The mysterious death of a French-American man in San Francisco nearly two years ago has sparked a rare international investigation and accusations of police incompetence by the man's bereaved friends and family.
Amid all the unsolved deaths in San Francisco, the strange case of Hugues de la Plaza has all the trappings of a mystery novel: a dead body found inside a locked apartment, accusations that the local police mishandled the case, a French investigation into a U.S. death.
On the morning of June 2, 2007, de la Plaza, a 36-year-old sound engineer, was found stabbed to death inside his locked apartment in the Hayes Valley section of San Francisco. He'd gone out with friends the previous night and was last seen walking home from a bar around 2 a.m., said John Murphy, a private investigator hired by de la Plaza's family.
San Francisco police say they are still investigating the death and would not comment. The city medical examiner has called the manner of death undetermined, meaning it was unclear if it was a murder or suicide.
But de la Plaza's family and friends remain convinced that he was murdered that night -- and that the San Francisco police department botched the investigation, which they claim the department initially suspected was a suicide. Last week, de la Plaza's parents offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer.
Convinced that San Francisco police were ignoring possible leads, in an unusual development, de la Plaza's parents persuaded French authorities to conduct their own investigation into the death of their son, who had dual French and American citizenship.
That investigation has been completed, but has not been released to the public or reviewed by the San Francisco police. But de la Plaza's father, Francois de la Plaza, told reporters last week that the French investigators concluded that his son must have been stabbed outside his apartment in some sort of assault. "He could not have done it himself, de la Plaza said, according to the San Francisco Examiner. "No knife was ever found, for them it was rather obvious," he said.
"San Francisco seems to be an easy place to get away with murder," said Melissa Nix, an ex-girlfriend and close friend of de la Plaza's family. "Literally. It's unbelievable that it took a coalition of friends and the French government and mourning parents to get any kind of response from the police. It's completely abhorrent."
A police spokeswoman declined to comment on that accusation, but the department said in a statement released last week that it had always investigated the case as a homicide. The statement said the department investigates all "undetermined" deaths as if they were homicides.
"San Francisco investigators continue to investigate the death in an impartial and far from 'lackluster' manner," the statement said.
Francois de la Plaza told ABC's KGO-TV in San Francisco that the police told him they were investigating the case as a homicide. "Now, I'm very happy we're collaborating between the police department from the United States and the French Police," he said.
One of de la Plaza's neighbors, Gitanjali Bhushan, said she was awoken early the morning of his death by a banging sound, followed by the sounds of de la Plaza's door opening and slamming shut two or three times and a person running down the hallway.
The police were called after residents reportedly saw blood on the building's front stoop, hallway and de la Plaza's doorknob. Police then found blood all over his apartment, where his body was found, stabbed three times in the neck, chest and stomach.
Bhushan said investigators' questions on the morning de la Plaza's body was found focused on whether he could have committed suicide. She said the police asked if he wrote poetry, was depressed or having girl trouble.
"It seemed to me a foregone conclusion of suicide and it seemed like they wanted to be done with it," she said.
When she suggested that all the blood inside and outside the apartment seemed incongruous with a suicide, she claims the police brushed aside her questions, saying, "suicide is an irrational act."
Nix and Murphy both said police officers have, as recently as a few months ago, told them they continue to think de la Plaza killed himself, though de la Plaza's father said at a press conference last week that police investigators told him they considered the case a homicide.
Nix said de la Plaza had no reason to kill himself. She said he had been promoted at work the day before he died and had gone on a date that night and then met friends to celebrate his promotion. He had money saved up and was planning to move to Argentina, she said.
"He had too much love for life," she said. "His goal was to travel, to look at art, to eat good food, to see his friends and family. He was curious and interested in everything."
She said she suspected that de la Plaza, who she said was going out on dates he'd met on online dating sights nearly every night, may have been killed by a romantic rival, or happened on a drug deal or robbery.
Murphy said he thought de la Plaza was followed home and attacked. "I think he was preyed upon," he said.
At the press conference last week, Francois de la Plaza credited the San Francisco police with investigating the case as a homicide but said, "I find it appalling that a Franco-American citizen who died here needed the help of the French police to be investigated. This happened in one of the richest countries, and one of the richest cities. I do not understand."