Cold case

Pub date September 25, 2007
WriterG.W. Schulz


The gruesome death of a French national living in San Francisco is becoming a political hornet’s nest for local top law enforcement officials and the Mayor’s Office.

It’s still not clear how local homicide cops will define 36-year-old Hugues de la Plaza’s death after months of allowing for and even favoring the possibility that he took his own life. Suicide would have made things much less difficult for everyone in San Francisco responsible for catching those who kill, but few people close to de la Plaza believe that he killed himself.

But the French ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, a confidant of newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy, is following the case closely, and a police officer at the French consulate in Los Angeles is transutf8g hundreds of e-mails from de la Plaza’s Google and Yahoo accounts as well as mining material from the hard drive of his computer after breaking into it last week, a task homicide inspectors here apparently hadn’t yet bothered with.

"I have notified others regarding the implications contained in your letter and the wishes that you expressed to ensure an in-depth and serious inquest into the death of your son," Vimont wrote to de la Plaza’s parents, Mireille and François, earlier this year, according to our rough translation.

The status of the case right now is hardly reassuring for the de la Plazas, who forked out their own cash for a private investigator.

Recent photos of de la Plaza show him with unshorn black hair spilling out from an army cap and wide dark eyes under a pair of bushy brows.

His ex-girlfriend, Mellisa Nix, with whom he remained close, will testify soon in front of the Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee on how well the SFPD is investigating violent crimes in the city as the homicide rate marches swiftly toward a 15-year high.

More than half of the annual homicide cases in San Francisco since 2001 have resulted in no arrests, according to the Police Department’s statistics, and that includes those in which the feds became involved.

Nix has doggedly pursued de la Plaza’s case, starting a blog with photos and updates, frequently calling area newsrooms to urge follow-up stories — she’s a reporter for the Sacramento Bee — and pestering the SFPD’s homicide unit to the point that it now refuses to answer her questions. Messages we left with the SFPD’s Bureau of Investigations seeking comment were not returned.

"From the get-go I had a sense that this investigation was being conducted in a fashion that doesn’t shed a very good light on the SFPD," Nix told the Guardian. "I was the one who had to call the parents and tell them their son was dead."

Two police officers kicked open the back door of 462 Linden on the morning of June 2 after a neighbor discovered blood dripping off de la Plaza’s front doorknob, with spattered pools of it leading from the threshold. They found de la Plaza lying on the floor, stabbed multiple times amid a grizzly scene of more blood that spread from the bathroom up the hallway to the kitchen and into the living room, where it soaked the coach and a television was knocked over.

De la Plaza had recently purchased land in Argentina, earned a promotion at work, acquired a new laptop, and made plans for the upcoming week — all things friends say a man considering suicide wouldn’t have done. But Nix said he had been frequently dating online, and it’s possible that an estranged lover or someone’s boyfriend attacked him.

The night of June 1 he’d met with a friend from work at SF Underground in the Lower Haight after going on a date to an art gallery with another transplant from France.

Nothing significant appeared to be stolen from his apartment after he made it home after last call, and both the front and back doors were locked when the two officers arrived. Immediately, police and officials from the Medical Examiner’s Office suspected a suicide. But Nix and others close to de la Plaza believe that persistent assumption has allowed the case’s trail to grow cold despite evidence suggesting he was murdered.

"It’s fucked-up in retrospect," said Orion Denley, a friend and neighbor who was briefly questioned by police the day de la Plaza was found. "I kept thinking, ‘How come they aren’t asking me if I heard anything?’ All they did was ask over and over again if he was suicidal, like they had already made up their minds that he had committed suicide."

No one from the Police Department contacted him again, but Denley said he heard de la Plaza’s front door slam three times, followed by two crashes and the sound of a distinct set of footsteps on the stairs leading from the apartment.

"It was definitely someone exiting the building," he said, "because you could hear the footsteps getting quieter as they ran away."

There was no suicide note or apparent weapon, nor was there an immediate suspect. Police found a knife in the sink with trace substances that could have been de la Plaza’s blood. They’ve since missed at least two promised deadlines for the completion of a DNA analysis, and now there’s no telling when the results will be available. It’s the only real piece of evidence left allowing investigators to regard de la Plaza’s death merely as suspicious rather than a murder.

"It’s something that I don’t think Hugues would have ever considered doing," Nix said of the suicide theory. "He had his ups and downs. He was a very private person. But if he were going to kill himself, he would probably write a letter. He was very precise and particular about how he conducted his life."

But there’s no doubt the pressure’s on. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has vocalized his disapproval of the way skyrocketing homicides in his district — which includes the Hayes Valley neighborhood, where de la Plaza lived — are being handled by the Police Department, and District Attorney Kamala Harris has paid special attention to the case. Her chief assistant met twice with de la Plaza’s family, who visited for several weeks earlier in the summer.

The family also met with Inspector Tony Casillas and bureau captain Kevin Cashman but returned to France largely empty-handed. They’ve since discussed using insurance money they received after de la Plaza’s death to establish a support group in San Francisco for the families of victims whose murders go unsolved.

"Is that what it takes in San Francisco? Hire a private investigator and involve a foreign police force?" Nix wrote to Mayor Gavin Newsom in July. "If so, shame on the leaders of San Francisco. If so, God help those in your city who do not have such resources."