More than eight years after the death of indie-rock troubadour Elliott Smith, sticky questions linger as to what happened in his Echo Park home on Oct. 21, 2003. Smith expired from two stab wounds to the chest following an argument with his live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba.
Though the media initially reported that Smith committed suicide, the Los Angeles Department of Coroner, following its investigation, declined to rule on the mode of death. The report cited multiple factors for the ruling, including Chiba's subsequent refusal to speak with police as well as potential defensive wounds on Smith's left hand and right arm. It was also reported that during her initial interview with police, Chiba pointed to a Post-It note that read, "I'm so sorry--love, Elliott God Forgive me."
Recently, the Weekly was contacted by a mysterious figure from the blogosphere who operates under the pseudonym Alyson Camus. A frequent contributor to the rocknyc live and recorded music blog, she managed to tease information out of the pathologist who conducted the autopsy on the Academy Award-nominated singer/songwriter that could indicate the possibility of foul play.
Almost a decade after the fact, the mode of death remains undetermined, and if the LAPD has made any significant gains in its investigation, it's not sharing anything with the public.
Detective James King, one of the original investigators, declined to comment to the Weekly, citing the ongoing nature of the case, which he says is led by detectives in the force's northeast division.
Enter Camus, who has spent countless hours scrutinizing and blogging about statements from friends and colleagues of Smith given in articles such as Liam Gowing's exhaustive 2004 piece for Spin Magazine, "Mr. Misery," as well as statistics on deaths resulting from self-inflicted stab wounds. (They're extremely rare.)
But most compelling are Camus' blogs critiquing the Gil Reyes documentary Searching for Elliott Smith, a film that has only been shown in special screenings--despite the fact Chiba appears in the film and discusses the account she gave to police before reportedly clamming up.
While Camus' writing betrays a passionate interest in the subject matter and at times lacks discipline, she manages to zero in on inconsistencies in the statements given by friends over the years about Smith's mental state in his final days.
One example of these incongruencies includes a 2004 quote from Chiba in Spin: "I hope that someday people will see that [Elliott] had cleaned up. The toxicology report shows that he was clean of any illicit substances. That had been true of the whole past year. That's not to say he hadn't been abusing some of his prescription drugs, but in the last two months, I can honestly say that we were in the healthiest shape that either of us had ever been." Years later, in Reyes' documentary, Chiba talks about the difficulty Smith had with simple tasks such as getting a glass of water for himself, saying, "I essentially took care of him for the last year of his life."
Camus kept digging--and successfully pried nuggets of new information from tight-lipped homicide investigators.
Last April, the blogger managed to score some face time with Dr. Lisa Scheinin, the deputy medical examiner who conducted Smith's autopsy. Who knew the cash-strapped body repository, world-renowned for its tacky gift shop, granted civilians with no apparent media ties meetings with its pathologists for a scant $150 fee?
Camus, who produced a receipt for her 20-minute conversation with the good doctor, said she was told the cuts on Smith's hands were fresh and not the result of self-mutilating behavior. Scheinin was careful to add, however, they could have been the result of Smith mishandling the knife.
This revelation is significant given the explanation for the wounds by Chiba in the film. She suggested they resulted from Smith's tendency to cut himself. Misty-eyed, she recalls coming home from a movie one night and finding him, reeling emotionally from stopping his medications cold turkey, in bed with a knife covered in his own blood.
When asked by the Weekly on Friday about a large cut near the thumb on his left hand labeled on Smith's autopsy report, Assistant Chief of Investigations Ed Winter said, "It could be a puncture wound."