July 15, 2021

The Mind-Boggling Death of Michelle Von Emster

When two fishermen discover a woman’s mangled dead body off the shores near Sunset Cliffs in San Diego, California, they assume it was nothing more than a shark attacking an unfortunate swimmer. However, when police identified the body as 25-year-old Michelle Von Emster, locals in the area who knew the victim had both doubts and questions concerning her death.

Michelle Von Emster was only 25-years-old when her body was found.

Unpredictable As All Hell

Sunset Cliffs offers breath-taking views overlooking San Diego’s beaches extending out into the ocean. Signs warn those who brave enough to step out on the cliff’s edge about the genuine risk of falling into the jagged rocks below. According to someone familiar with the area “people get married here. People fall to their deaths here.”

The soft edges of Sunset Cliffs can be a death sentence if you get too close.

If you fall, but somehow survive, the “unpredictable as all hell” rip currents and wave action will most likely carry you further out to sea, where you may find a shark or two.

This scenario police theorized fit 25-year-old Michelle Von Emster’s tragic death. It was only when the local media began probing into the oddities surrounding her death that the narrative changed.

Surfing Naked

Michelle Von Emster was in the ocean every day. She was a free-spirit, loved to surf, and loved to swim. This has not always been Von Emster’s life, however. In fact, it was only a few short years ago that she hung in the throes of life and death, battling a disgusting form of cancer that nearly killed her.

Von Emster was one of 5 other girls from San Carlos, California. She excelled in academics, graduating from Notre Dame High School in 1986, and then attending the respected St. Mary’s College. However, she dropped out after discovering that she was dying from leukemia, a cancer of blood-forming tissues.

After spending one year in and out of a “chamber of radiation horrors”, Von Emster won her battle with cancer. With a new lease on her life, Von Emster left her San Carlos home for San Diego and moved closer to the ocean.

Living in Ocean Beach suited Michelle. She was free of her disease and enjoying this new freedom. She was in the ocean every day, either swimming or surfing.

Locals say that she liked to surf naked.

Pulled Apart

Michelle's leg was torn off at the femur and her pelvis was pulled apart.
Michelle's leg was torn off at the femur and her pelvis was pulled apart. Source: Buzzfeed Unsolved

There is absolutely no doubt sharks fed that Michelle Von Emster’s body. Her mangled body proved this. The medical examiner noticed the “large, tearing type wounds with missing tissue.” Most of Michelle’s leg was gone and “sheared off mid-thigh”. All that remained of her buttocks was “shredded tissue”. Michelle’s pelvis had been “pulled apart by brute force.”

Worst of all, she sustained these horrific injuries while alive. Michelle bled internally until she finally drowned.

The examiner’s theory was that at least one white shark, if not multiple, had picked her apart. Once the white sharks had had their fill, a swarm of blue sharks began feeding.

Wayne Pawelek, a diving safety officer, claimed that the attack was not a “great white” - think Jaws - but a regular white shark that was probably under 12 feet.

*I need to clarify that the above paragraph is speculation. In reality, nobody knows what marine species attacked Michelle Von Emster.

It was Von Emster’s employer, Denis Knox, who identified Von Emster’s body, later claiming, “She looked, I don’t know, peaceful.”

The medical examiner listed the official cause of death as “Accident and drowned in the aftermath of a great white shark attack.”

Rarer Than Rare

It was when the newspapers reported Von Emster’s death that the anonymous phone calls poured in to police headquarters. “Michelle would never swim without a bathing suit”, said one caller. Another was sure that her death involved foul play.

Lt. Charlie Wright, San Diego City Lifeguard Division, said “I would say this is more than rare based on the geographic area we cover and the number of beach patrons that come to the beach. This is absolutely unheard of. It’s rarer than rare.”

Does “rarer than rare” mean her death didn’t happen the way police initially believed?

According to Ralph Collier, expert in Pacific Coast White Sharks and author of Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century, had his own doubts. The separation of Michelle’s femur bone was not a clean break, as custom for white sharks, but ripped “like when you put it on a table saw.” In an interview with the San Diego Reader, Collier explained the femur was sharpened down to a “point”, which could have been caused by a boat’s propeller, “but not a shark bite.”

Also noticeable to Collier was the absence of any white shark tooth impressions.

Theories

As with any unsolved case, theories and speculation abound. I am listing the theories that are stated on the San Diego Reader article “Naked and alone in the ocean at night” (link in sources).

  1. Michelle fell to her death off the Sunset Cliffs (not uncommon)
  2. A boat collided with her as she was surfing (her pointed femur could explain this)
  3. A car hit her, and then she was tossed over the cliff
  4. Michelle was in pornographic snuff film (I would definitely monitor whoever suggested this),
  5. She was loaded up on LSD before swimming naked (maybe Michelle and her roommate tried (they couldn’t get in) to see a Pink Floyd concert earlier in the night
  6. She committed suicide (unlikely since she just conquered her cancer)
  7. She face-planted while body surfing snapping her neck in the process
  8. Cheated a dope dealer, which drowned her (she smoked marijuana, but this still seems excessive)
  9. She was a victim of a stalker or nut job (see next section)

What police are certain of is the timeline leading up to when Michelle arrived at the ocean. Her roommate, Coco Campbell, dropped Von Emster near the beach around 8 p.m. the night of her death. The girls had attempted to see Pink Floyd that night, but due to ticketing issues, could not see the show.

The Stalker and The Creep

One popular theory that surrounds Von Emster’s mysterious death is that her stalker, apparently an older guy riding a motorcycle.. This stalker has never been identified, but Michelle’s friends believe he exists, since she had to quit her job at Rumors Coffee shop solely because of this mysterious stalker.

Was Michelle killed by her stalker and dumped in the ocean?

One of the last people to see Michelle before her death was a local author and total creep, Edwin Decker. Decker has done a good job on hiding his identity on the internet, but his website is still available on the Wayback Machine.

Edwin Decker was one of the last to see Michelle Von Emster.
Obsessive is an understatement here. Edwin Decker was one of the last to see Michelle Von Emster.

I couldn’t find anyone who actually believes that this guy had anything to do with her death, but I wanted to add him in this article as a warning that creeps come in all shapes and sizes.

Decker met Von Emster at Rumors Coffee Shop where he “was instantly attracted to her.” He then reminisces on her appearance and caps it off with a poem written a day after they found her body.

"The reports 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."

Exactly, right.

So what, foul play or not?

Honestly, no one knows for sure how Von Emster was killed or how she spent her last minutes before her death. Personally, I tend lean more towards the accidental death, possibly hit by a boat (her pointed femur bone) and/or mauled by a shark.

I found a recent post, from Michelle’s sister (unverified) on Websleuths that claims the family believes there is no mystery to her sibling’s untimely death. The easiet explanation may be the truth.

Is this really Michelle's sister? Photo Source: Websleuths
Is this really Michelle's sister? Photo Source: Websleuths

In the end, I like to believe that Michelle Von Emster was a fighter who died doing what she loved: swimming naked. She conquered leukaemia and was truly living her best life.

Best wishes to the family, I hope I covered this story in its best light.


Sources

Shark attack victim had battled cancer and won

Detectives: shark killed woman, case closed

Naked and alone in the ocean at night

The dangers of Sunset Cliffs: Average of 5 deaths and injuries per year - 2005 to 2017

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