopen von Emster’s case.
Dear Dr. Wagner, We are writing to ask you to take another look at the accidental death finding in the case of Michelle von Emster… We are writers with special interests in the von Emster case. One of us dated Michelle briefly before her death, and the other investigated the case for a story published in Boating magazine in 1994. We believe Dr. Brian Blackbourne’s [the previous coroner] conclusions may have been biased because others in the community rushed to judgment about this being a white shark attack.
Dr. Wagner, who was the San Diego medical examiner at the time, ultimately relented. However, while Wagner admitted that there was some “questionable” evidence, it wasn’t enough for him to amend von Emster’s death certificate or to open a homicide investigation.
With this ruling, then, Michelle von Emster’s death remains a mystery. But to this day, people continue to question the official story.