Jerry Schoenkopf was Elliott Smith’s drug counselor, and the two men grew very close over the years. So close they had started together the Elliott Smith Foundation to benefit abused children. Valerie Deerin, Elliott’s girlfriend at the time, helped found it — she even made a deposit to start the funding — and, according to Jerry, the foundation was filed just 20 days before Elliott died. Unfortunately, it was never finalized because it takes a long time to establish such a thing, and it basically died with Elliott.
I had the chance to talk to Jerry Schoenkopf on the phone and he had interesting things to tell me. Curiously, he was interviewed by W. T. Schultz in his book ‘Torment Saint’ but Schultz never really took into consideration what Jerry had to say. If he writes page 297, ‘Jerry and Elliott never went more than a month without talking’, demonstrating what a close relationship they had formed, he continues by quoting Schoenkopf with, ‘Elliott was interested in the dark side, but I don’t remember any obsession with death, I don’t know that he had a death wish’, but interestingly, Schultz relegates another part of the conversation to the notes at the end of the book, in tiny print: ‘Schoenkopf told me that, if Elliott had wanted to commit suicide he would have done it by heroin overdose not stabbing!!’
This should have been in the pages concerning the interview instead of being edited out because not fitting in the theory presented by the book, the theory that Elliott committed suicide without any doubt, despite the fact that the case was left open by the police, after the coroner ruled it ‘undetermined’ rather than a suicide.
On the phone, Jerry Schoenkopf couldn’t have been more direct, I called him several times, and our conversations were brief, but during the first minutes of our first one, he told me right away that Elliott was murdered. It is not that often that people are that direct, usually they take some detours to tell me that they are, may be, suspicious of what happened, but that was not Jerry’s case. He gave me later the authorization to write about what he told me…. He was so open and thoughtful about the subject, that I could tell this 10-year-old story still really mattered to him.
He basically repeated to me what he had revealed to Schultz: ‘Having been his counselor for years,… people get to know one another,… he was a heroin addict and if he had decided to kill himself he would have done it with an overdose, that’s what heroin addicts do, they don’t take a knife to puncture their heart’. He added that he found the way he died absolutely ‘unbelievable and incredible’. In particular, he thought really incredible that ‘a very peaceful, quiet, serene human being would stab himself in the chest twice,… ‘once is already incredible enough, but twice?’
The police talked to Jerry Schoenkopf, and he said he told them exactly the same thing, but this apparently wasn’t enough for them to investigate more than they did. So a lot of people seem to accept it was a suicide mostly on the basis of Elliott’s depressive nature and his song lyrics, but nobody is paying attention to someone who knew him very well and declares that such a way to commit suicide was totally out of character?
Jerry met Jennifer Chiba a couple of times, but he didn’t know her very well. He never talked to her very much, just met her briefly and never had a real conservation with her. This point is interesting as she has always pretended to have been such a big part in Elliott’s life. Nevertheless Jerry summarized the situation this way: Chiba started things as Elliott’s drug dealer, she was one of his connections, and this is how their relationship started. She was selling Elliott heroin, he ended up living with her and she became his girlfriend. ‘Usually it is the women who move in with their drug dealers’, he added, ‘but in his case he was a man moving in with his female heroin dealer’… In any case, we are very far from the romantic encounter at Spaceland described in ‘Torment Saint’.
Jerry also said he liked Valerie Deerin (Elliott’s previous girlfriend) a lot, she was an ‘extremely nice person’, and she did everything she could for Elliott. But Valerie wanted nothing to do with drugs, according to Jerry.
‘But when he moved in with his drug dealer’, said Jerry, ‘he continued using drugs which she was buying and supplying, and then you had the fight’,…’This is totally psychotic’, he said about the self-stabbing, ‘Elliott was unbalanced and depressed but he was not psychotic, it would require a psychotic person to do that type of action’… ‘Plus this is not Japan, this is the United States, this is not culturally known or accepted in any way, that would not have been in his consciousness’.
I asked him about Elliott being clean at the time , which he doesn’t doubt of course, but Jerry doesn’t think Elliott had been cleaned for as long as it was reported (about a year). ‘I don’t believe he had been clean for that long’, he said, ‘but whether he was clean or loaded, that’s not something he would have done, as it is not something I or you would do, no matter how sad we got!’
Jerry saw Elliott just a few days (may be two days) before he died and I asked him about Elliott’s state of mind: ‘He came to see me before he died, he was okay, he had been depressed for years so there was an underlining depression even when he seemed to be alright, there were times when he was better or worst, but there wasn’t anything unusual when he came to see me just a few days before he died’. And this is in total contradiction with what Jennifer Chiba said during the Q&A after ‘Searching for Elliott Smith’, describing Elliott as someone who was paranoid and ‘suffering from a serious mental illness’. Jerry Schoenkopf never used these terms because it is false, and Schoenkopf knew Elliott very well.
Originally published on Rock NYC (April 26 2014)