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Michelle Von Emster, found naked and missing her right leg

Michelle Emster was apparently the victim of a shark attack, but many details of her case conflict with the coroner's conclusion. Michelle's case has gained several theories and remains a mystery.

Michelle von Emster was born on August 2, 1968, in California, USA. Daughter of Ernest and Bernadette Von Emster, she was the oldest of five girls.1

She graduated from a private Catholic school, and soon after attended St. Mary’s College of California until she was diagnosed with leukemia. It was a long two years of fighting her cancer into remission.

A battle won

After being immersed for two years in a hospital world, Michelle finally seemed free. In 1992, she moved to Ocean Beach, a beach community with good restaurants and many attractions.

Michelle worked as a clerk in a restaurant. She was reserved, no one knew her well enough to talk about her personality. Few things can be said with certainty: she loved the sea and also had sympathy for cats, as she adopted a cat named Cassidy.

Michelle Emster. / Photo: Reproduction

The girl shared household expenses with her roommate Coco Campbell, a dance student.

On Thursday, April 14, 1994, Michelle and Coco were ready to attend a music concert. When they arrived at the venue, they could not get in. The girls had bought tickets for the wrong date.

Coco Campbell reported to the police that they left the scene in the direction of the house. At one point Michelle said she was going to stay on the road, on a pier several blocks from her residence.

It was cold that day, and she got out of Coco’s car dressed in a green overcoat and carrying her purse. She didn’t explain what she was doing there, and apparently her friend didn’t question her either.

Michelle was never again seen alive

The next afternoon, surfer David Correia, 20, noticed that some birds were circling something that seemed strange to him. He called his friend, William Dostal, and the two of them paddled their boards to the spot.

O atributo alt desta imagem está vazio. O nome do arquivo é sunset-cliffs-san-diego.jpg
In the image you can see the height of the rocks and just below the place where the body was found / Photo: Reproduction

When they looked closer, they found the lifeless body of Michelle Von Emster. She was face down, naked, missing half of her right leg, and floating in the water with her eyes open.

The boys called the lifeguards and around 3 pm the body was removed and transported for forensics.

Forensics of the body

Coroner Robert Engle said Michelle Emster had “large wounds with missing tissue” on her back and shoulders. Pathologists said they had bite marks approximately 16cm long.

The victim’s right leg was cut in the middle of her thigh and lost. According to the condition of the body, the medical examiner said that she did not appear to have been in the water for very long.

Later that evening, a resident found Michelle’s purse. The man was carrying a flashlight during a night walk and his light illuminated the object.

The purse was intact and nothing had been stolen. It contained cigarettes, her driver’s license, a wallet containing almost $30 in cash, keys, makeup items, and a paycheck.

Tattooed butterfly

On April 16, 1994, the chef at the restaurant where Michelle worked saw on the news that an unidentified dead woman with a butterfly tattoo had been found. She remembered Michelle, who had not gone to work that day, and immediately contacted the police.

The woman was able to describe several characteristics of Michelle, including one peculiar detail, she told the police that her employee never shaved her legs or armpits. The medical examiner had no doubts and asked her to go to the morgue.

It was understandable that she didn’t want to see the remains in person, so the coroner took a Polaroid photo. The woman recognized and identified Michelle from the photo.


Dr. Brian Blackbourne performed a new autopsy on the body, he said Michelle had several broken bones, including a fractured neck.

“There were broken ribs and her pelvis was separated by brute force. She bled internally and then drowned. In other words, she was alive when whatever was inflicted, all that damage.”

Said journalist David Good, who closely followed the case.

She also had bruises and scratches on her face and chest area. Large amounts of sand were found in her lungs, mouth, throat, and stomach. Dr. Brian Blackbourne concluded that blue sharks had nibbled on her body.

The I verdict seemed to follow Coco Campbell’s testimony and stated that Michelle entered the water around midnight. However, this contradicts Robert Engle’s conclusion that the body was not in the water for a long time. How could two coroners disagree so surely about how long the body was in the water?

This is where the case starts to get intriguing, many people have raised their theories and some suspects have been put on the scene.

White Shark Attack?

Blackbourne decided that Michelle died of a great white shark attack, despite having no experience with autopsies on shark victims. Navy experts from the Scripps Institution supported his statement, although they never saw the body up close.

The alleged death of Michelle Emster by a great white shark was the first fatal attack on the west coast since 1989. This was not common in the region. According to the Los Angeles Times, only 10% of white shark attacks end in death.

Ten days later investigators closed the case, calling his death “a fatal shark attack.”

Theories on Michelle’s death

One is that Michelle went swimming that night and was swept away by the tide, her body slammed against the rocks causing the various injuries. However, the water temperature was 10°C that night, so it was very unlikely that she would want to swim.

Another theory is that she fell or was pushed from a higher place. This would explain broken bones and bruises, but does not explain why she was naked and how her leg was cut and lost.

The most plausible theory for most people is that the girl was murdered. She once commented to her boss that she had to leave her previous job because a man was stalking her, he used to follow her on his motorcycle.

Edwin Decker informed the press that he met Michelle in 1994, he admitted that he stalked Michelle for weeks until she finally agreed to go out with him. It is odd to say the least that the girl would agree to go out with him if she considered him a stalker.

The man seemed quite committed to helping the case, even though he had only one encounter with Michelle. It was even Edwin who asked the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office to reassess the case in 2008.

Nothing was ever said about signs of sexual assault. A violent sexual assault would probably have caused visible genital injuries and would explain why Michelle was naked.

Empty gaps

Michelle Emster’s clothing was never found.

Edwin Decker claimed that he and Michelle went out together and then flirted over the phone for weeks. He seemed to believe that the two shared an emotional and intellectual bond. Something that was never confirmed by any of Michelle’s friends.

He lived a few minutes away from Michelle’s house.

Updates on the case

In 2021, the Shark Files podcast released an episode about the Michelle Von Emster case.

On a blog by Michelle’s sister, Colon, an article from 2019 was found. It describes the abuse Michelle suffered at the hands of pedophile priest Greg Ingels, along with the subsequent cover-up by the Catholic Church, Michelle’s fall into addiction to illicit substances, sleeping pills, medical problems, and a breakdown in her family relationship.

Another article found on Reddit states that after a private investigation the family is aware of the actual cause of death, but prefers to keep this a secret. It is not possible to know if this is true.

The case remains without a answer.

  1. Debbie B. from truecrimediva.com

1 thought on “Michelle Von Emster, found naked and missing her right leg”

  1. Her sister’s name is Teresa Colón, not just “Colon” (in English that word refers to the anatomy).

    Here’s a Reddit post with more info; the very last and most recent comment seems to explain what happened to Michelle: r/BuzzFeedUnsolved/comments/t69hvx/


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