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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.