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Amidst all the murders in San Francisco, some suspicious deaths are hidden in a secret burial ground of bureaucracy.

Wednesday, Sep 10 2008

Sometime past midnight on Labor Day of last year, 22-year-old John "Daniel" Schirra was running nude along an Ingleside District street, yelling for help. He was in the grips of a bad acid trip, and had either just been stabbed or was about to be. He tried to stop two cars and rang a random doorbell at one of the neighborhood's modest homes. Someone called the police to report that a naked young man, who may have been bloody, was running in the street. No one stopped to help.

Around 3:15 a.m., Schirra, a San Francisco State University student, was found dead. His body was in the fetal position under a juniper tree on a sloping, garbage-strewn lot off the 2600 block of San Jose Avenue. The resident who discovered Schirra's body says it appeared to have numerous stab wounds to the torso.

Police began a homicide investigation, speaking to people who saw Schirra that night and interviewing his friends. For a short time, they even had a suspect. But when the investigation did not pan out, police began to treat the case as an undetermined death. They told Schirra's parents their son probably stabbed himself and that he may have died from an accidental head injury. But more than a year later, there are no autopsy or police reports available to support that theory.

The unusual circumstances of Schirra's death gave him entrée to an exclusive fraternity of four San Francisco residents whose deaths in 2007 appear to be self-stabbing. Adding to the perplexing nature of the deaths, information about three of the cases has fallen into a bureaucratic black hole between the homicide detail and the medical examiner's office. Criminal and medical experts say it's highly unusual that the autopsy and police reports are still not available for three of the cases, two of which occurred more than a year ago.

The most notable of the four deaths is that of French national Hugues de la Plaza, who was found dead in his Hayes Valley apartment on June 2, 2007. His case garnered international attention when police called his death a suicide even though no note or bloody knife was found inside the apartment. Then there are Robert Peplies, 45, who died of knife wounds to the torso on August 31; and Jeremy Hill, 34, who was found dead in his bedroom on December 8. Hill had cuts to his arms and had bled out into a bowl. While Hill's death had the earmarks of suicide, the medical examiner kicked the case back upstairs to the homicide detail for further investigation four months later.

The medical examiner typically classifies suspicious deaths after reviewing the autopsy, toxicology reports, DNA analysis, and police reports. But that has happened only in de la Plaza's case. Some family members of the victims say they have grown weary of seeking answers from the endless circle of secrecy that surrounds the cases. Meanwhile, the San Francisco police won't discuss a case until the medical examiner completes the autopsy report, the medical examiner refuses to say why the report is taking so long, and police crime lab officials say nothing at all.

And it's not just the victims' families who are raising questions. A federal court embarrassed the San Francisco Police Department when it ordered all of the de la Plaza forensic evidence be turned over to the French police, who have taken the investigation back to Paris.

Some family members suspect the delays are a result of either colossal incompetence or a conspiracy to falsely reduce the city's annual homicide numbers, which last year threatened to exceed the politically radioactive number of 100 (2007 was a mayoral election year, and the official homicide count was 98). One homicide lieutenant strongly denies such speculation, and SF Weekly found no evidence of such manipulation.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi says the problem of delayed death classifications is just another symptom of a broken justice system that produces too few convictions for violent crimes, alongside an underperforming police department that has operated without accountability for years. Mirkarimi, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, says he has heard anecdotally that there are between 10 and 20 unclassified deaths from 2007, which could alter homicide statistics by as much as 20 percent. He says the committee has requested the exact numbers from the police department, to no avail.

But Mirkarimi says it is unfair to lay the problems entirely at the feet of the police department. The problem, he says, reaches into the offices of Mayor Gavin Newsom and Police Chief Heather Fong.

Schirra never spoke of suicide or hurting himself, says Tim Sandberg, who had known Schirra since the two grew up together in the Southern California town of Walnut.

Schirra was doing well in the broadcast and communication arts department at San Francisco State. He was looking forward to graduating, and wanted to begin recording musicians. According to Sandberg, Schirra had supportive parents and a tight-knit circle of good friends who loosely revolved around a band called the Fucking Buckaroos, which Sandberg plays in.

A year later, Schirra's friends still wonder how his death could have been an accident. The idea that he stabbed himself has been particularly hard to accept. "There's so many loose ends in this case," Sandberg says. "People have so many different opinions about what happened, and nobody is sure."

Statistically, they have reason to be skeptical. Self-inflicted stabbing deaths are rare. In 2005, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, 32,637 people committed suicide in the United States. Only 590 did so by cutting or piercing, and of those deaths, most were slashing or cutting to the wrists and, to a lesser degree, the throat, according to Lanny Berman, the director of the American Association of Suicidology. "Suicide by stabbing is very rare, and it's particularly rare for someone to stab themselves in the torso," he says.

Amy Hart, chief of the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, refused to comment for this story about the frequency of self-stabbing suicides, but last year she told de la Plaza's family she had seen only two such cases in her 30 years as a forensic pathologist, and in both cases the victims had a history of psychosis, according to de la Plaza's ex-girlfriend, Melissa Nix, who attended the meeting. (Of the four cases, only Robert Peplies had shown some signs of mental illness, though he had never been officially diagnosed.)

About The Author

John Geluardi


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