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Another View of Elliott Smith

Photo by Marina Chavez

LAPD detectives investigating the death of Elliott Smith have asked their supervisor to take a look at the case to see if they made the right determination when they ruled it a suicide. “Detectives believe it is a suicide,” said John Berdin, supervisor of LAPD’s Northeast Homicide Detail. “The wounds that took his life, the evidence, strongly suggest it is self-inflicted. I will look at it objectively because everyone deserves it. I may or may not come to the same conclusion.”

The L.A. County Coroner’s Office couldn’t decide whether Smith committed suicide or was a victim of homicide, prompting detectives to ask Berdin to render an opinion on the 34-year-old singer’s death. The LAPD initially reported that Smith died October 21 from an apparent self-inflicted single knife wound to the chest. The next day, the county coroner held off on determining an official cause of death, pending further police investigation and toxicological tests.

On January 6, the Coroner’s Office ruled that Smith died from two stab wounds to the chest but couldn’t decide whether the wounds were self-inflicted. Deputy Medical Examiner Lisa Scheinin, in the autopsy report, wrote that Smith had a history of depression and that the wounds appeared to be consistent with suicide. However, she found that “several aspects of the circumstances (as are known at this time) are atypical of suicide and raise the possibility of homicide. These include the absence of hesitation wounds, stabbing through clothing, and the presence of small incised wounds on the right arm and left hand (possible defensive wounds).”

Berdin said that the small cuts are the “only piece of evidence that suggested that it could happen another way. Bottom line is, we may never know about the unexplained wounds. Unlike CSI, we can’t explain everything. It will remain open till we come to a conclusion, because we don’t like loose ends.”

The autopsy report also revealed that moments before he died, Smith had argued with his live-in girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, who told police that she locked herself in the bathroom of their Echo Park apartment. She said she heard Smith scream, opened the bathroom door and found him standing with his back to her. When he turned around, she told police, she saw a kitchen knife in his chest. She said he was standing up, conscious and gasping for breath. She told police that she pulled the knife out of his chest and saw “two cuts” before he walked away and collapsed. Chiba called 911 at 12:18 p.m. and performed CPR and first aid with a dispatcher’s help until paramedics arrived. Smith died at County-USC Medical Center 78 minutes later.

Police officers arrived and questioned Chiba, who was seated at the kitchen table. Detectives reported that she pointed out a Post-it note that appeared to be a suicide note left on the table. The note said: “I’m so sorry — love, Elliott God forgive me.” Chiba told police that it was in Smith’s handwriting.

Coroner’s investigators also raised questions about the actions of Chiba, and why she removed the knife. “Detectives believe that this death is possibly suspicious, however, the circumstances are unclear at this time,” according to the report. Chiba told the L.A. Weekly in November that Smith’s death was a suicide.

Berdin said detectives believe they have examined all possible theories of the case. “All of the little flags along the way we were looking for that suggest that someone else was responsible never presented itself.”

The singer, who was born Steven Paul Smith, had been battling depression, drugs and alcohol for years. Chiba told police that Smith often talked about committing suicide and had a history of addictions, including heroin, crack and alcohol. She said Smith engaged in self-mutilating behavior and would burn himself with cigarettes. Chiba told authorities that Smith had been drug-free for one year.

The coroner found no traces of illegal substances or alcohol in his system, but only prescribed levels of antidepressant and attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder medications in his system.

Smith was born August 6, 1969, in Omaha, Nebraska, and began his career in Portland, Oregon, with the punk rock band Heatmiser. In 1994, he released his first solo album, Roman Candle, and later signed with DreamWorks, putting out XO in 1998 and Figure 8 in 2000. In 1997, Smith was nominated for an Oscar for best original song for “Miss Misery,” from the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting. At the time of his death, Smith was working on his sixth album.