On October 21st 2003, Elliott Smith died from two stab wounds. Although it was initially reported to the LAPD as a suicide, the autopsy report stated that the cause of death ‘could not be determined’, and it has remained officially so.
In 2003, LA Coroner’s spokesman David Campbell declared: ‘The trauma that he sustained could have been inflicted by him or by another and the coroner has not been able to make a determination.’ He added that toxicology tests found no illegal or controlled substances but that Elliott was apparently taking antidepressants and medication for attention deficit disorder at the time of his death, although he was not abusing them. He also said the case would remain open and that coroner’s officials would revisit their findings if additional information surfaced.
Years have passed, and no new information has officially appeared, but a lot has happened.
Although suicide by stabbing is not unheard of, it is a very unusual form of suicide, as this quote from Lanny Berman, the director of the American Association of Suicidology clearly states:
‘Self-inflicted stabbing deaths are rare. In 2005, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, 32,637 people committed suicide in the United States. Only 590 did so by cutting or piercing, and of those deaths, most were slashing or cutting to the wrists and, to a lesser degree, the throat. Suicide by stabbing is very rare, and it’s particularly rare for someone to stab themselves in the torso.’
According to a study on suicides (‘Retrospective study on suicidal cases by sharp force injuries’, Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine 15 (2008) 163-167), suicide by sharp force injuries accounted for only 2.5% of all suicides in the prefecture the authors studied during 1995-2005.
It is not the only rarity in Elliott’s case. If he did commit suicide by stabbing, he presented none of the usual characteristics associated with this form of suicide, i.e. hesitation marks and removal of the clothes, but had instead some marks that could have been interpreted as defense wounds according to the coroner.
According to a paper which studied 58 suicides and 149 homicides by sharp force injury, 74% of the suicides were positive for hesitation marks and 61% of the homicides for defense wounds (‘Suicidal and homicidal sharp force injury: a 5-year retrospective comparative study of hesitation marks and defense wounds’, by Stéphanie Racette, Célia Kremer, Anne Desjarlais and Anny Sauvageau, Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology Volume 4, Number 4, 221-227)
These details may not tell us for sure what happened, but they are unusual enough to warrant further investigation.
Jennifer Chiba was Elliott’s girlfriend and lived with him at the house where he died. In Chiba’s statement to the LAPD, she was the only person present when Elliott died. When she talked to the police, she described Elliott’s death as a suicide and painted a portrait of Elliott as a troubled person for whom suicide would not be unlikely, stating to the police that ‘the decedent has suffered from depression all his life. He had a history of multiple narcotics addiction (heroin and crack) and alcohol abuse although he had been clean for over one year. He engaged in self-mutilating behavior and would burn himself with cigarettes. He has a history of one possible suicide attempt (unknown details/time frame/circumstances) and a consistent history of verbal suicidal ideations and planning. The decedent sought treatment for his depression from several psychiatrists and was being treated with multiple prescription drugs.’
We don’t know whether the police attempted to find any confirmation about these facts, however, it should be noted that the ’suicide attempt’ mentioned in the police report is likely a reference to what is sometimes called ‘the cliff attempt’ by people writing about Elliott, and is not actually confirmed to be an attempt as suicide. Elliott jumped from a cliff while running drunk one night with some friends, but his intentions weren’t clear.
An anonymous source who was close to Elliott said that: ‘Although he sometimes told the press otherwise, in private, he would actually laugh about the whole episode and readily admit he never intended to die that night.’
So, although none of these statements in the police report are plainly untrue, this is a complicated case and may not be as simple as suicide.
Recently, I got some info from a source close to Elliott, who is a solid and very reliable one. As this person wants to remain anonymous, each time I will refer to this person as ‘a source close to Elliott’.
1 • The DUI and the cause of the argument on October 21st:
Chiba publicly declared several times that she and Elliott were arguing on October 21st because she wanted him to drive her to an appointment with her therapist.
But there was much more to in the story.
First, she could not drive herself because she had received a DUI (with a $15,000 bail amount) a few weeks before (on August 30th to be exact, for alcohol/drugs as it is stipulated on the paper), and secondly, it was not her first DUI since according to this website (http://www.losangelescaduilawyer.co/los-angeles-dui-arrested-lawyer.html) ‘One Prior DUI Conviction Within 10 Years receives a $15,000 bail amount + Court Appearance’.
They may have argued about her DUI and the $15,000 bail amount, but again, the argument had to be more serious to reach this extremity.
Despite the fact that Chiba has proclaimed they were getting married, there were serious rumors Elliott wanted to leave her, and these rumors were confirmed by the source close to Elliott: at the memorial service, Jennifer Chiba confessed to a friend of Elliott that on the morning he died, Elliott had told her he wanted to leave her.
2 • A thud or a scream?
Since the beginning, there has been a lot of confusion in the articles about what exactly Chiba heard when she locked herself in the bathroom, a thud or a scream?
In the police report it is stated that she heard the decedent scream while she was in the bathroom, but she mentioned a thud at other occasions and in particular she used that precise term when she first spoke to the source close to Elliott. When she opened the bathroom door, Elliott was still standing at the kitchen sink, his back facing her, so what thud could she have heard?
Another interesting point, in the documentary ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, she said that ‘she heard a terrible noise coming from the kitchen’.
3 • The first aid thing:
As stated in the police report, Jennifer Chiba pulled the knife out of Elliott’s chest while he was still standing.
It can easily be verified that she had been a family therapist since 1995, lost her license in 2001 as she was probably not able to complete the required number of hours (she was involved in a band ‘Happy Ending’ at the time) but she got a new license in 2005.
A person, who is also a therapist and did study at the same university, Loyola Marymount University, wrote the following:
‘Anyone who takes a Basic First Aid class, even the people who sleep through it, are scared straight from any idea of removing an impaled object of any kind. It creates a second trauma and increases the bleed. You leave it in and wrap it to staunch the bleeding. This particularly stressed in training for clinicians who work with children!!!’
According to this person, Chiba works/has worked with children (http://www.5acres.org being the place where she is apparently currently working) as an Art Therapist under the Marriage and Family pre-license, since it is a special program offered at LMU.
The following is in the police report, and this point has not been stressed enough:
‘Additionally, the girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern’…. It is a big deal and the only explanation she had to offer when interviewed in the ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ documentary was that she did not know and just wanted to help Elliott.
We cannot evaluate for sure the thoroughness of Chiba’s exposure to First Aid class, but this therapist I spoke with said ‘I guarantee you, she would not have been able to work without it.’
4 • The blood spots
After the removal of the knife, it is reported in the police report that Elliott ‘walked away and Jennifer followed him to where he collapsed’.
Musician Robin Peringer (who became Chiba’s roommate for a little while after Elliott’s death, and he is now in the band Figg with Gilden Tunador, an ex-member of Chiba’s band Happy Ending) told Filter magazine ‘the harrowing story of cleaning up the blood throughout Elliott’s house after the suicide.’
People who have been stabbed can still walk a lot but we have to wonder why Elliott was walking that much so that he put blood throughout the house.
In the ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ documentary, Chiba even said she was afraid he would jump from the balcony.
The blood spots would have revealed more about the scene, but when I called the detective, he could not tell me if such an examination had been performed.
When we know the precautions the police usually take on a crime scene, it is a little strange Peringer is describing the cleaning of the blood. The problem is that the house was never considered as a crime scene, because Elliott was pronounced dead at the hospital and questions arose only after the autopsy results.
5 • The phone inconsistency
After the removal of the knife, Elliott was on the floor, bleeding to death, and Jennifer Chiba admitted to the source close to Elliott that the ambulance was delayed because her cell phone was not working.
But there was a landline. Elliott had used this landline to talk to this same person on the phone a few days before he died. We are left to wonder why she didn’t she use it.
Not only Chiba acknowledged she did not call immediately the ambulance, using this cell phone excuse, but some rumors even said she called someone else before calling 911.
6 • The fingerprints on the knife:
Different people said that the police was not able to use any fingerprints on the knife, the detective again did not want to comment about it but this has been firmly confirmed once again by the source close to Elliott.
If Elliott stabbed himself twice, his fingerprints should have been on the knife, Chiba removed the knife and her fingerprints should have been on it.
We don’t know whether no fingerprints at all or just muddled ones, not readable, were found on the knife, but this leads us to believe that the knife may have been wiped, or cleaned up in order to make the determination of who was holding the knife impossible.
It was a kitchen knife with a 8-inch blade that both of them were probably using, but we can reasonably suppose it was clean before it was used for the stabbing, so the fingerprints the police should have been able to find on the handle would have certainly revealed something about the scene. Interestingly, there was still some blood on the blade, up to 6’ 5/8 inch from the tip.
7 • The suicide note:
A possible suicide note, written on a Post-it, which read: ‘I’m so sorry—love, Elliott. God forgive me’ was found in the house. The coroner’s report had the name Elliott misspelled as ‘Elliot’, however a coroner’s official said his name was misspelled in the report, not on the Post-it note. The family was never able to see it, the police kept it and the analysis performed on it was never made public.
According to the police report, while Elliott was taken to the hospital by the ambulance, Chiba was questioned by the police (for the first and only time); this is an excerpt of the police report:
‘During the questioning, she was seated at the kitchen table and noted for the first time a ‘Post-it’ note that appeared to be a suicide note left by the decedent. Jennifer recognized the handwriting on the note as that of the decedent and had not seen the note before that moment’…
A suicide note is something regarded as essential to determine if a death was a suicide, although it is in no way something that people do systematically: according to Wikipedia, it is estimated that only 12–20% of suicides are accompanied by a note, and according to Gelder, Mayou and Geddes only one in six leave a suicide note (Gelder, Mayou, Geddes (2005). Psychiatry: Page 170. New York, NY; Oxford University Press Inc.)
But if this was really a suicide note, it is a very oddly generic one, nothing on it is a sure indication that Elliott indeed committed suicide, and nothing on it reveals it is addressed to Chiba, or anyone else for that matter. The note could have been written at any time, under any circumstances, and it’s a bit puzzling if the point of the note was to prevent her from feeling guilty of his suicide.
Furthermore, there is something into this extremely inconsistent with what we know about the circumstances of the incident. They were arguing, fighting, she said she locked herself in the bathroom, and she said she refused to open the bathroom door even though Elliott was crying and begging her to open it. It was a heated situation and if Elliott did stab himself then, it was a typical spur-of-the-moment act. Again, it seems very odd that he would nonetheless suddenly pause the begging-and-crying to bother with a suicide note, then resume the self-slaughter.
It is also very rare that people write a suicide note when there is someone present.
As we already said, there were two aspects in Elliott’s case which are rare in case of suicide: the stabbing through the clothes and the absence of hesitation marks, both atypical of suicide although occasionally possible, as most people who commit this very unusual form of suicide usually remove their clothes, stab themselves with a bare chest, and have some hesitation marks showing that the subject was hesitating before finding the right pace to plunge the knife. Nothing of the kind for Elliott, which would indicate he did it very fast, without hesitation, as I said, in the heat of the moment…. Again, this is in conflict with taking the time to write a suicide note.
Furthermore, stabbing yourself when a loved one is right behind the door is an incredibly aggressive and hostile act. If he did stab himself, it certainly was the ultimate ‘Fuck you’ to her, and it’s hard to reconcile such an enraged gesture with the apologetic tone of the ‘suicide note’, mild and vague as it is, when both acts were done in a very short amount of time.
8 • What Dr. Scheinin said about the cuts:
On his arrival at the hospital, Elliott was still alive. Emergency treatment to stop the hemorrhaging was attempted, but he died in the operating room.
Beside the 2 deep wounds in the chest, possible defensive cuts were found. In the ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ documentary, several people go to great lengths to explain these cuts, and Robin Peringer claimed they were due to Elliott’s cutting behavior, repeating what he had already declared to Spin magazine (Mr. Misery, by Liam Gowing, Spin 2004, p 80-92):
‘He had three really tremendous knife wounds on his left arm. They were deep, like he had to go across a couple of times or have the sharpest, biggest knife to do it.’
We can even precisely fathom the date, because Chiba states in this same article:
‘I came home from seeing Lost in Translation and he was lying in the bed with his arm bleeding. He had seven old cigarette burns on his arm. It was evidence of his pain from that period that was just a little too real, so he’d taken a knife to it.’
Since Lost in Translation was released on October 3rd 2003 according to Wikipedia, it could only have taken place just a few days before he died, however Dr. Scheinin found no trace of any ‘tremendous knife wounds’ on his left arm (I will go back to the cigarette burns later).
The Gil Reyes documentary features an even stranger intervention: Steve Hanft suggests that Elliott was wearing leather bracelets to cover ‘something’ on his wrists. Which is just a lie, plain and simple, when I talked to Dr Scheinin, she left no question about that: Elliott’s wrists were totally intact and scar free, he may have been a cutter but not a wrist-cutter.
Furthermore, Dr. Scheinin was very clear, saying that the possible defense wounds were fresh and not compatible with self-mutilation, ‘it’s not self-cutting’ she said. The location of these wounds (under the right arm and on the left palm) was indeed incompatible with self-cutting. She even said these wounds were not consistent with hesitation marks, which are usually around the stab wounds, although she did not rule out some cutting by accident, like a possible mishandling of the knife.
Chiba also mentioned some cigarette burns on his arm, burns which were noticed by Dr. Scheinin during the autopsy. They actually were visible during his 2002-3 concerts, and many people had noticed that Elliott had round marks making a swirl line on his left arm. Elliott used to hide them with some Sharpie-tattoo he was drawing before shows.
I actually met someone who explained to me the origin of these marks. He was in a band called Plasticsoul (an obvious reference to the Beatles) and met Elliott when he was working with David McConnell in the Malibu studio that gave its name to Elliott’s last album since it is indeed located in a ‘basement on the hill’. At this time (around April 2001) it is an understatement to say Elliott was in pretty bad shape, as he was taking a huge amount of drugs, and Plasticsoul told me that Elliott, while doing a lot of crack, had inflicted these cigarette burns to himself because he wanted to burn insects and worms he thought were crawling on his arm. He described me Elliott as a very crazy person at the time, hallucinating because of the drugs.
There is a big difference between someone injuring himself because of hallucinations and someone doing this completely sober in order to harm oneself, as cutters will. Elliott may have harmed himself on other occasions, but these cigarette burns simply cannot be attributed to self-mutilating behavior.
9 • The visit to the studio after Elliott’s death:
Elliott died on October 21st, in the middle of the day, and the second night after his death, Jennifer Chiba, along with two other people (one was Robin Peringer), were seen by Caroline Cooley-Shams, who owns the studio next to Elliott’s:
‘[…] the second night after Elliott’s death at about 12:00 am in the morning Chiba came, in a jeep with two guys. […] I sat in the car with my partner, directly facing their car and finally she came out and put many boxes into the car with the help of the guys. I felt like protecting Elliott, what if it’s his music or writings, what if it’s something that people need to see. We stared at them as they filled the back of the car.’
Chiba still had access to the studio, and we don’t know what she took exactly, but she got there before Elliott’s family. Someone suggested she took her own recordings (Elliott was helping her band ‘Happy Ending’), it’s a possibility but some fans did receive precious recordings as nice presents later on. I even got a track ‘Dancing on the Highway’ from a ‘Chiba’s compilation 2’ circulating around, a song never released elsewhere.
Chiba had a close relationship with some fans, and some moderators of the Elliott Smith board did in fact delete or censor any thread questioning her actions for quite some time after Elliott’s death until the family had to put their foot down.
10 • Contradictions about Elliott’s state of mind before he died:
Many contradictory statements have been made regarding Elliott’s state of mind after his death. Even the same people have said totally different things depending of the time of the interview.
According to Pitchfork Media, Larry Crane said he had planned to help Elliott mix his album in mid-November. Crane wrote, and Chiba called him a week or so before Elliott died to ask him to come to L.A. and help mix and finish the album:
‘I said yes, of course, and chatted with Elliott for the first time in ages. It seems surreal that he would call me to finish an album and then a week later kill himself. I talked to Jennifer this morning, who was obviously shattered and in tears, and she said, ‘I don’t understand, he was so healthy.’
According to Chiba, the Spin article and several other sources, Elliott had been clean for a year; the toxicology reports of the autopsy are even here to prove it: ‘Toxicology tests revealed no illicit substances. All medications were therapeutic or subtherapeutic.’ (Elliott was taking some antidepressants).
Someone I knew, who ran into Robin Peringer two days after Elliott’s death at the memorial wall on Sunset boulevard, wrote this:
‘Robin wanted me to let you know that they had been practicing every day for 7 (?) I think he said 7 hours a day, preparing for the Iggy and the stooges, ATP show here in LA which was supposed to happen on November 8th. He also wanted me to let you know that Elliott was very happy, always laughing, very upbeat, cracking jokes all of the time. There was no sign, whatsoever of anything like this happening. He said, two days before it happened they were sitting on Elliott’s porch talking about growing a garden, making plans for the records. It turns out they were going to release one and then another one instead of a double record and then they were going to continue releasing two records a year like the Beatles did.’
in the Spin article published several months later, Chiba and Peringer formulated very different opinions, as they describe a man fighting his depression and trying to repress his memory of child abuse. Actually everybody in this article was talking about Elliott’s child abuse past as the cause of his suicide:
– Steve Hanft: ‘Elliott said he was abused by his stepfather. He said it was real bad mental trauma. He said he never got over it.’
– Chiba: ‘He was remembering traumatic things from his childhood-parts of things. It’s not my place to say what.’
– Robin Peringer, during the last month of his life, Smith’s relationship with his stepfather “was all he f—ing talked about.”
Last May, during the Q&A following the screening of ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, there was no question of child abuse anymore, but Chiba declared Elliott was ‘seriously mentally ill’ (her own words), something in total contradiction with her first version, ‘I don’t understand, he was so healthy’.
Robin Peringer said in the Spin article:
“We were at Starbucks, and three guys walked in all wearing black pants, white shirts, and ties. And we had to leave because they were all ‘from DreamWorks,’ sent there to follow him- you know, not three businessmen going there to get coffee. He used to take pictures of random white cars. Every white car was following us. Pretty much everybody was following him. They were bugging his conversations. There’d be days where he’d stay up four days straight. I’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’d be rambling this nonsense. I watched that movie A Beautiful Mind, and it reminded me of hanging out with Elliott. He believed these things were there and knew they weren’t necessarily real, but he couldn’t control his thoughts.’
Thus people who were claiming how healthy Elliott was when he died, are now stating years later he was mentally ill, was cutting himself and was in obvious paranoid mode.
However the timeline should be carefully examined. Yes, Elliott was probably very paranoid when he was taking massive amount of drugs, but not when he died, it was not the case anymore, he was clean and had been clean for several months.
A few statements from friends have also brought some light on Elliott’s state of mind at the time, like this one from Lou Barlow when they saw each other around Elliott’s last Birthday (July-August 2003):
‘He was very soft and very childlike at his birthday party in July. I mean, he had been through so much stuff since he had moved to L.A. and he had changed so much. His personality had really changed and he had really hurt himself over the period of time that he lived here.’
But this other one from Earlimart’s Aaron Espinoza who saw him the night before he died, is especially revealing:
‘He would talk about dying. But it was never about suicide – it was about drugs. He always said he could never kill himself. For a lot of people, it wasn’t a surprise. But for me, it didn’t make sense at all. I saw him the night before he died; he seemed fine.’
Another source close to Elliott said to me that ‘he consistently said that if he was ever to do it, he would do it in a way that would not hurt his family. He would choose a way they could live with, something that could have been an accident, like an overdose.’
Elliott had not quit his prescription ‘cold turkey’ as it is implied in the Spin article (‘In mid-September, the effects of going cold turkey were apparent’) since the autopsy revealed he had in fact a normal dose of antidepressants and medication for attention deficit disorder at the time of his death but he was not abusing them.
Drugs may have changed him, but in October 2003 he was clean, taking a normal prescription of antidepressant.
11 • The marriage, the pregnancy and other contradictions:
In the months following Elliott’s death, Chiba flew away to London and other places where she continued communicating with a few persons, as someone I knew received her emails from London.
There, she told this person she was supposedly pregnant, and this story was even reinforced when the source close to Elliott said that Jennifer had told Elliott she was pregnant a week or two before his death. After Elliott’s death, she said to this same person she might be pregnant but it turned out she was not.
The idea of starting a family is mentioned in Benjamin Nugent’s biography (‘Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing’), and in the Spin article ‘He was newly engaged and openly discussing the prospect of having children’.
Chiba has claimed that Elliott had asked her to marry him a few days before he died, and Spin magazine relayed Chiba’s story that way:
‘On October 12, Chiba accompanied Smith to New Monkey Studio, where he laid down lead vocals to one of From A Basement’s unfinished tracks, ‘King’s Crossing,’ a song whose lyrics build to the precipitous line ‘Give me one good reason not to do it!’ At live performances, Ashley Welch and Chiba had gotten into the habit of shouting “Because we love you” from offstage. After recording his own words, Smith invited Chiba to add her vocal. After she recorded the line “Because I love you,” Smith turned to her and said, ‘Let’s get married’.’
But the source close to Elliott said that Elliott wanted to leave her the morning he died.
In the ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’ documentary, or during the Q&A following the screening, she did not allude to anything related to marriage, or starting a family. Furthermore, she didn’t mention any of this in the lawsuit either.
Considering the fact that, she was supposedly engaged to Elliott and may be pregnant, she thought she had a future with him,…. nevertheless, in the Spin article and at the Q&A after the screening of the documentary ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, she kept portraying Elliott a certain way, a depressed person who was ‘suffering from a serious mental illness’ (her own words at the Q&A) with a little paranoia in the mix, ‘Elliott believed the house was bugged,’ (also at the Q&A).
Thus she wanted to marry and have children with someone who, as she repeatedly implies, was mentally ill.
According to a few people and in particular the source close to Elliott, Chiba had herself been admitted as a psychiatric inpatient at least three times in her life.
But the contradictions in her reasoning do not stop there:
She said he was mentally ill, however she had an oral agreement with him and he was apparently rational enough to promise her that ‘she would be his manager and agent responsible for booking and scheduling his appearances for musical performances, and that she would be entitled to 15 percent of the proceeds earned and received on all of Smith’s performances and album sales’. This is part of her deposition testimony when she sued the estate in September 2004.
Thus, Elliott was a mentally ill man but a man making serious decisions and agreement regarding his life and career.
12 • The lawsuit:
The lawsuit is a big part of the picture, as, according to the source close to Elliott, Chiba lied in many of her claims to try to get more than one million dollars from Elliott’s estate after he died.
On July 30, 2004, Chiba sued Marta Greenwald, Elliott’s stepmother, for breach of oral contract, quantum merit, declaratory relief and constructive trust. She lost the suit because of her lack of a talent agent license something that was required to perform certain duties controlled by the Talent Agencies Act.
She claimed Elliott had promised to provide her ‘financial needs and support for the rest of her life’ in exchange for her domestic services as his ‘homemaker, housekeeper, cook, secretary, bookkeeper and financial counselor, ‘forgo[ing] any independent career opportunities’. She also said she had agreed to be his ‘manager and agent for the purposes of arranging [his] booking and scheduling [his] appearances for musical performances’ and to carry out ‘the preparation and production of [his] album’ in exchange for ‘15% of the proceeds earned and received’.
Not only Chiba filed her first amended complaint on November 1st 2004, in which she omitted in its entirety the paragraph detailing her role and rate of commission as his manager and agent (instead, she added the terms ‘manager and agent’ to the list of her duties as homemaker, housekeeper, cook, secretary, bookkeeper and financial counselor), but she changed entirely the motif of her lawsuit during a second Q&A after the screening of the documentary.
I did not go, but this is what was reported according to a person who was present:
‘Elliott told her that if something happened to him, that he didn’t want his family to have control over his music because they would censor it, change it, and destroy the integrity of it, which they did when they decided not to release songs like “See You In Heaven,” “Abused” and “Suicide Machine”. Liam Gowing (who wrote “that” Spin article) who was there for Q&A also added that he knew this was true, and J Chiba regretted not allowing Elliott to write a will because a lawsuit would have never happened. She refused to let him write a will because she thought that allowing him to write one would give him more of a license to kill himself.’
First the lawsuit was about her being Elliott’s manager and agent, then about her being his housekeeper and bookkeeper, then it became about the family’s control of his music.
But there is an important point to make here, when we say ‘the family’, we should remember consider there are two sides to this family: Elliott’s biological father Gary Smith and his wife Marta Greenwald living in Portland and at the head of the estate, and Elliott’s mother and stepfather (who allegedly abused Elliott when he was young) now living in Texas. Chiba did not sue the part of the family which was accused of having abused Elliott, she sued the estate.
If Elliott has distanced himself from his stepfather for obvious reasons, he had always stayed in close contact with his biological father living in Portland, as a matter of fact, Elliott talked with Gary Smith a few days before he died, and Larry Crane said in an interview around the time he was preparing himself to help Elliott with his last album, that ‘his father said he’d been calling regularly.’
Elliott and his father even recorded together a version of ‘Hey Jude for Wes Anderson’s movie, ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ on September 18th 2001 in Los Angeles.
Johan Wohlert, the former bassist of Danish indie band Mew, told in an interview that he helped Elliott and his dad with the vocals.
‘Along with him was his Dad, his band and a bunch of hangarounds. Everybody seemed very down to say the least. Elliott just sat there and then said ‘Hello, I’m Elliott’. He spoke in the exact same soft, gentle voice that I knew and loved from his records. […]’
‘Elliott asked all of us, and I mean everybody in the studio, including Rich and me, to do the ‘Na na na na na na naaaa, na na na naaaaa Hey Jude’ outro vocal part together with him… It was pretty fucking weird standing there, even more drunk and sleepy, screaming Paul’s ode to John’s son in the middle of the night, in a room full of people I had never met before and I realized that I would probably remember this the rest of my life…’
Thus the family’s control of the music excuse for the lawsuit is not very logical, as the estate is managed by the part of the family Elliott was in good terms with.
13 • Jennifer Chiba’s involvement with Elliott since 1999?
In the lawsuit, there were many contradictions and inconsistencies in Chiba’s claims, like the fact she said she was romantically involved with Elliott since 1999.
At the time, they were just friends,
In the 2004 Spin article, it is stated that Elliott regarded Chiba as a friend before leaving for the tour to support his 2000 Figure 8 album: ‘Departing on the ill-fated tour to support the record, he confided in Chiba, then just a friend […]’
She even stated herself to the police after the incident that their relationship was a recent one: ‘Jennifer stated she has known the decedent for four years and has been dating him for over one year.’
She was then just a friend, but in her claim for the lawsuit, it is stipulated ‘began a romantic relationship with Chiba during the summer of 1999’.
She was using this argument to give more weight to her relationship with Elliott, which in fact started only a few months after he decided to move into her house after his drug treatment in 2002, according to the source close to Elliott.
Furthermore, there are some stories floating around (especially coming from the Roost, a bar where Elliott used to go) that Chiba had been trying to go out with him for a certain amount of time: it was reported to me that a woman, who was working there, said she had seen Elliott turn down Chiba, leaving her crying before he left for his 2000 Figure 8 tour. He came back from Europe with another girlfriend, Valerie Deerin.
Actually, Elliott has had quite a few female friends over the years, especially around the 1998-2000 era and we may be under the impression that moving with someone means living together as boyfriend-girlfriend, but it was not the case for Elliott. When he decided to move to Chiba’s house to seek some help after his tough drug treatment, it was not unusual for him to be under the same roof as a woman, without being romantically involved with this person. In LA, before he had his own house, he used to crash at Margaret Mittleman’s place, and he did the same in New York sometimes, choosing Jackie Farry’s place,… it was the way he lived.
14 • Their relationship:
The source close to Elliott had the opportunity to consult the records from Dr. Schloss (Elliott’s psychiatrist) and Dr. Stanton (Chiba’s psychiatrist who had became Elliott’s too), and revealed that Chiba was not someone Elliott would seriously envision for a relationship, as he was reluctant to get very involved with her because she lied a lot.
In fact, when Elliott arrived in Los Angeles, Joanna Bolme was still in the picture, he had another lady friend, a psychologist who prefers to stay anonymous and who talked to me recently, he also had an affair with a French woman in the spring of 1999, then he dated E.V. Day (as it is mentioned in Ben Nugent’s book ‘Day, who dated Smith for a little while early in his Los Angeles years, despite the fact that the two of them weren’t living in the same city’) and may be others,…
His friend Marc Swanson is even quoted in this same Ben Nugent’s book bemusing at some point: ‘he was between girlfriends, which was unusual for him’, which could mean Elliott was not comfortable being alone.
According to this same source close to Elliott, Chiba and Elliott had nevertheless some sort of ‘relationship’, as she was providing drugs for him and had introduced him to crack cocaine.
Interestingly, at the Q&A, she said that, when Elliott was ‘into the drugs’ when he was with her, ‘he was flaky and isolated’, and she was doing all she could ‘to keep him social, … being a therapist’. She then was remembering that she is a therapist, something she forgot when she removed the knife.
But their relationship was not the romantic one people may have imagined, and although Sean Organ (the owner of Org Records, the British label that planned to release the single of Chiba’s band Happy Ending) declined to comment anymore on the subject after Elliott’s death, this is the kind of declaration he made previously to Elliott’s death, describing what he had heard about the couple:
‘Smith wasn’t the easiest person to work with because of his problems. The worst thing ever to happen to Happy Ending was Elliott getting involved. The production of the single became the focus of all of Smith and Chiba’s relationship problems: people began to speak of their relationship as furiously difficult, similar to the infamous and ultimately disastrous liaison between Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen.’
15 • More lies:
So Elliott was reluctant to get involved with her because Chiba lied a lot, something she has been steadily doing since.
At the Q&A after the screening of ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, she lied twice when I asked her what she wanted to do to help the police solve the case, she answered she had ‘already talked to the police over and over’, adding there were false rumors on the internet.
I also asked her why she removed the knife, being a therapist, and she answered she had already explained everything about the knife in the movie (all she says is that she did not know and wanted to help him).
The police report states:
‘Additionally, the girlfriend’s reported removal of the knife and subsequent refusal to speak with detectives are all of concern’.
What it says is in total contradiction with what she said that day, and Police reports cannot be considered as lies or rumors.
16 • The control freak part:
If we go back to what this person told me after the second Q&A of the documentary:
‘[…] J Chiba regretted not allowing Elliott to write a will because a lawsuit would have never happened. She refused to let him write a will because she thought that allowing him to write one would give him more of a license to kill himself.’
Elliott was very stubborn and not someone who could be told what to do or not to do, and this declaration serves the suicidal image she wants to paint of him.
Many facts point to Chiba’s very controlling character: she wanted to be his manager, she was answering the phone calls, and even writing the setlists for him:
‘He would always ask me to write his setlists, because he didn’t want to have to choose what to play. I would always choose a Heatmiser song because I was a big fan and he had complex feelings about that time.’ (http://www.voxpopmag.com/le-magazine/16358-elliott-smith-la-cicatrice-interieure)
For his big come back at the Echo in October 2002, she also said she had written the setlist for the show, it may be a trivial thing, but she was controlling much more than the setlist, she even made him see her own therapist:
‘After Smith parted ways with his longtime psychiatrist, Dr. Bert Schloss, Chiba introduced him to her own psychiatrist, Dr. Abigail Stanton, who agreed to take over Smith’s medication management.’ (2004 Spin article)
According to various articles about psychology, it is not necessarily good idea when partners see the same doctor: ‘If your partner sees a therapist, don’t see the same one, and beware of any therapist who suggests that you do so. Don’t feel pressured to see a certain therapist because you feel obligated to the person who made the recommendation.’ (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elaine-aron-phd/personal-development-how_b_580537.htm)
‘Unless the therapist is specifically doing family, child or couples counseling, most therapists try to avoid seeing people who know one another in a close or intimate manner. Doing so can cause all sorts of troublesome problems for both the therapist and the patient, as the therapist will hold secrets about the two parties that they may have a hard time not inadvertently divulging.’ (http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/05/24/5-more-reasons-your-therapist-wont-see-you-now)
Chiba was even controlling whom Elliott was allowed to see after a show, according to a person who stayed anonymous like many others, just signing only ‘old friend’ on a website, she had her way to keep out some people from seeing Elliott:
‘I knew Elliot pretty well, and met the girl in question only once. When I met her, she made up a false story concerning an old girlfriend of his, that happened to be at one of his Brooklyn shows a few months before he died. I attended the show with the old girlfriend, and afterward Miss Chiba refused to allow her backstage, accusing her of violently hitting her for no reason. This blatantly false story spurned an insane scene, and I felt terrible for Elliot for being caught in the middle of such nonsense. If she could lie about something so seemingly insignificant, there is good cause to believe that she lied regarding the circumstances of his death. […] I would attest to this at any time, as would the people who were present during her false allegations toward the girl that seemingly threatened her alpha position.’
This is echoing quite well the story Joanna Bolme, Elliott’s ex-girlfriend, told Q magazine at the beginning of this year:
‘The year he died, Elliott came to see me play. He was excited about his studio and he hadn’t been doing drugs. He wanted to show me his studio. I was going to go after the show, but [then girlfriend] Jennifer Chiba threw a fit and made him leave. That was a bummer – we hadn’t hung out in years and been civil, and we were making some amends. It was the last time I saw him.’ (‘The Lost Boy’, Q magazine, January 2011)
I had quite a similar experience with Chiba, when I talked to Elliott after a show. I mentioned Europe and he told me he wanted to tour there again, but especially he became all-smile-bright-eyes when I mentioned Paris, declaring that it was ‘his favorite place’. I did not pay that much attention at Chiba’s move at the time, but she came over right away and Elliott told me he had to leave as she wanted to leave, telling him in a sarcastic voice something like ‘Ha you like Paris?’ before dragging him away.
Later I learned that Elliott had known someone in Paris (the song ‘Place Pigalle’ was written about that story), something Chiba was probably aware of.
17 • The lack of guilt:
Despite being a therapist, Chiba has not expressed any guilt or regret about her involvement in Elliott’s death.
When the coroner’s report was made public, she declared to MTV:
‘Other magazines and publication are just looking for some sort of sensationalistic angle that will sell their publications. In my mind, there’s no question to what happened and there’s no need to put that kind of spin on it.’
‘It’s absolutely not my fault. I know that, and people close to Elliott know that.’(http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1484246/elliott-smiths-girlfriend-attacks-rumors.jhtml)
Elliott’s family did not share her point of view, and basically answered ‘Don’t Speak For Us’ in another statement to MTV (http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1484342/elliott-smiths-family-truth-not-clear.jhtml)
But the lack of guilt is not even the most questionable aspect of her behavior.
When Elliott was pounding at the door, begging her to open it, he was supposedly threatening to commit suicide as it was reported in the Guardian, but she ignored him and she refused to open: ‘As the row got worse, Smith threatened to commit suicide.
Like most of Smith’s close friends, Chiba was used to him making melodramatic threats about ending his life.’[…]Chiba ignored him and locked herself in the bathroom.’
Chiba was a trained therapist and this goes against everything she should have done as a professional therapist, who should never ignore a suicidal threat.
Her actions following Elliott’s death demonstrate a real lack of grief too: merely days after he died, she went to the studio, and removed stuff in the middle of the night, then she sued the family for a million less than a year after it happened.
Even Ashley, Elliott’s half sister, who was friendly with Chiba when Elliott was alive, distanced herself shortly after he died. She wrote a long comment on the Elliott Smith board after the publication of the Spin article, and this sentence in particular was indirectly addressed to Chiba: ‘Throwing blame and suing people and saying in magazines that they know what’s best isn’t doing any good.‘
Some people have said Chiba is a sweet person, as it is said in the Spin article: ‘to most of those who maintained a relationship with Smith through his recovery and were close to him when he died, Chiba ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly,’ was ‘sweet and watchful and affirming’ with Smith and ‘helped in his rehabilitation.’
But another vision was brought up first by two persons (one of them was friend with Elliott before he moved with Chiba, and the second person knows Elliott’s family), and this was confirmed by the source close to Elliott: Rob Schnapf, who was the sound engineer for many of Elliott’s albums, said that one of the members of the group Whiskey Biscuit quit associating with Jennifer Chiba because she was a ‘knife freak’.
And here is what Caroline Cooley-Shams, owner of the studio next to Elliott’s, wrote a little while after Elliott’s death, describing some bad experience with her neighbor:
‘There was a dark force in Elliott’s life and it wasn’t him, drugs or depression, as far as I could tell. But this is only my perspective so I could be wrong. It even had a name, but I won’t say it and I won’t even give it a sex because that’s not the point. The point is the dark force did exist for whatever reason and it did have a huge part or hold on Elliott’s life.[…]
The force was around a lot more often after that and I would smile, but I always had that uncomfortable, little girl fear inside. The force had black hair and dark squinting eyes and the whitest of skin, beautiful in a haunting scary, kind of way. The force seemed arrogant and entitled and that made me uncomfortable.’
During the Q&A after ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, we were told Chiba was writing a ‘memoir’ about her life with Elliott. Several years have passed and no book has been released. She may repeat, as she already did publicly, that Elliott was mentally ill, that he was paranoiac and was cutting himself (to explain the possible defense wounds), but it can be clearly established that it was not the case as these cuts were not voluntary self-inflicted and that the paranoia was happening at least a year before died, when he was under the influence of a lot of drugs.
Chiba is mixing the timeline to turn things at her advantage. I am not denying the depression, the drug addiction, the suicide ideation, and probably the self-harm, this is why this story is so complex, but things needs to be sorted out: when he died, Elliott was clean and taking only a normal amount of antidepressants even though he had been through a lot a year before.
On October 21st, Elliott wanted to leave her, and we can be sure of several things:
Chiba removed the knife, despite her very probable first aid training, she did not call the ambulance right away, and she described Elliott to the police as someone bound to commit suicide. The absence of fingerprints on the knife and the blank and impersonal ‘suicide note’ just add more oddity to a case that was already accumulating many suspicious circumstances (absence of hesitation marks, stabbing through the clothes and possible defense wounds).
Since, Chiba has been blurring everything with different versions of what happened, totally opposite depictions of Elliott’s state of mind (he was healthy, he was suffering from his child abuse past, he was paranoiac, he was mentally ill,…) and their relationship before his death (he wanted to get married, he wanted to leave me, I am pregnant, I am not pregnant…)
She also has been building her defense with a lawsuit and claims full of lies (i.e. her romantic involvement with Elliott since 1999), an article in a rock magazine (Spin), which mostly presented her point of view, her major involvement in Gil Reyes’ documentary ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, which was a vehicle to plead her innocence and to demonstrate Elliott’s supposed mental illness, and now a memoir about her life with Elliott in the making.
It is difficult to see any grief from her part when the woman was packing boxes from the studio just two nights after the terrible scene, and suing the family a year after, and is now hoping to cash in with a book.
Unlike her, the family has stayed very silent in the media since Elliott’s death, may be to avoid more lawsuits, may be for other reasons. Despite her efforts to tell her story everywhere, we still cannot reasonably say we know what happened that day.
The most difficult part in all this is to sort out the truth regarding Elliott’s character, to decipher what was fabrication and what was not, because Elliott had been very good at creating his own myth, as Sam Coomes says in Autumn de Wilde’s book ‘Elliott Smith’: Elliott was sort of actively involved in his own sort of mythmaking, and I think he was interested in that, and it was something that I kind of frowned on. I always felt like I didn’t want to facilitate that too much. Um… for various reasons, but I have to question if there isn’t some sort of petty reasons for it.
Again, another source close to Elliott told me that ‘he was often lying during interviews, he quite liked to give some interviewers what they wanted from him, exaggerating the gloom and doom, then complaining to other interviewers about being perceived as the ‘cartoon character’, no matter what he did’.
He had been toying the idea of suicide for years, he was always blurring reality with fiction, just consider the fact he was not a drug addict when he was writing all these songs filled with drug references, but later became one. This mythmaking idea has sure been used by Chiba to befog reality and people have bought it.
Actually, Elliott was very good at two things: building his own myth and sabotage his relationships with other people.
As Margaret Mittleman said to Autumn de Wilde in her book, ‘Elliott had good people radar. Like he knew whom he should have in his life. But then when ….it’s almost as if, when he felt like he couldn’t live up to his own expectations of what it took to maintain that relationship, he messed with it. You know. …. Sabotage’
May be Elliott thought he could not live up to his own expectations, and isolating himself from his friends while getting involved with Chiba, was a sort of sabotage. And if he had a good people radar, as Mittleman says, he also made other choices as Neil Gust mentioned in this same book, ‘He made his own choices. He chose those weird, dark-sided people. When he bought the myth of being a rock star it was just unbelievably disappointing’.
Autumn de Wilde herself even said that ‘he was surrounded by sycophants’ in her interview with NME in October 2010.
Elliott Smith’s death and the circumstances around it seem as complex as he was.
Originally published on Rock NYC (October 21 2011)