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VICE TV Examines Elliott Smith’s Mysterious Death

VICE TV
(Re)Solved On VICE TV

The new (Re)Solved series on VICE TV aired an episode about Elliott Smith’s death on Thursday night. The series claims to re-open some of Hollywood’s most notorious and controversial celebrity deaths using internet sleuths and professional investigators’ opinions and skills.

I was not expecting any new evidence, and, indeed,  the episode didn’t bring anything new, but it was important to see the episode expose the evidence to a larger audience. So far, my research has been limited to a relatively small audience, so getting the attention of VICE TV’s much larger audience was very important. In the first part of the show, they basically repeated what I have been writing about for years, and RockNYC, my website “Justice for Elliott Smith” and my book all got a good mention. You cannot beat that kind of publicity!

I have nevertheless many reservations about the episode itself: as I said, they didn’t reveal anything new and used a lot of my research, and didn’t interview Jennifer Chiba – I know they had the intention to contact her, but she very probably declined. They didn’t get anybody from Elliott’s family either (no surprise there), and the only person in Elliott’s circles they managed to interview was Nelson Gary, a poet who recites his poem over the song “Coast to Coast” on Elliott’s posthumous album. He is also the author of this article in Lummox Journal published after Elliott’s death and I had long exchanges with him over the years. In 2017, he asked me to stop using his name or reprinting our conversations, so I was a bit surprised to see him there. He didn’t want me to use his name but has apparently no problem exposing his opinions on TV.

In any case, the first part of the episode relied on Dr. Lisa Scheinin, who performed the autopsy report and whom I interviewed in 2011. As I have previously reported, she is now much more open to the possibility of homicide, declaring at one point that she cannot recall a person who has stabbed himself as a suicide.

The LAPD is not featured either (again, no surprise as the police don’t want to comment on an open case), and the case is mostly analyzed by three people who re-examine all the cases in every episode of the series: Deanna Thompson, who starred in the Netflix documentary series “Don’t Fuck with Cats,” Jennifer Bucholtz, a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent who has degrees in Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, and Justin Ling, an online investigator.

The three of them discuss the evidence, the autopsy report, all the oddities of the case, the discrepancies, the alleged suicide note (that they find suspicious), and the fact that Jennifer Chiba was never questioned again after her informal interview at the scene. Jennifer Bucholtz even said that, during her entire career, she has never seen a case where a person stabbed himself in the heart, adding that there is a far greater percentage to consider this a homicide, especially when another person is present at the scene.

But since it’s a very formulaic show, all episodes are built around the same frame, the second part comes to balance the pro-homicide theory and then, we got all the clichés we have read a million times on the internet: Elliott was depressed, he had suicide ideation, was addicted to drugs, and he wrote sad lyrics. We even get the “girlfriend/woman blaming” because fans “don’t want to believe their hero killed himself.” Their analysis is so superficial that it backfires at them: they use the line “And everything that you do makes me want to die” from “The Biggest Lie” (which is not particularly a “suicide song”) and the song “Suicide Machine” to make their point. Did you read the lyrics of this song? They know very little about Elliott, don’t they?

Besides the cliches, they didn’t have any other evidence supporting the suicide theory, so they had to rehash the usual… Predictably, the cliff story shows up at this point, even though it has been established many times that it was not a real suicide attempt but rather some restless behavior on a drunk night: Elliott was in a car with friends, it was dark, he was upset and drunk, and ran away without being aware of his surroundings. Even W.T. Schultz, who supports the suicide theory, wrote in his book “Torment Saint: “[Dorien] Garry’s sense is that ‘by no means was that a suicide attempt. He [Elliott] didn’t know there was a cliff there, none of us did. It was just a mistake. I think he thought he was going down some kind of hill where he could be by himself and sit down and get things together.” Curiously, VICE TV looked at my research for many other aspects of the case but completely omitted this part. (Re)Solved needed something to balance the story, so they unnecessarily recycled that cliff episode as a suicide attempt because that’s basically all there is, besides the suicide ideation and the sad lyrics!

I would also like to add that the scars allegedly described by Larry Crane were either due to Elliott’s fall from the cliff or another knife wound: According to Mark Flanagan, Elliott was stabbed during an altercation with a drug dealer and ended up at the hospital. These scars (which curiously didn’t show up in the autopsy) were not due to a previous and similar attempt. Why did VICE TV such a pick-and-choose job?

In the second part of the episode, they also go back to the drug addiction, fueling the suicide theory, after analyzing the toxicology report that showed he was cleaned at the time. Where is the logic? Sure drugs can mess up your brain, but by all accounts, Elliott was doing much better in late 2003. Another thing that they missed: the rehab center was not in Arizona as they claimed, but a Beverly Hills clinic run by Dr. Hit. They mixed up the timeline, as Elliott went to an Arizona rehab in the late ‘90s.

Elliott’s alleged paranoia is also an argument often debated since Chiba blamed the pressure put on him by his label Dreamworks. But once again, they ignore the fact that “DreamWorks had reached an agreement with Smith that allowed him to take a “sabbatical” from the label.” Luke Wood declared to Billboard: “I think it was really a sense of him being able to feel like he was in control of his own destiny. And he wanted to bring it down and do sort of less promotion and focus just more on making a record and getting it out.” Elliott was going to release “’From a Basement on the Hill’ on an independent label of his choosing, even though he would have remained signed to DreamWorks,” and this is exactly what happened after his death. VICE TV never mentioned this important detail.

The intention of VICE TV was not to solve a case that has been left open by the police for 20 years. They didn’t bring any new information and omitted quite a few crucial points. For example, they never mentioned that blood was found throughout the house (that’s a big one to explain if you consider the suicide narrative), or that Chiba’s story changed a few times over the years. They didn’t even insist on a few important details of the autopsy: they could have done an entire segment on Elliott’s sternum injury because this is the first thing that a forensic expert pointed to me when I asked him to comment on the autopsy. This definitively doesn’t point to suicide. Of course, there are always exceptions, but as I have tried to demonstrate for years, Elliott’s case is an accumulation of exceptions, even the time of his alleged suicide is odd: most people commit suicide alone and during the night or very early morning, not at noon. But VICE TV was very quiet on that too.

Overall, it was a superficial and messy analysis presenting some of the facts but struggling to give a conclusion and working very hard to present the other side: “Chiba has been a victim too,” while showing a 5-second excerpt from her interview with Gil Reyes for “Searching for Elliott Smith” – only a few seconds to avoid getting another copyright. After expressing much concern regarding her refusal to speak with the detectives, they are going back to the “girlfriend blaming” argument, as if she hadn’t had 20 years to come forward and accept an interview with the police to clear her name. The panic argument explaining her removal of the knife has been debated to death, but once again it is an argument presented here. I have considered it too, but as I have repeated many times, Chiba didn’t seem too distraught and panicked when she provided a “suicide note” to the police, when she showed up at the memorial wall to meet up with fans, and when she went to Elliott’s studio to take some stuff in the middle of the night. And all this happened in the 48 hours following Elliott’s death.

I may be a fan who is “too invested” in the story and even “obsessed” or incapable to accept he committed suicide but, in these TikTok times, when people’s attention span lasts for less than 8 seconds, it’s useful to be a bit obsessed, or stubborn as I prefer to say.

I just wish they had ended with a non-conclusive segment, instead of this “he committed suicide, but I am open to the possibility of homicide” or “It still looks like Elliott Smith committed suicide.” The most interesting character in the episode was certainly Dr. Scheinin who ended up revealing much more than she ever did before.

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