Rachelle has been an online writer for more than nine years and enjoys writing about celebrities, tech, TV, video games, and true crime.
What Really Happened to Michelle?
On Friday, April 15, 1994, in the beautiful Sunset Cliffs area of San Diego, California, two surfers noticed a huge mass of "something" beached on the sand nearby.
Upon closer inspection, they discovered that it was a body. There lay the remnants of 25-year-old Michelle Von Emster, situated face down on a massive bed of kelp.
Her remains were immediately taken to area life guard headquarters. Upon initial examination, the medical examiner referenced large torn chunks of flesh and a missing right leg.
Now, the first thing that comes to mind in a situation like this is that the poor child was a victim of a shark attack, but this case isn't as "open and shut" as it appears on the surface.
The Medical Examiner's Explanation of Events
Upon completing his formal autopsy, the medical examiner came up with the following timeline for the horrific events:
- Michelle Van Emster was last seen alive at 8:00 PM.
- She entered the water sometime around 12:00 AM.
- Shortly after Michelle entered the waters of the Pacific, she was attacked by a great white shark.
- The violent shark attack forced Michelle to the ocean floor, which is where she sustained a broken neck and ingested the copious amounts of sand.
- She ultimately died from blood loss and drowning.
It seems plausible so far, right? But keep reading . . .
The Official Autopsy
Despite the torn chunks of flesh, the missing right leg, and the body being found washed ashore at a beach—all of the things that might indicate a shark attack—the coroner at the life guard headquarters noted that her cause of death was "unknown."
The next day, on April 16, 1994, an official autopsy was performed by the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office; in addition to the large tearing flesh wounds and missing right leg, the victim also sustained the following injuries:
- A broken neck
- Broken ribs
- Facial scrapes, bruises, and contusions
- Substantial amounts of sand lodged in her mouth, throat, lungs, and stomach
The medical examiner further found that Michelle had been alive when the injuries were inflicted upon her. This time around, the M.E. concluded that Michelle died from injuries sustained during a shark attack and drowning.
The Shark Attack Theory Unravels: Experts Cast Doubt on the Findings
There are a couple of issues that have caused experts to doubt the medical examiner's official finding that Michelle had been killed by a shark attack, beginning with the issues with the medical examiner himself. Let's have a look:
- Brian Blackbourne was the San Diego medical examiner on the case. At the time Blackbourne autopsied Michelle's body, he had never encountered a shark attack victim. In fact, no one who saw the body had ever seen a shark attack victim before.
- In his defense, Blackbourne did contact experts at the nearby Scripps Institute of Oceanography in order to gain more information about shark attack victims, but they never actually saw the body.
- Ralph Collier, a leading shark expert who spent 54 years at the Shark Research Committee and who now heads the Global Shark Attack File, disagrees with Blackbourne's findings. After seeing the remains of Michelle's leg bone, Collier stated, "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. I've looked at close to 100 photos of cases that I've reviewed over the years, and I've never seen any bones that came to a point."
- To Blackbourne's explanation about the severed leg and sand being present in Michelle's body, Collier further stated "The damage would have severed her femoral artery, and she would have bled to death quickly. But, for her to have sand in her stomach, she would have had to take a big gulping breath as she made contact with the sand . . . There are too many things in this case that are not consistent with White shark behavior."
- Richard Rosenblatt, Chairman of the Scripps Institute for Oceanography, also disagrees with Blackbourne's findings. After receiving the measurements of Michelle's wounds, Rosenblatt stated, "None of the marks on Michelle's body were caused by a White shark. If she had been bitten by a White shark, they most likely would have also found a Great White tooth broken off into her body." Additionally, Rosenblatt stated, "If a shark had taken her leg, it could only have been taken by a White shark."
As we already know, no great white teeth were found in Michelle's body. However, there were multiple bite marks left by blue sharks, and we know they definitely fed on Michelle's body. A local pathologist found there was no evidence to suggest the bites occurred before death.
Case Re-Examined 14 Years Later
Because of all the contradictory evidence against the initial findings, the case of Michelle Von Emster was given a re-examination in 2008. This time around, medical examiner Glenn Wagner concluded that sharks had scavenged Michelle's body after her death.
So, let's think about this a little. If an expert stated that only a great white shark could have taken Michelle's leg, and several experts have agreed this was not a great white shark attack, then isn't it somewhat more believable that this was not a shark attack at all?
If we are to follow the logic here, and we believe the young woman was indeed not attacked by a shark, then what happened to Michelle Von Emster?
A few alternate theories have been proposed.
Mchelle Von Emster went for a midnight swim, during which she got caught in a riptide and her body was violently knocked against the rocks. This is how she sustained most of her injuries. She was later fed on by blue sharks after her dead body was submerged in the ocean.
This theory, or anything like the theory that Michelle had gone for a midnight swim, seems unlikely for the following reasons:
- The water temperature was 59 degrees. It would have been too cold to go for a midnight swim.
- The night air was 57 degrees, even further grounding the notion that it was too cold for anyone to be going for a midnight swim.
- We can confidently draw the conclusion that Michelle was cold-natured, because when she was last seen at 8:00 PM, she was wearing a trench coat.
- This does not explain the missing leg with the altered bone.
Michelle Von Emster died as the result of an unfortunate tumble from Sunset Cliffs. The area is known for having deteriorating sandstone, and previous deaths have occurred when victims have fallen from the cliffs. She received the injuries as a result of a fall or a push, or a vehicle could have forced her off the side of a cliff.
This theory seems plausible at first, but upon second look, there are a few holes. She could have sustained the broken neck and bruises from a fall, but it's not likely the torn leg resulted from any type of tumble from the cliff.
Michelle Von Emster was hurt by someone who left her out there to die in the Pacific, or drowned her. One of the experts did mention the young woman would have had to take huge gulps in order to ingest so much sand, which could have happened at the shoreline as someone drowned her.
Unfortunately, the murder theory seems like the most likely scenario. Let's have a look at some of the reasons:
- Michelle Von Emster lived in a sketchy, drug-riddled neighborhood that was actually nicknamed, "The War Zone." Any number of things could have happened to her there, and her body could have been dumped at the cliffs.
- There is no rational explanation for why Michelle's body was found naked. How could a shark victim, cliff fall victim, or accidental drowning victim wind up naked? This doesn't make any sense at all.
- Michelle's purse was found in the sand in a heavily trafficked area about two and a half miles away from her body. The purse contained keys and money, and it would be highly unlikely that no one spotted the purse in 24 hours. Someone could have murdered her and then planted the purse to make it appear to be an accident.
Murder Suspect Number One
The first suspect is a man named Edwin Decker. Decker was a co-worker of Michelle's. When questioned, Decker claimed Michelle had a "hippie vibe" and liked to surf naked. None of her friends agreed with this, and none of the lifeguards recalled ever seeing Michelle surfing or even swimming naked.
However, this strange accusation that Michelle liked to surf naked would be a convenient explanation for why the woman's body was found naked.
Decker further claimed that he and Michelle had gone out together and had been flirting with each other for weeks. He says he believed the two shared an emotional and intellectual bond and then went on to say, "At least on my part."
Upon learning that Michelle was dead, he published the following poem:
The report said there was a tattoo
A butterfly on her shoulder
Which I remembered that night
On my couch when I, like the shark
Chewed on her lips and took off her shirt
Now, to be fair, I have to mention that it was Decker who asked the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office to re-evaluate the case in 2008. Now, if you were the person who had gotten away with murder, you wouldn't necessarily want to have the case officially re-visited—or would you? One never knows, but that poem was extra weird.
Murder Suspect Number Two
Michelle was a former employee of a local coffee shop. While she worked at the coffee shop, there was an unknown man who constantly stalked the young woman. In fact, she left her job at the coffee shop, because of her stalker. The stalker's name was unknown to the young woman, but she did know that he rode a motorcycle.
She left the job at the coffee shop to go work in an office supply store, where she thought she would escape her stalker. Denise Knox, Michelle's former boss, stated that shortly after Michelle's death, a weird man came into the store and made several copies of the woman's autopsy report. Knox further stated that the man rode away from the store on a motorcycle.
What Do You Think?
You already know I believe Michelle Von Emster was murdered, though by whom I don't know. But, I do believe there are many people out there walking amongst us who have gotten away with murder.
After learning about the evidence and the theories, what do you think? Discuss your thoughts in the comments, vote in the poll, and please be safe out there, because some people are completely crazy, and your pain and suffering will bring them joy.
Would You Like to Know More?
- The death of Michelle Von Emster off Sunset Cliffs is adrift in mystery | San Diego Reader
- Open and Shut: Revisiting the mysterious death of Michelle von Emster
I just got off the phone with Ralph Collier of the International Shark Committee and am utterly blown away. My knees are weak. My brain is in a haze.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 25, 2017:
I think I'm glad I'm not the detective who has to unravel that mystery. Fascinating, of course....will justice finally arrive after all these years?