The unusual death of Michelle Von Emster

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UPDATE, July 20, 2023: Please check out a new update on Michelle’s case by the Shark Files podcast.

SAN DIEGO — Michelle Von Emster was born to Ernest and Bernadette Von Emster on August 2, 1968. She was the oldest of five girls and grew up in San Carlos. 

Von Emster graduated from Belmont’s private all-girls Catholic Notre Dame High School in 1986. Afterward, she attended St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga until being diagnosed with leukemia. She fought a tough battle for two years until she was in remission.

Having a renewed zest for life, Von Emster headed to San Diego and briefly rented a house on Poinsettia Drive in the Loma Portal neighborhood in 1992. She later moved two miles away to Ocean Beach at 4999 Muir Avenue, an area known as “The War Zone,” due to its high crime rate. 

Von Emster’s neighborhood might be dangerous and seem an unlikely place for single females to live. However, Ocean Beach (O.B.) is a community favored among locals for its many shops, restaurants, and attractions, such as O.B. Pier and Tide Pools. Surfers love to come here to catch a wave, and visitors can learn to surf through one of its surf schools.

Von Emster worked as a clerk at Cabrillo Stationary & Office Supply, owned by Denise Knox, on Newport Avenue. Some have described her as a “party girl,” while others her as a “health freak.” In other words, nobody knew her well enough to say accurately.

We do know a few right things about her. Von Emster loved the ocean and had a butterfly tattoo on her right shoulder. She also loved felines and had one cat, Cassidy, who her former neighbor later took in.

Von Emster’s roommate on Muir Avenue was Coco Campbell, a San Diego State University dance major. Campbell was originally from Chicago, but she and her family moved to Palm Springs when she was 11. 

On Thursday, April 14, 1994, Von Emster, 25, and Campbell planned to attend a concert at a local stadium. When they arrived, however, they were unable to gain admission. Some reports say they showed up with the wrong tickets.

Have you ever shown up at a concert with the wrong tickets? 🤔 No? I haven’t, either. 

According to Campbell, the women left the stadium and drove home. Sometime after 8 p.m., Von Emster allegedly asked to be dropped off at a pier several blocks from their house. Campbell said Von Emster exited her vehicle somewhere on Newport Avenue wearing a green trenchcoat and carrying her purse.

Von Emster was never seen alive again. 

On Friday, April 15, 1994, surfer David Correia, 20, noticed seagulls congregating near the ocean below Sunset Cliffs, an area frequented by surfers and residents in Point Loma. Finding it strange, he hollered at another surfer in the area, William Dostal, who was closer to the object of the birds’ fixation. Dostal paddled his surfboard over to investigate and discovered Von Emster’s lifeless body face down in about 10 feet of water with her eyes wide open.

Von Emster was naked save for some jewelry. Only one wing of her tattoo remained visible, and officials would later use it for identification purposes.

The men called for help at 3:18 p.m., and lifeguards arrived a few minutes later; they transported the body via Rescue One to the lifeguard headquarters at 2581 Quivira Court. 

Medical Examiner Robert Engle arrived to examine the body. He said Von Emster had “large, tearing-type wounds with missing tissue” on her back and shoulders. The Times-Advocate reported that pathologists said these were 6-to-9-inch bite marks. 

The young woman’s right leg was severed at mid-thigh and missing. Engle estimated she had not been in the water long when the surfers found her.

Later that night, a local man found Von Emster’s purse near O.B. Pier while walking along the seawall with his girlfriend. The man carried a flashlight, and its light picked up the bag. 

Von Emster’s purse held cigarettes, her driver’s license, a fanny pack containing nearly $30 cash, keys, makeup items, and a paycheck stub.  

Some reports say Von Emster’s coat was found with the purse; others say the coat disappeared with her clothes.

On April 16, 1994, Knox saw on the 10 p.m. news that a deceased unidentified woman bearing a butterfly tattoo had been found. Knox immediately got in touch with the medical examiner’s office.

Knox told the medical examiner that Michelle never shaved her armpits and legs. He then asked her to come to the morgue. When she arrived, he requested her to identify the body. Understandably, she did not want to see the remains in person, so the medical examiner snapped a Polaroid picture. Knox recognized and identified Von Emster from the photo. 

Michelle Von Emster: photo of then-San Diego medical examiner Brian Blackbourned
Dr. Brian Blackbourne/North County Times

Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the San Diego County medical examiner, performed the autopsy. He later conducted autopsies on the Heaven’s Gate cult members who committed mass suicide in March 1997.

Blackbourne discovered Von Emster had numerous broken bones, including a fractured neck.

“There were busted ribs, and her pelvis had been pulled apart by brute force. She bled internally, and then she drowned. In other words, she was alive when whatever it was inflicted all this damage,” wrote journalist David Good.

Von Emster also had bruises and scrapes on her face and torso. Blackbourne found sand in her lungs, mouth, throat, and stomach and said that blue sharks had nibbled on the body. However, some experts say blue sharks prefer feeding in deeper water, and “there have only been 13 recorded Blue Shark attacks on humans since the 1500s,” AmericanOceans.org reported.

Blackbourne based his ruling solely on Campbell’s police statement and put Von Emster in the water at around midnight. However, this contradicts Engle’s finding that the body had not been in the water long. 

If Engle was correct, Von Emster’s whereabouts were unknown from 8 p.m. on April 14 to around 3 p.m. on April 15, when the surfers found the body.

How could two medical examiners determine two times for the body to be in the water? Some say Blackbourne rushed judgment to satisfy others, like law enforcement.

Blackbourne ruled Von Emster died from a great white shark attack, despite never performing an autopsy on a shark victim. He consulted with marine experts at Scripps Institution. They supported his declaration even though they never saw the body, and at least one doubted a shark killed Von Emster.

According to the Los Angeles Times, between 1950 and 1996, there were 105 shark attacks along the Pacific Coast from California to Washington state. Eight of those attacks were fatal; most occurred farther north around Santa Barbara, San Miguel islands, and the Farallon Islands.

Von Emster’s alleged death by a white shark was the first fatal attack on the west coast since 1989. 

Michelle Von Emster: photo of 1989 fatal shark attack victims, Tamara McCallister and Roy Jeffrey Stoddard
Tamara McCallister and Roy Jeffrey Stoddard/Los Angeles Times and Find A Grave

On January 26, 1989, Tamara McCallister, 24, was kayaking with her boyfriend, Roy Jeffrey Stoddard, 24, along the Oxnard coast when a five-meter-long white shark attacked their kayaks, knocking both into the water and killing them. Only Tamara’s body was recovered; her femoral artery had been severed. 

On average, there had been only two or three white shark attacks on humans per year on the West Coast between 1989 and 1994. The sharks were less than 12 feet long in those cases.

Shark expert Ralph S. Collier is the founder of the Shark Research Committee in Van Nuys and the Global Shark Attack File director. 

Good spoke to Collier in a 2013 interview for his article on Von Emster’s death. Collier initially believed the shark attack theory until he read the autopsy report.

“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.”

Collier stated that a boat propellor could have severed the limb, not a shark. “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,” he told Good.

Collier said that if a white shark had attacked Von Emster, it would have immediately cut her femoral artery, as in Tamara’s death. Von Emster’s death would have been quick; she would not have had a chance to breathe and inhale the sand. He also noticed there were no teeth impressions from a shark on her body.

Ten days after Campbell allegedly dropped Von Emster off on Newport Avenue, investigators closed the case, calling her death a fatal shark attack. 

Few people believe a shark killed Von Emster. Some theories surround her bizarre death, but none explain her severed leg. 

One is that she went for a night swim and was caught in a tide, and her body slammed against the rocks. As a result, Von Emster suffered various injuries. However, the water temperature was 59 degrees that night, with overall temperatures in the 50s, making it less likely that she would have wanted to swim. 

Another theory is that she fell or someone pushed her off Sunset Cliffs. While that might explain her broken bones, it does not explain how her leg was severed and missing.

Some thought it possible a boat hit Von Emster while surfing or swimming. As Collier said, a boat propeller could have caused the leg injury, but this theory does not explain why Michelle’s purse was found two miles away at O.B. Pier. 

According to Campbell, she dropped Michelle off near O.B. Pier. If Michelle wanted to swim, it makes no sense she would have been hit by a boat at Sunset Cliffs. 

The most plausible theory to many is murder.

During Von Emster’s job interview at Cabrillo, she said she had left her previous job at Rumors coffee shop because a man was stalking her. The man rode a motorcycle.

Edwin Decker, who hails from Monroe, New York, told Good that he first met Von Emster at Rumors in February 1994. 

It is unclear whether Decker was the stalker or another man. But Decker admitted he hounded Von Emster for weeks until she finally agreed to a date. 

Whether she went out on a date is questionable. If Von Emster believed he was a stalker, she would never have spent five minutes alone with him, let alone an entire evening. 

One date does not make a relationship, and it seems strange that he immersed himself in finding her cause of death. 

At the 2008 Southern California Writers Conference, Decker and journalist Neal Matthews appealed in a letter to Dr. Glenn Wagner, San Diego medical examiner, to revisit Michelle’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.” 

Decker further wrote that Wagner “ultimately relented. The gist was that there did seem to be some questionable evidence, or lack of, but not enough to amend her death certificate, and he closed his letter by saying that ‘any case can and will be reopened if additional validated information surfaces.'”

Thus far, there has been no additional information on Von Emster’s case.

After Von Emster’s death, Campbell graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Arts in dance and later opened Coco Motion Dance

Decker was a bartender and writer for many years. He currently works for McFarlane Promotions as head of vendor relations. His picture is on the website.

True Crime Diva’s Thoughts

We do not know whether Michelle was at Ocean Beach pier or any other San Diego pier. We only have Campbell’s statement that she took Michelle to a dock. However, the local man found her purse along a seawall near the Ocean Beach Pier. You can see it on Google Maps. But this doesn’t prove she was there; someone may have dumped her purse. That’s what I think happened.

Now, here’s what I find odd. Engle said Michelle’s body had not been in the water long when the surfers found it. Blackbroune said it was around midnight, more than 12 hours before. WTF?

I believe Engle because he examined her body shortly after being found. 

So, where the hell was Michelle from 8 p.m. on April 14 to around 3:15 when her body was found?

If she had been in the water since midnight, wouldn’t someone have found it before the surfers?

Campbell and Decker are suspicious to me.  

Campbell claimed she and Michelle went to a stadium to see a concert, but when they arrived, they had the wrong tickets and were told to leave. 

Good stated that Pink Floyd played at Jack Murphy Stadium on April 14, 1994. Let’s say that is the concert. We don’t know because Campbell has never said, at least publicly. 

So, they showed up at a Pink Floyd concert but had the wrong tickets? I don’t buy that for a second. They could have unsuccessfully tried to gain admission through ticket scalpers at the stadium.

But I searched local newspapers, and many people were selling tickets to this concert in the Classified Ads section. So, they could have bought them this way and got screwed with the wrong tickets. Who knows.

Campbell also claimed Michelle asked her to drop her off at a pier near their Muir Avenue home, “somewhere on Newport Avenue” and “sometime after 8.” Why didn’t she say precisely when and where on Newport Avenue? Why didn’t she drive Michelle to the pier?

Michelle worked on Newport Avenue close to O.B. Pier, so why didn’t Campbell say if she dropped Michelle off around Michelle’s workplace?

If the concert had been at Jack Murphy Stadium, it would have taken the girls about 15 minutes to drive home. Bear in mind traffic could have been heavy. So let’s say they left the stadium at 8 p.m. With traffic, they would have been back in O.B. by 8:30/9 p.m. at the latest.  

Blackbourne based his findings on Campbell’s statement to the police and put Michelle in the water at midnight. HOW? What was she supposedly doing for THREE HOURS? Swimming in cold water without a wetsuit? Bullshit! Engle said she had not been in the water very long. 

If Engle was correct about Michelle not being in the water for long, then where was Michelle from 8 p.m. until her body was found the next day? And what the hell happened to her?

David Good tried to interview Campbell for his story several times, but she declined. Why? Have something to hide? Worried your stories won’t match? Was she concerned about what your dance students or their parents might think?

I don’t believe Michelle ever went swimming that night. The surfers found her in only 10 feet of water. She officially died from drowning in the ocean.  

So many theories, but none explain her missing severed leg. If a boat caused it, why wasn’t her leg found? 

I want to know what caused her broken pelvis, too. 

Cedars-Sinai states, “Most pelvic fractures happen during high-speed accidents (such as car or motorcycle crashes) or falls from great heights. Pelvic fractures can also occur spontaneously or after minor falls in people with bone-weakening diseases such as osteoporosis.” Pelvic Fracture | Cedars-Sinai. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/p/pelvic-fracture.html

Good described Michelle’s pelvis as being torn apart by brute force. 

Let’s look at her injuries. 

  • broken neck
  • broken ribs
  • broken pelvis
  • severed leg at mid-thigh
  • bruises and scrapes
  • large wounds on the back and shoulders

She had sand in her lungs, mouth, throat, and stomach. She bled internally and drowned. Sure, this was a shark attack. 😤

A neck fracture can happen from a fall, a car wreck, or violence. If you’re older or have weak bones from disease, even a sudden, hard twist can break your neck. However it happens, this kind of trauma is serious and scary. A neck fracture can paralyze you or even lead to death.

UVAHealth.com

According to Medical News Today, “rarely, leukemia may weaken bones to the extent of causing fractures.”

So, if the disease had weakened her bones, that could help explain the number of fractures, and I think they resulted from violence. Someone violently shoved her face into the sand, possibly fracturing her neck. The killer might have done it to make her talk or to suffocate her. She does have signs of torture, in my opinion. 

Could someone have severed the leg and disposed of it to make it look like a shark attack? I realize this is a bit extreme, but you never know with some whackos.

I bet Blackbourne didn’t even look for signs of sexual assault because he had already decided a shark killed her. A violent sexual assault would have likely caused visible genital injuries. 

Let’s say someone pushed Michelle off Sunset Cliffs. That would likely result in all the broken bones. But what about her freaking leg?

From what I read, some people jump off Sunset Cliffs for recreation. It’s illegal, but they do it anyway for social media views and whatnot. The cliffs are 20 feet tall, but survival depends on a few factors, including low or high tides. There have been many fools who jumped and ended up paralyzed or with broken bones. However, none of them had a severed leg!

Honestly, I am trying to understand why and how her leg was severed. 

Collier said, “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.”

WTF? How did this happen? 

That is the only part of this case that makes zero sense. Michelle’s death should never have been ruled a fatal shark attack. At the very least, Blackbourne should have ruled “undetermined.”

What about Decker in all of this?

In 1994, Decker lived on Lotus Street, a few minutes from Michelle’s home.

He admitted to hounding Michelle until she supposedly agreed to a date. I don’t necessarily believe she ever went on a date with the man she accused of stalking her. Decker lived in a fantasy world when it came to her, but I would like to know his whereabouts after 8 p.m. on April 14, 1994.

I will never believe a shark killed Michelle.  

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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