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Was This Really a Shark Attack Death? The Troubling Case of Michelle Von Emster

This case has remained unsolved for 29 years, 7 months, and 22 days.

It was a sunny, brisk April afternoon like any other that so many surfers enjoyed off the coast of San Diego. Sunset Cliffs was a popular surf spot with breaks like Subs and Rockslide, so it was no surprise that many were out there catching waves that Friday. Everything seemed fine until one of the surfers caught sight of something odd floating in a kelp bed.

Kelp forests are abundant off the Southern California coast.

Upon closer examination, the surfers realized they’d found the body of a young woman, one of her legs missing from the thigh down along with a number of other injuries, some of which looked to be shark bites. They contacted authorities and the body was brought in for autopsy.

The autopsy results concluded that the woman, a 25-year-old woman named Michelle Von Emster, had died from a great white shark attack. However, shark experts have long disagreed with that assessment. And while authorities still list the cause of death as a shark attack, many believe that there had to have been foul play involved.

So was Von Emster’s death the result of a great white shark attack? Or did her other numerous injuries point to something more along the lines of murder? Over 30 years later, people are still debating the case, and we still don’t have any definitive answers.

Table of Contents

About Michelle Von Emster

Michelle Von Emster was born on August 2, 1968, one of five girls in the family. She grew up in San Carlos, a California city that’s just south of San Francisco. In 1986, she graduated from all-girls Notre Dame High School. She reportedly was very interested in art, loved the ocean, and was described as beautiful and intelligent by her friends.

Michelle Von Emster.
Michelle Von Emster (All That’s Interesting).

After high school, Von Emster attended St. Mary’s college, although she was forced to withdraw when she was diagnosed with cancer shortly thereafter. Thankfully, she was able to beat cancer and decided to move to San Diego. She ended up in an Ocean Beach neighborhood colloquially known as the War Zone — known for drugs, cheap rent, and other shenanigans.

Was Von Emster Being Stalked?

Despite her living situation, Von Emster held down a job at a local coffee shop for a while, then moved on to a stationary and office supply store after claiming she was being stalked at the coffee shop by a man who rode a motorcycle. It’s not clear if this man has ever been formally identified.

Von Emster was a young woman making her way through life after some serious health issues. There was no indication that the bizarre circumstances surrounding passing would still be creating controversy decades later.

The Days Leading Up to the Discovery

In April 1994, Von Emster was a 25-year-old woman living in San Diego. A 2008 article written by Edwin Decker for the Southern California Writers’ Conference discussed Michelle Von Emster. Decker wrote that he’d not only known Von Emster well, but he’d also gone on a date with her just a short time before she died.

Decker wrote that he and Von Emster went on a date at Winston’s, a bar in Ocean Beach, and the two “watched bands and drank liquor.” They drank and eventually, Von Emster got a cab back to her home early on the morning of April 14, just one day before her body would be found.

April 14, 1994

According to Von Emster’s roommate, they tried to get into a Pink Floyd concert on the evening of April 14th. However, they were unable to get in, and the roommate decided to head home. Von Emster though wanted to stay out though and so the roommate dropped her off along Newport Avenue around 8:00 PM. That was the last time the roommate ever saw Von Emster.

The Day Her Body Was Found

On April 15, 1994, the body of a woman was found by surfers off the coast near Ladera Street. She was naked, had several injuries including a broken neck, and her right leg was missing from her thigh down. Immediately, the surfers who found her and others who saw the body thought her death was the result of a shark attack.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park (Ocean Beach Mainstreet Association).

Lieutenant Brant Bass of the San Diego Lifeguard Service stated, “Large pieces of flesh were missing and we don’t know what else [besides a shark attack] could have caused that type of wound” (Reuters World Service). After all, what else could have taken off one of Von Emster’s legs?

The Autopsy

According to the medical examiner’s autopsy, Von Emster had numerous injuries. It noted a broken neck and “large, tearing type wounds with missing tissue.” Her right leg was gone from the thigh down. Her arms and backside had shredded tissue, some of her ribs were cracked, and her pelvis had been pulled apart.

Von Emster was bled internally, and then ended up drowning — which meant she was still alive when she went into the water. Additionally, sand was found in her trachea, lungs, and stomach, indicating that she attempted to breathe when she was underwater, either in shallow water or on the bottom of the ocean.

The official autopsy report classified her manner of death as accidental and the result of a great white shark attack.

Timeline of Events

The medical examiner came up with a timeline of events following Von Emster’s autopsy.

  • April 14, 8:00 PM: Von Emster is last seen alive.
  • April 15, 12:00 AM: Von Emster decides to go skinny dipping in the ocean and is attacked by a great white shark.
  • April 15, 3:20 PM: A body is found near Sunset Cliffs Natural Park.
The approximate location of where Von Emster’s body was found on April 15, 1994.
The approximate location of where Von Emster’s body was found on April 15, 1994.

Experts Disagree on Cause of Death

Interestingly, the International Shark File (ISAF) does not list Von Emster as a shark attack fatality due to lack of evidence. In fact, the ISAF concluded that the shark bites on Von Emster’s body were not only not from white sharks, but they were inflicted post-mortem — that is, she was already dead when the sharks bit her body.

Ralph Collier, another shark expert, was quoted in the San Diego Union Tribune as also doubting the great white shark attack theory:

“One of the things that struck me was the condition of the limb. When a white shark bites off part of a limb, the break is clean, almost like you put it on a table saw. What remained of Michelle’s femur was anything but. It looked like what happens when you get a piece of bamboo and whittle it down to a point with a knife. The bone came to a point. This type of injury is caused when a bone is twisted under a great deal of force.”

Ralph Collier (Source: San Diego Reader)

Collier also stated that the tooth impressions left on Von Emster’s body were not consistent with an attack by a white shark. Other experts suggested that the bites were more likely from smaller blue sharks that roam the waters off the California coast. Notably however, blue sharks prefer deeper water.

A retired pathologist, Harry Bonnell, MD, also didn’t think that Von Emster’s death was the result of a shark attack. When asked if he thought she’d died by shark attack, Bonnell replied, “It could have happened if she was at the bottom and couldn’t get away. It’s possible, but it’s not probable.”

The official documents say that Von Emster’s death was the result of a great white shark attack.
The official documents say that Von Emster’s death was the result of a great white shark attack.

Von Emster’s Belongings Found

A purse that was later determined to belong to Von Emster was located about a half-mile north of where her body was found. It contained her driver’s license, some keys, cigarettes, and $27 in cash.

A walker found the purse around 11:00 PM on Friday, April 15, after Von Emster’s body had been located. That means the purse would have been out on the beach since the night before, when Von Emster supposedly went into the water. Had the purse really been untouched after spending over 24 hours in plain sight?

Some have suggested that the purse was planted at that site after Von Emster’s body was found with the evidence being that the purse hadn’t been touched. A retired private investigator stated, “It still had money inside it because it hadn’t been on the beach that long.” The implication, therefore, would be that someone else was involved and had planted the purse there.

Drift Tests

Some experts conducted drift tests to see how long it would have taken Von Emster’s body to drift from where her purse was found to the location where surfers found her. It was calculated that it would have taken about 15 hours for that to happen.

Since her roommate had dropped her off around 8:00 PM the night before, that leaves a roughly four-hour time period that is unaccounted for. No witnesses have come forward saying they saw her in this time, although it’s possible that she sat on the beach for a while and then decided to get into the water around midnight. However, it should be noted that the water temperature at that time was a chilly 59 degrees, so skinny dipping would have been uncomfortable at best and hypothermia-inducing at worst.

Theories on What Happened

Because it’s been over 30 years since Von Emster’s body was found off the shore of San Diego, there has been a lot of time for tons of theories to manifest. Some are possible, some are out there, but none has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Shark Attack

To this day, Michelle Von Emster’s death is still classified by authorities as the result of a shark attack. However, as laid out previously, there are many experts who disagree with this assessment, most notably the ISAF and the idea that the shark bites were inflicted post-mortem. If this is true, then she was dead before the sharks got to her.

Decker, the man who went on a date with Von Emster shortly before she went missing, also doesn’t think the shark attack theory holds water. He wrote:

“I was crazy about Michelle and was looking forward to seeing her again, and again, and again. But late the next night, Michelle went skinny-dipping off Sunset Cliffs and was attacked and killed by a “shark.” I put the word “shark” in quotes because now (thanks in part to phone my conversation with Collier) I don’t believe that’s what killed her.”

Edwin Decker (Source: Southern California Writers’ Conference)

A Fall From a Cliff

If you’ve ever been to Southern California and to the area around San Diego specifically, you’ll have seen the sandy, precarious cliffsides that stretch near the plentiful beaches. I grew up in North San Diego County and, almost every year, there would be a news report (or several news reports) of someone falling and getting injured or dying. Landslides too are a danger, with some beachgoers getting crushed under tons of sediment if they chose a spot too close to the precarious cliffsides.

The cliffs around Sunset Cliffs are around 75′ high, plenty high enough for someone to fall off and severely injure themselves or even die. It seems more likely that Von Emster fell from a cliff and succumbed to her injuries and drowning before the sharks attacked her, if that’s indeed what happened. Her numerous other injuries (like a broken neck) could indicate that she fell from one of the high cliffs.

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park (

Foul Play –  Murder

Some have suggested that either Decker (the man who wrote about Von Emster after her death) or a stalker killed her and then threw her in the ocean, hoping that her body would disappear for good.

In an article by Buzzfeed, claims are made that an unknown man came in and made several copies of Von Emster’s autopsy report. However, the authors don’t offer any sources for this information so it’s hard to confirm the veracity of the claims.

I found another article that mentioned a man who rode a motorcycle who made copies of the autopsy report. Could this man have been the stalker that Von Emster had mentioned before her disappearance? No additional information about this man or any potential connection to the case has been released to the public.

The Buzzfeed article also suggests that Decker might’ve had something to do with Von Emster’s death, stating that he was “sketchy” and “creepy.” I’m not convinced that Decker had anything to do with her disappearance based on the evidence we have — which is admittedly limited. In fact, he was one of the ones who wanted Von Emster’s case reopened (which, in all fairness to Buzzfeed, they mentioned).

All that being said, the injuries that Von Emster had seem to indicate that something traumatic did happen to her, though if it was due to someone attacking her or her falling from a cliff is unclear.

Other Foul Play Suggestions

Other ideas regarding her death that might be related to foul play are interesting, to say the least. Some suggest she was at a party, overdosed on a drug, and the partygoers had to get rid of her body so they threw her off one of the high San Diego cliffsides. Or perhaps she was run over by a boat while surfing at night, as others have suggested, or she ended up with a snapped neck from body surfing. As you can see, there are many theories about what happened to this young woman.

What Do I Think Happened?

The fact that Von Emster had so many injuries points to something more than just a shark attack, in my opinion. A broken neck and pelvis could indicate that she fell, or it could indicate something like foul play prior to her being placed in the water.

Probably Not a Shark Attack

Many shark experts have disagreed with the official report, and I’m inclined to believe them. Besides the fact that shark attacks are exceedingly rare (you’re much more likely to get struck by lightning than attacked by a shark), the bites on Von Emster’s body were determined to be inflicted post-mortem, or after she was already deceased.

A blue shark is a much smaller species of shark than the great white. The largest blue sharks are about 12 feet in length.
A blue shark is a much smaller species of shark than the great white. The largest blue sharks are about 12 feet in length (Photo © Mark Conlin NMFS).

An Accident or Foul Play?

It seems more likely to me that there was some sort of an accident or incident prior to Von Emster’s death. A fall from a high cliffside could’ve produced the injuries that she had (broken neck and pelvis), and if there was a high tide that night, her body could’ve been swept out to sea where the blue sharks or a white shark got to her. If it was an accidental fall though, that doesn’t explain why she was naked.

The other, more nefarious thought is that someone did something to Von Emster and then threw her in the ocean, hoping that sharks or other sea creatures would dispose of her body. If that was the case, it worked well, as her death is still attributed to a shark attack.

Many Questions, Few Answers

No evidence has been made public that points to any one theory, be it accident or foul play. We’ll probably never know the full picture when it comes to this case, and since it’s officially closed, no further investigations are being conducted.

What’s most troubling is that her family still doesn’t have the closure they need. Von Emster’s mother has stated:

“There’s the ocean temperature, and she was nude. Part of me does not want to dig this stuff up because it may create more hurt than help. But if there is foul play, I can’t stand the thought of somebody walking around out there, who could do it again.”

Von Emster’s Mother (Source: Boating Magazine)

And, unfortunately, that’s where the case is left at now. Perhaps one day, we’ll learn something more, but until then, we’re left with a long list of troubling questions and too few answers.

Cold Case Questions

  • Do you think a shark killed Von Emster?
  • How do you think Von Emster ended up with the severe trauma (broken bones)?
  • Will we ever have a definite answer in this case?

Let me know your thoughts about this case in the comment section below!

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