What Happened to Michelle von Emster: A Tragic Accident or a Grisly Murder?


The bizarre death of Michelle von Emster continues to confound investigators. Was her death a freak accident, or was she the victim of a brutal murder?

On Friday, April 15, 1994, in San Diego, California, surfers noticed a strange shape in the water that two seagulls were resting on. Upon inspection, what the surfers though may have been a kelp outgrowth was actually the body of Michelle von Emster, completely naked aside from a brass bracelet and two rings on her left hand.

Her body was taken to a nearby lifeguard center, where a medical examiner named Robert Engel inspected the wounds she had incurred. He noted large lacerations, what he described as “tearing-type” wounds. The body was missing most of the right leg. This description led many to believe that von Emster was attacked by a shark. Engel did not make this conclusion, leaving her cause of death marked as unknown, though he did remark that her body did not appear to have been in the water for long.

Formal Autopsy

The following day, San Diego Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne performed a formal autopsy of von Emster. In addition to the wounds described by Engel’s report and the right leg missing from the thigh down, Blackbourne recorded that von Emster’s neck was broken “as if she’d been in a car wreck.” Sand was found in her mouth, throat and stomach. She was covered in bruises and contusions, and even had a broken rib.

The report concluded that von Emster had been alive when these injuries were inflicted. She was last seen at 8 PM on April 14, 1994, and Blackbourne recorded in his official timeline that he believed she got in the water at midnight on April 15. His conclusion was that she was the victim of a shark attack. In the attack, he concluded, she incurred all of her injuries, breaking her neck at the bottom of the sea floor and ingesting the sand found in her stomach.

Other Theories

No one who saw the body before the initial autopsy had ever seen a death by a shark before. Experts largely believe that the injuries von Emster suffered are not consistent with those a shark attack would cause. Experts believe that von Emster’s injuries were too ragged and messy to be caused by a great white shark.

No teeth were found broken off in von Emster’s body, leading many to believe she was, in fact, not killed by a shark at all. Some have theorized that von Emster may have gone for a midnight swim and drowned in the fast-moving current. Others have speculated that she may have fallen from Sunset Cliffs, which could explain many of her injuries. In these scenarios, her missing leg would have still been due to sharks, but those would have been smaller scavengers eating her remains, not a great white attacking her.

Others still have theorized that von Emster may have been murdered and then thrown into the ocean. However, thanks to the lack of physical evidence in her case, it is unclear what may have really happened to her. A complete lack of any suspects and plausible explanations for an accidental death mean her case could forever remain unsolved.