On October 21st 2003, Elliott Smith died from two stab wounds. Although it was initially reported to the LAPD as a suicide, the autopsy report stated that the cause of death ‘could not be determined’, and it has remained officially so.
In 2003, LA Coroner’s spokesman David Campbell declared: ‘The trauma that he sustained could have been inflicted by him or by another and the coroner has not been able to make a determination.’ He added that toxicology tests found no illegal or controlled substances but that Elliott was apparently taking antidepressants and medication for attention deficit disorder at the time of his death, although he was not abusing them. He also said the case would remain open and that coroner’s officials would revisit their findings if additional information surfaced.
Eight years have passed, and no new information has officially appeared, but a lot has happened.
Although suicide by stabbing is not unheard of, it is a very unusual form of suicide, as this quote from Lanny Berman, the director of the American Association of Suicidology clearly states:
‘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. Suicide by stabbing is very rare, and it’s particularly rare for someone to stab themselves in the torso.’
According to a study on suicides (‘Retrospective study on suicidal cases by sharp force injuries’, Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine 15 (2008) 163-167), suicide by sharp force injuries accounted for only 2.5% of all suicides in the prefecture the authors studied during 1995-2005.
It is not the only rarity in Elliott’s case. If he did commit suicide by stabbing, he presented none of the usual characteristics associated with this form of suicide, i.e. hesitation marks and removal of the clothes, but had instead some marks that could have been interpreted as defense wounds according to the coroner.
According to a paper which studied 58 suicides and 149 homicides by sharp force injury, 74% of the suicides were positive for hesitation marks and 61% of the homicides for defense wounds (‘Suicidal and homicidal sharp force injury: a 5-year retrospective comparative study of hesitation marks and defense wounds’, by Stéphanie Racette, Célia Kremer, Anne Desjarlais and Anny Sauvageau, Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology Volume 4, Number 4, 221-227)
These details may not tell us for sure what happened, but they are unusual enough to warrant further investigation.
Jennifer Chiba was Elliott’s girlfriend and lived with him at the house where he died. In Chiba’s statement to the LAPD, she was the only person present when Elliott died. When she talked to the police, she described Elliott’s death as a suicide and painted a portrait of Elliott as a troubled person for whom suicide would not be unlikely, stating to the police that ‘the decedent has suffered from depression all his life. He had a history of multiple narcotics addiction (heroin and crack) and alcohol abuse although he had been clean for over one year. He engaged in self-mutilating behavior and would burn himself with cigarettes. He has a history of one possible suicide attempt (unknown details/time frame/circumstances) and a consistent history of verbal suicidal ideations and planning. The decedent sought treatment for his depression from several psychiatrists and was being treated with multiple prescription drugs.’
We don’t know whether the police attempted to find any confirmation about these facts, however, it should be noted that the ’suicide attempt’ mentioned in the police report is likely a reference to what is sometimes called ‘the cliff attempt’ by people writing about Elliott, and is not actually confirmed to be an attempt as suicide. Elliott jumped from a cliff while running drunk one night with some friends, but his intentions weren’t clear.
An anonymous source who was close to Elliott said that: ‘Although he sometimes told the press otherwise, in private, he would actually laugh about the whole episode and readily admit he never intended to die that night.’
So, although none of these statements in the police report are plainly untrue, this is a complicated case and may not be as simple as suicide.
Recently, I got some info from a source close to Elliott, who is a solid and very reliable one. As this person wants to remain anonymous, each time I will refer to this person as ‘a source close to Elliott’.
1 • The DUI and the cause of the argument on October 21st:
Chiba publicly declared several times that she and Elliott were arguing on October 21st because she wanted him to drive her to an appointment with her therapist.
But there was much more to in the story.
First, she could not drive herself because she had received a DUI (with a $15,000 bail amount) a few weeks before (on August 30th to be exact, for alcohol/drugs as it is stipulated on the paper), and secondly, it was not her first DUI since according to this website (http://www.losangelescaduilawyer.co/los-angeles-dui-arrested-lawyer.html) ‘One Prior DUI Conviction Within 10 Years receives a $15,000 bail amount + Court Appearance’.
They may have argued about her DUI and the $15,000 bail amount, but again, the argument had to be more serious to reach this extremity.
Despite the fact that Chiba has proclaimed they were getting married, there were serious rumors Elliott wanted to leave her, and these rumors were confirmed by the source close to Elliott: at the memorial service, Jennifer Chiba confessed to a friend of Elliott that on the morning he died, Elliott had told her he wanted to leave her.
2 • A thud or a scream?
Since the beginning, there has been a lot of confusion in the articles about what exactly Chiba heard when she locked herself in the bathroom, a thud or a scream?
In the police report it is stated that she heard the decedent scream while she was in the bathroom, but she mentioned a thud at other occasions and in particular she used that precise term when she first spoke to the source close to Elliott. When she opened the bathroom door, Elliott was still standing at the kitchen sink, his back facing her, so what thud could she have heard?
Another interesting point, in the documentary ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, she said that ‘she heard a terrible noise coming from the kitchen’.
3 • The first aid thing:
As stated in the police report, Jennifer Chiba pulled the knife out of Elliott’s chest while he was still standing.
It can easily be verified that she had been a family therapist since 1995, lost her license in 2001 as she was probably not able to complete the required number of hours (she was involved in a band ‘Happy Ending’ at the time) but she got a new license in 2005.
A person, who is also a therapist and did study at the same university, Loyola Marymount University, told me the following:
‘Anyone who takes a Basic First Aid class, even the people who sleep through it, are scared straight from any idea of removing an impaled object of any kind. It creates a second trauma and increases the bleed. You leave it in and wrap it to staunch the bleeding. This particularly stressed in training for clinicians who work with children!!!’
According to this person, Chiba works/has worked with children (http://www.5acres.org being the place where she is apparently currently working) as an Art Therapist under the Marriage and Family pre-license, since it is a special program offered at LMU.
The following is in the police report, and this point has not been stressed enough:
‘Additionally, the girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern’…. It is a big deal and the only explanation she had to offer when interviewed in the ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ documentary was that she did not know and just wanted to help Elliott.
We cannot evaluate for sure the thoroughness of Chiba’s exposure to First Aid class, but this therapist I spoke with said ‘I guarantee you, she would not have been able to work without it.’
4 • The blood spots
After the removal of the knife, it is reported in the police report that Elliott ‘walked away and Jennifer followed him to where he collapsed’.
Musician Robin Peringer (who became Chiba’s roommate for a little while after Elliott’s death, and he is now in the band Figg with Gilden Tunador, an ex-member of Chiba’s band Happy Ending) told Filter magazine ‘the harrowing story of cleaning up the blood throughout Elliott’s house after the suicide.’
People who have been stabbed can still walk a lot but we have to wonder why Elliott was walking that much so that he put blood throughout the house.
In the ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ documentary, Chiba even said she was afraid he would jump from the balcony.
The blood spots would have revealed more about the scene, but when I called the detective, he could not tell me if such an examination had been performed.
When we know the precautions the police usually take on a crime scene, it is a little strange Peringer is describing the cleaning of the blood. The problem is that the house was never considered as a crime scene, because Elliott was pronounced dead at the hospital and questions arose only after the autopsy results.
5 • The phone inconsistency
After the removal of the knife, Elliott was on the floor, bleeding to death, and Jennifer Chiba admitted to the source close to Elliott that the ambulance was delayed because her cell phone was not working.
But there was a landline. Elliott had used this landline to talk to this same person on the phone a few days before he died. We are left to wonder why she didn’t she use it.
Not only Chiba acknowledged she did not call immediately the ambulance, using this cell phone excuse, but some rumors even said she called someone else before calling 911.
6 • The fingerprints on the knife:
Different people said that the police was not able to use any fingerprints on the knife, the detective again did not want to comment about it but this has been firmly confirmed once again by the source close to Elliott.
If Elliott stabbed himself twice, his fingerprints should have been on the knife, Chiba removed the knife and her fingerprints should have been on it.
We don’t know whether no fingerprints at all or just muddled ones, not readable, were found on the knife, but this leads us to believe that the knife may have been wiped, or cleaned up in order to make the determination of who was holding the knife impossible.
It was a kitchen knife with a 8-inch blade that both of them were probably using, but we can reasonably suppose it was clean before it was used for the stabbing, so the fingerprints the police should have been able to find on the handle would have certainly revealed something about the scene. Interestingly, there was still some blood on the blade, up to 6’ 5/8 inch from the tip.
7 • The suicide note:
A possible suicide note, written on a Post-it, which read: ‘I’m so sorry—love, Elliott. God forgive me’ was found in the house. The coroner’s report had the name Elliott misspelled as ‘Elliot’, however a coroner’s official said his name was misspelled in the report, not on the Post-it note. The family was never able to see it, the police kept it and the analysis performed on it was never made public.
According to the police report, while Elliott was taken to the hospital by the ambulance, Chiba was questioned by the police (for the first and only time); this is an excerpt of the police report:
‘During the questioning, she was seated at the kitchen table and noted for the first time a ‘Post-it’ note that appeared to be a suicide note left by the decedent. Jennifer recognized the handwriting on the note as that of the decedent and had not seen the note before that moment’…
A suicide note is something regarded as essential to determine if a death was a suicide, although it is in no way something that people do systematically: according to Wikipedia, it is estimated that only 12–20% of suicides are accompanied by a note, and according to Gelder, Mayou and Geddes only one in six leave a suicide note (Gelder, Mayou, Geddes (2005). Psychiatry: Page 170. New York, NY; Oxford University Press Inc.)
But if this was really a suicide note, it is a very oddly generic one, nothing on it is a sure indication that Elliott indeed committed suicide, and nothing on it reveals it is addressed to Chiba, or anyone else for that matter. The note could have been written at any time, under any circumstances, and it’s a bit puzzling if the point of the note was to prevent her from feeling guilty of his suicide.
Furthermore, there is something into this extremely inconsistent with what we know about the circumstances of the incident. They were arguing, fighting, she said she locked herself in the bathroom, and she said she refused to open the bathroom door even though Elliott was crying and begging her to open it. It was a heated situation and if Elliott did stab himself then, it was a typical spur-of-the-moment act. Again, it seems very odd that he would nonetheless suddenly pause the begging-and-crying to bother with a suicide note, then resume the self-slaughter.
It is also very rare that people write a suicide note when there is someone present.
As we already said, there were two aspects in Elliott’s case which are rare in case of suicide: the stabbing through the clothes and the absence of hesitation marks, both atypical of suicide although occasionally possible, as most people who commit this very unusual form of suicide usually remove their clothes, stab themselves with a bare chest, and have some hesitation marks showing that the subject was hesitating before finding the right pace to plunge the knife. Nothing of the kind for Elliott, which would indicate he did it very fast, without hesitation, as I said, in the heat of the moment…. Again, this is in conflict with taking the time to write a suicide note.
Furthermore, stabbing yourself when a loved one is right behind the door is an incredibly aggressive and hostile act. If he did stab himself, it certainly was the ultimate ‘Fuck you’ to her, and it’s hard to reconcile such an enraged gesture with the apologetic tone of the ‘suicide note’, mild and vague as it is, when both acts were done in a very short amount of time.
8 • What Dr. Scheinin said about the cuts:
On his arrival at the hospital, Elliott was still alive. Emergency treatment to stop the hemorrhaging was attempted, but he died in the operating room.
Beside the 2 deep wounds in the chest, possible defensive cuts were found. In the ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ documentary, several people go to great lengths to explain these cuts, and Robin Peringer claimed they were due to Elliott’s cutting behavior, repeating what he had already declared to Spin magazine (Mr. Misery, by Liam Gowing, Spin 2004, p 80-92):
‘He had three really tremendous knife wounds on his left arm. They were deep, like he had to go across a couple of times or have the sharpest, biggest knife to do it.’
We can even precisely fathom the date, because Chiba states in this same article:
‘I came home from seeing Lost in Translation and he was lying in the bed with his arm bleeding. He had seven old cigarette burns on his arm. It was evidence of his pain from that period that was just a little too real, so he’d taken a knife to it.’
Since Lost in Translation was released on October 3rd 2003 according to Wikipedia, it could only have taken place just a few days before he died, however Dr. Scheinin found no trace of any ‘tremendous knife wounds’ on his left arm (I will go back to the cigarette burns later).
The Gil Reyes documentary features an even stranger intervention: Steve Hanft suggests that Elliott was wearing leather bracelets to cover ‘something’ on his wrists. Which is just a lie, plain and simple, when I talked to Dr Scheinin, she left no question about that: Elliott’s wrists were totally intact and scar free, he may have been a cutter but not a wrist-cutter.
Furthermore, Dr. Scheinin was very clear, saying that the possible defense wounds were fresh and not compatible with self-mutilation, ‘it’s not self-cutting’ she said. The location of these wounds (under the right arm and on the left palm) was indeed incompatible with self-cutting. She even said these wounds were not consistent with hesitation marks, which are usually around the stab wounds, although she did not rule out some cutting by accident, like a possible mishandling of the knife.
Chiba also mentioned some cigarette burns on his arm, burns which were noticed by Dr. Scheinin during the autopsy. They actually were visible during his 2002-3 concerts, and many people had noticed that Elliott had round marks making a swirl line on his left arm. Elliott used to hide them with some Sharpie-tattoo he was drawing before shows.
I actually met someone who explained to me the origin of these marks. He was in a band called Plasticsoul (an obvious reference to the Beatles) and met Elliott when he was working with David McConnell in the Malibu studio that gave its name to Elliott’s last album since it is indeed located in a ‘basement on the hill’. At this time (around April 2001) it is an understatement to say Elliott was in pretty bad shape, as he was taking a huge amount of drugs, and Plasticsoul told me that Elliott, while doing a lot of crack, had inflicted these cigarette burns to himself because he wanted to burn insects and worms he thought were crawling on his arm. He described me Elliott as a very crazy person at the time, hallucinating because of the drugs.
There is a big difference between someone injuring himself because of hallucinations and someone doing this completely sober in order to harm oneself, as cutters will. Elliott may have harmed himself on other occasions, but these cigarette burns simply cannot be attributed to self-mutilating behavior.
9 • The visit to the studio after Elliott’s death:
Elliott died on October 21st, in the middle of the day, and the second night after his death, Jennifer Chiba, along with two other people (one was Robin Peringer), were seen by Caroline Cooley-Shams, who owns the studio next to Elliott’s:
‘[…] the second night after Elliott’s death at about 12:00 am in the morning Chiba came, in a jeep with two guys. […] I sat in the car with my partner, directly facing their car and finally she came out and put many boxes into the car with the help of the guys. I felt like protecting Elliott, what if it’s his music or writings, what if it’s something that people need to see. We stared at them as they filled the back of the car.’
Chiba still had access to the studio, and we don’t know what she took exactly, but she got there before Elliott’s family. Someone suggested she took her own recordings (Elliott was helping her band ‘Happy Ending’), it’s a possibility but some fans did receive precious recordings as nice presents later on. I even got a track ‘Dancing on the Highway’ from a ‘Chiba’s compilation 2’ circulating around, a song never released elsewhere.
Chiba had a close relationship with some fans, and some moderators of the Elliott Smith board did in fact delete or censor any thread questioning her actions for quite some time after Elliott’s death until the family had to put their foot down.
10 • Contradictions about Elliott’s state of mind before he died:
Many contradictory statements have been made regarding Elliott’s state of mind after his death. Even the same people have said totally different things depending of the time of the interview.
According to Pitchfork Media, Larry Crane said he had planned to help Elliott mix his album in mid-November. Crane wrote, and Chiba called him a week or so before Elliott died to ask him to come to L.A. and help mix and finish the album:
‘I said yes, of course, and chatted with Elliott for the first time in ages. It seems surreal that he would call me to finish an album and then a week later kill himself. I talked to Jennifer this morning, who was obviously shattered and in tears, and she said, ‘I don’t understand, he was so healthy.’
According to Chiba, the Spin article and several other sources, Elliott had been clean for a year; the toxicology reports of the autopsy are even here to prove it: ‘Toxicology tests revealed no illicit substances. All medications were therapeutic or subtherapeutic.’ (Elliott was taking some antidepressants).
Someone I knew, who ran into Robin Peringer two days after Elliott’s death at the memorial wall on Sunset boulevard, wrote this:
‘Robin wanted me to let you know that they had been practicing every day for 7 (?) I think he said 7 hours a day, preparing for the Iggy and the stooges, ATP show here in LA which was supposed to happen on November 8th. He also wanted me to let you know that Elliott was very happy, always laughing, very upbeat, cracking jokes all of the time. There was no sign, whatsoever of anything like this happening. He said, two days before it happened they were sitting on Elliott’s porch talking about growing a garden, making plans for the records. It turns out they were going to release one and then another one instead of a double record and then they were going to continue releasing two records a year like the Beatles did.’
in the Spin article published several months later, Chiba and Peringer formulated very different opinions, as they describe a man fighting his depression and trying to repress his memory of child abuse. Actually everybody in this article was talking about Elliott’s child abuse past as the cause of his suicide:
- Steve Hanft: ‘Elliott said he was abused by his stepfather. He said it was real bad mental trauma. He said he never got over it.’
- Chiba: ‘He was remembering traumatic things from his childhood-parts of things. It’s not my place to say what.’
- Robin Peringer, during the last month of his life, Smith’s relationship with his stepfather “was all he f—ing talked about.”
Last May, during the Q&A following the screening of ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, there was no question of child abuse anymore, but Chiba declared Elliott was ‘seriously mentally ill’ (her own words), something in total contradiction with her first version, ‘I don’t understand, he was so healthy’.
Robin Peringer said in the Spin article:
“We were at Starbucks, and three guys walked in all wearing black pants, white shirts, and ties. And we had to leave because they were all ‘from DreamWorks,’ sent there to follow him- you know, not three businessmen going there to get coffee. He used to take pictures of random white cars. Every white car was following us. Pretty much everybody was following him. They were bugging his conversations. There’d be days where he’d stay up four days straight. I’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’d be rambling this nonsense. I watched that movie A Beautiful Mind, and it reminded me of hanging out with Elliott. He believed these things were there and knew they weren’t necessarily real, but he couldn’t control his thoughts.’
Thus people who were claiming how healthy Elliott was when he died, are now stating years later he was mentally ill, was cutting himself and was in obvious paranoid mode.
However the timeline should be carefully examined. Yes, Elliott was probably very paranoid when he was taking massive amount of drugs, but not when he died, it was not the case anymore, he was clean and had been clean for several months.
A few statements from friends have also brought some light on Elliott’s state of mind at the time, like this one from Lou Barlow when they saw each other around Elliott’s last Birthday (July-August 2003):
‘He was very soft and very childlike at his birthday party in July. I mean, he had been through so much stuff since he had moved to L.A. and he had changed so much. His personality had really changed and he had really hurt himself over the period of time that he lived here.’
But this other one from Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza who saw him the night before he died, is especially revealing:
‘He would talk about dying. But it was never about suicide – it was about drugs. He always said he could never kill himself. For a lot of people, it wasn’t a surprise. But for me, it didn’t make sense at all. I saw him the night before he died; he seemed fine.’
Another source close to Elliott said to me that ‘he consistently said that if he was ever to do it, he would do it in a way that would not hurt his family. He would choose a way they could live with, something that could have been an accident, like an overdose.’
Elliott had not quit his prescription ‘cold turkey’ as it is implied in the Spin article (‘In mid-September, the effects of going cold turkey were apparent’) since the autopsy revealed he had in fact a normal dose of antidepressants and medication for attention deficit disorder at the time of his death but he was not abusing them.
Drugs may have changed him, but in October 2003 he was clean, taking a normal prescription of antidepressant.