I can’t thank Joseph Hughes enough for his new show The Vinyl Thought on FCC Free Radio, which he partially dedicated to Elliott Smith’s mysterious death last Thursday. It was his first show of the series, and he told me he wanted to spend a part of it discussing conspiracy theories and controversies in the music world. The tone of the show is light and entertaining and although we both agreed that Elliott’s death was a heavy subject and could difficultly be called a conspiracy theory, he nevertheless presented a few important facts about the unresolved case.
In his first show, he and his guests first wanted to talk about Kurt Cobain’s death, debating whether it was a suicide or a murder, as it is probably one of the most controversial deaths discussed on the internet, however, during his research to prepare the show, he stumbled on my articles about Elliott’s death and got interested to cover it too. It’s not the first time people have made connections between both cases, and if I can’t pretend to have done any original research about Cobain’s case – there are plenty of sites summing up everything about the case, like Tom Grant’s site – I can say that I know quite a bit about Elliott’s case.
During the second half of the Vinyl Thought, Elliott’s death was discussed, and I warmly thank Joseph Hughes for giving some exposure to this forgotten case on the airwaves. Elliott’s story has often been botched, just like the investigation into his death, and his character has been reduced to a sad songwriter cliché, an easy-to-figure-out cartoonish character, which probably sells more books and albums than the thoughtful, sometimes contradictory and complex individual he actually was. People love that sad story, I would even say that people are attached to the myth of suicide because it just fits the cliché.
I was once told I was paying too much attention to details, but details are precisely what people should pay attention to, the truth is in the details as a famous author said, and ignoring the details of this story is ignoring really important facts and reducing the story to the cliché we were talking about.
Since Joseph wants to do a recap about the case next week, I want to sum up once again everything I know about the case, in the smallest amount of words possible. Here are a few paragraphs that could be a digest of the case, without omitting important details. This could have also a bigger purpose, as Joseph thinks this synopsis could be submitted to forensic TV shows (there are plenty of them) and one of these could be interested to do an episode on Elliott. Here is the story if you don’t know it already:
On October 21st 2003, Elliott Smith, a singer songwriter who was known for his melancholic music and his nomination for an Oscar in the Best Original Song category in 1998, was arguing with his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba at home. A 911 call was made at 12:18 pm, Elliott was transported to the hospital ER, where he died around 13:38 pm, despite a surgical intervention trying to repair 2 stab wounds to the chest.
According to Jennifer Chiba’s statement, she locked herself in the bathroom during the argument, and found him with a knife in his chest when she came out. According to her various declarations, she exited the bathroom when she heard a scream or a thud (she used both words) and did not stay in the bathroom for more than 5 or 10 minutes. She also said to someone she had refused to open the bathroom door earlier, even though Elliott was crying and begging her to open it.
She admitted to have pulled the knife out of his chest, then saw two cuts, while he was walking away from her before collapsing. She performed CPR before the arrival of the ambulance. While she was interrogated by the police, she pointed to a post-it note saying ‘I’m so sorry, Love, Elliott, God forgive me’, which she presented as a suicide note. The note has been kept by the police since that time.
Because of Elliott’s work and reputation – he had a history of suicidal ideations and his lyrics were often referring to suicide – because of Elliott’s drug addiction and depression history, it was not difficult to sell the suicide story. However, the autopsy report came inconclusive with a check mark in the box ‘could not be determined’. Dr. Scheinin, who performed the autopsy, could not determine whether it was a suicide or a homicide based on a series of facts: there were no hesitation marks around the wounds (something very rare in case of suicide by stabbing), Elliott was stabbed through his clothes (also rare in case of suicide), and two superficial wounds on his right arm and left hand did raise the possibility of defensive wounds. To this, it should be added that suicides by stabbing are uncommon (less than 2% of all suicides) and that the most common sites for self inflicted incised wounds are the neck or the abdomen but not the chest. Lastly and not least, it should be mentioned that the wounds were associated with bone injuries (rib cartilage and sternum injuries) something which is a strong indicator of homicide and extremely rare in case of suicide. Finally, the toxicology results turned back negative, Elliott didn’t have any alcohol or illegal drugs in his system at the time of his death, whereas only therapeutic and sub-therapeutic doses of antidepressants and other legal medication were found in his system. Jennifer Chiba, who had a first aid training as it is required by her profession of therapist, refused later to talk to the police, she also refused to be interviewed by a LA Weekly journalist and only participated in an article for Spin magazine written by a friend. In 2004, she sued Elliott Smith’s estate for one million dollars, since she thought she was entitled to some of his money, but she lost the case in 2007 after several amendments.
A long list of rumors and hearsays can be added to the case: Several people who knew Jennifer Chiba prior to the incident, have said she was a ‘knife freak’ or had a ‘fascination with knives’. She also allegedly didn’t call 911 immediately after the incident, pretexting that her cell phone was not working. Although she once said their argument on October 21st was over the fact she was pressuring Elliott to drive her to her therapist (she had a DUI and couldn’t drive), this also may have been over a possible breakup, as several people have said Elliott wanted to leave her.
After a real bad period (2001-2) and a battle with drug addiction, Elliott was trying to turn his life around, he had just finished a detox program and was trying to stay clean. At the end of his life, Elliott Smith was working on getting his music studio together (which is now operating as New Monkey Studio), he was working on a new album (‘From a Basement On The Hill’, which was released posthumously), he was on a bill of the music festival, All Tomorrow’s Parties headlined by Iggy Pop scheduled on November 2003, he was getting in touch with old friends he hadn’t talked to in years due to his drug addiction, and he had even signed the papers for creating a foundation for Abused Children, a few days before he died.
I would also add that Elliott got into trouble during a Flaming Lips/Beck concert he attended in November 2002, as he was severely beaten by an off duty police officer, after he saw several guys hassling one single man and decided to intervene. He was handcuffed, arrested by the LA Sheriff’s department, charged with unlawfully obstructing a peace officer, and he and J. Chiba spent the night in jail. Some people have speculated that this episode may have affected the way the LAPD has handled the case.
The case is still open after 14 years, but the police are no longer actively investigating.
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