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Friday, July 17, 2009

After 17 Months, Police Watchdog Group Returns Judgment on SFPD's Handling of Hugues de la Plaza Case

Posted By on Fri, Jul 17, 2009 at 1:37 PM

click to enlarge Hugues de la Plaza
  • Hugues de la Plaza
Not quite three years ago, dual French citizen Hugues de la Plaza was found stabbed three times in his blood-soaked Hayes Valley apartment with no knife nearby. The San Francisco Police Department, astoundingly, adopted the operating theory of suicide -- an astonishing move inaugurating a series of bungles that would culminate with a judge ordering the SFPD to hand over key evidence in the case to French authorities, who packed it back to Paris. This was an unprecedented slap in the face of San Francisco; the city essentially earned the same treatment as a failed state unable to carry out complex investigations and the police were characterized as behaving in a manner befitting a guns-but-no-shoes security force. Matters only got worse when French authorities contradicted the San Francisco claim of a possible suicide by ruling that this was, unquestionably, a homicide.

In February of last year, Melissa Nix -- the dogged former girlfriend of de la Plaza -- filed a lengthy report with the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints, a police watchdog  group. She charged gross negligence on behalf of the SFPD due to a list of missteps longer than your arm. Yesterday, 17 months after filing her report, the OCC informed Nix of its ruling -- not negligence but "policy failure." While Nix tried to put a positive spin on a finding of some wrongdoing by the police, this didn't last long.

"This is really appalling," said Nix, who noted that she's contacted a prominent civil rights attorney with hopes of suing the city for mishandling this murder case. "I don't know what's going on with the OCC. But this is evidence of them having not a whole lot of teeth -- and they're supposed to be a regulatory agency."

The term "policy failure" is far, far less severe than the "neglect of duty" Nix was hoping for. Basically, the OCC ruled that the police acted within city policy and were justified in their actions, but those policies should probably be changed.

That's not good enough for Nix. We've documented this case fairly completely -- see long, printed stories here and here and thorough Internet articles here, here and here -- but this is a brief rundown of a none-too-funny comedy of errors:

On the very night de la Plaza died, Nix is uncertain if blood samples were ever taken off of the stoop of his apartment building -- where French authorities believe he received his mortal wounds (which would explain why he was locked inside his apartment; perhaps he stumbled into his building and closed the door behind him to fend off more attacks). De la Plaza's family was not informed of his death for several days and key witnesses were not called for weeks, even though some left more than a dozen messages for investigators. As late as September of last year,  a high-ranking source within the police department told SF Weekly he was "certain" the suicide theory would pan out.

After eight full months, the San Francisco Medical Examiner ruled the cause of death was "undetermined," leaving room for the suicide theory. French authorities -- who were subsequently granted the right to cart off material evidence by a federal judge -- found otherwise. Of course, by then, the case was two years old; if there are any leads or any progress whatsoever it's news to de la Plaza's friends and family. They claim that the case status of "open investigation" allows the police to not comment on the matter at all -- making it impossible to determine if an investgation is even taking place. 

"This was a farce of an investigation," says Nix. "Who can expect any accountability from this city? It's pretty evident that no one can -- unless you hire a lawyer."

And that may be the next step.

Physical Evidence

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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