An Old Conversation I Had With Nelson Gary, Elliott Smith’s Friend

A few years ago, I had an online conversation with Nelson Gary, a poet featured on the last Elliott Smith’s album; he is the one reciting his poem over the song ‘Coast to Coast’, and he is also the author of this article on Lummox Journal published after Elliott’s death. And because of sentences like these ‘He had come out of the darkness to twilight, then his life tragically ended,’ and ‘it is astonishing that a more thorough investigation has not been conducted’, I thought Nelson would have interesting things to say.

I communicated with him several times over the years, and I haven’t been in contact recently but I have saved everything he wrote to me. He is someone who writes very long answers, but I have hesitated to share his opinion publicly. He never said to me I shouldn’t share anything with others, but at the same time, I have never really asked. I thought about him recently because I stumbled on one of his posts saying ‘I haven’t been back on Facebook in a while. It is great to be back. Where else can I reconnect with Jennifer Chiba?’

Why would he reconnect with her if he was complaining about the investigation? But Nelson has always been very ambiguous about his thoughts and relationship with her. May be that’s why I have never written about he told me… it is quite irrational and illogical.

When I first talked to him, I was under the impression he was not convinced it was a suicide, and indeed he wasn’t: ‘I would like to think that I am someone who is searching for the truth as opposed to hiding behind what the consensus believes to be true about a great singer/songwriter and friend, who is now tragically dead,’ he wrote to me in 2009. And we got very specific about the details of Elliott’s death:

‘There are people who say that the first stab wound was self-inflicted and that it was so bad that she just took him out of his misery,’ he continued. ‘Elliott was doing so well before he died. It is true that people who opt for suicide are often said to be doing well. The suicides in waiting are happy because they have found the resolve to do what they have wanted to do for a considerable period of time. Even as a counselor, knowing this and knowing that Elliott could be grievously depressed, I do not think he killed himself. I do not rule out that there could have been a fight between the two of them, him and Jennifer. In the end, as I wrote in the article, I do not think it was suicide, but that does not necessarily mean that, without a reasonable question of a doubt, that Jennifer did it. I do think there should be an investigation into the matter, and there is no reason why there has not been.’

At this point he sounded very clear and direct, the most direct and rational you can be regarding this case, and he insisted several times that the investigation had not been done carefully, that Elliott’s death had been handled poorly by the authorities, but at the end he admitted ‘I just don’t have the answers, and it does not seem that anyone else does.’

Sure, I was well aware of this, but I thought I had an ally in him. He also told me he had never met Chiba at the time. I believe him, and it can be surprising to some because the song ‘Coast to Coast’ was recorded (several times) between 2001-2003, and Chiba was supposedly around. It turned out Nelson had only met Valerie Deerin:

‘Elliott was a complex person,’ he wrote. ‘His relationships with Val and Jennifer added considerably to the complexity of his life. He had a choice about the people with whom he involved himself, and he made them. NO one forced him to be with Jennifer. Most of the people I know preferred Val. I liked Val. I never knew Jennifer.’

He had also warned me, the truth will be hard to get:

‘I have been completely candid with you about that dark event. In searching for the truth, it is made even darker because the chances of you getting the truth out of one of Elliott’s crowd is very slim. The police either could not do it or they did not want to do it. This is not only what they are paid to do, but also what they are trained to do. They could or would not admit to anything at the scene that evidenced anything other than a suicide. Not long after Elliott’s death, it was claimed by the police that they were going to open a full investigation into his death, but this, as you know, never occurred. One can speculate about the reasons for this, but probably the best thing to do is find some “in” at the police department and discover why. If I was going to sink a serious chunk of my time and energy into finding out how Elliott died, I would start with the police department, infiltrating it if I had to do so or, perhaps, they would give me the immediate answers I was looking for without trying that hard. It is not very glamorous in terms of a way to investigate, but to me, it would seem to be the best and most direct way I could think of, but that is just me.’

I have never managed to infiltrate the police department – how do you do that when you are just a citizen? I have just talked to the detectives a few times, but they never got any information from them.

I had another contact with Nelson, and a conversation with him in 2014, after the release of W.T. Schultz’s ‘Torment Saint’. I had noticed that Schultz and Gary were good friends on Facebook, which looked surprising based on what Nelson had told me. At the time, I had also had a conversation with Jerry Schoenkopf, Elliott’s friend and counselor, who was also Nelson’s friend. Jerry had been very direct at telling me he thought Elliott had been murdered, and I wanted to get Nelson’s reaction.

‘Jerry really knew him well. I have always have had tremendous doubts that he killed himself,’ Nelson wrote back, a reply which, for me, was not reconcilable with his friendship with Schultz, who has always been a crusader of the suicide story, and I got this strange reply from Nelson:

‘He did not get that angle from me. I expressed my grave uncertainty about Elliott’s death. Todd is a great man. He did a great job, but he has a very certain view, that of a forensic psychologist. I don’t think Todd would ever cover a murder mystery.’

There were two interesting things here, first, Schultz has always publicly said that none of Elliott’s friends had ever expressed any doubt he killed himself, and I had one of his friends saying the exactly opposite. Secondly, I could not make sense of Nelson’s reasoning, why would he defend Schultz, someone who has always pushed the opposite agenda?

I told Nelson that may be Schultz was not totally honest when he told me none of his friends had never had any doubt Elliott killed himself, and he replied by a nonsense: ‘His publisher may have kept him out of a libel suit against his will’. If it was inconceivable to write that Elliott had been murdered by his girlfriend, Schultz could at least have been honest and mentioned that the autopsy was inconclusive, as Ben Nugent did in his book. Nugent never got sued to my knowledge.

The problem was that Nelson had met Chiba since our last conversation: ‘I did a poetry reading a couple weeks ago. Jennifer Chiba showed up. Maybe she heard me crying before taking the stage that I believed Elliott was murdered’… ‘I talked to Jennifer after the reading. Shultz was supposed to be there.’… ‘Anyway, I talked to Jen not knowing whether she had heard my emotional outburst or not. She said that the parents of Elliott still basically hold her accountable for his death, which does not necessarily mean murder. There has always been that possibility that he stabbed himself once and she finished him. Nobody can stab themselves twice in the heart, and through clothes, why? I had a good conversation with Jenifer. We decided to become FB friends.’… ‘It may seem strange that scene with Chiba after what I was crying about, but it is not, even though I am an eccentric. She was proper and even bubbly,’ he added.

Nelson Gary met Chiba, and even though he was crying that Elliott had been murdered a minute earlier, he found her bubbly and became friends with her? The part about Elliott’s parents was confirmed later but Nelson ended the conversation with a few messy and borderline bizarre thoughts, although some of it (the part about the interpretation of the album) completely made sense to me:

‘I did not ask her about the murder. What she told me is his parents had problems with her in a tone that said even after all this time. I am not the person to solve this murder (I don’t think). Nevertheless, I was open to getting to know more about her motives if she did in fact murder him. There are those who are bent on believing it was a murder and those who are bent on believing it was a suicide. It is terrifically traffic either way, and the bottom line is he is dead. Agree on the interpretation of one album’ [I had mentioned how people interpret Elliott’s music with suicide in mind]. ‘Not the whole body of work, though the mysterious death, not a suicide, not a homicide, cast a twilight of unknowing on all of it, but not really in a remarkable way unless one wants to get venal about it. The suicide is bad for sales, homicide is good, mysterious death is best of all for sales and his iconography. Really, at this stage, it is a mysterious death. No one has really produced any evidence of it being one way or another that has led to anything tangible. Maybe that’s why I cried also, not only missing Elliott, but all those people out there trying with no real detective tools or power or money or influence to get a definite answer and ending up getting nowhere, but crazy. This is the second tragedy that has rippled out from Elliott’s death, people listening to Basement for cryptic or even backwards lyrics to try and figure it out as if Pink Floyd or the Beatle Paul is dead. This is truly sad. Tragic even. Basement is affected by the mysterious death situation as it would be by the suicide or homicide. But his other albums really aren’t. I am not sure how much attention Basement would have gotten, particularly positive attention, without his death. I think it would have been slammed and not listened to for years, then appreciated the way Exile on Main St. by the Stones is. I know there is an answer to your suffering, my suffering, and that of many others who would just like to know all about how he met his grisly end, namely was it at her hand, I don’t know that I’ll ever know for sure, but I made a move in that direction at the reading and when I do not have so much of my own short (I have COPD) life left to live, I’ll explore it more. Till then, I read what I wrote for him to audiences that could include his murderess, cry before going on, and do my best to be soulful, precise, and professional.’

I cannot make complete sense of this, it is indeed a tragedy, but it is not a Greek tragedy, a literary object writers write about. It is a fucking horrific death and we don’t know how it happened! Nelson’s train of thoughts is truly confusing, I don’t know what he wanted to insinuate with ‘The suicide is bad for sales, homicide is good, mysterious death is best of all for sales’… but I found it exasperating and dangerous. The truth is the truth, there’s no alternative truth, there’s no alternative universe where you can be friends with someone you suspect of murder. His answer has never satisfied me, but he stopped answering after this.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Shane says:

    I just want to make one point about the unbelievability that he could stab himself twice….Artie lange attempted suicide and stabbed himself 9 times in the chest. I’m not for or against any particular theory, but I just thought I’d mention that.

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    1. alysoncamus says:

      Artie Lange stabbed himself into his abdominal area, it’s a huge difference because it’s through soft tissues. it’s still horrible but I talked to forensic experts and they will tell you that this is very different, it’s extremely rare and difficult to do it in the thoracic cage because of the bones. Plus he had 6 hesitation marks and 3 deep plunges, and he had slit his wrists… nothing like this for Elliott.

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      1. Shane says:

        Ok that makes sense. Have you investigated some articles’ claim (quote actually) that Larry crane said Elliott had tried to stab himself once before and then showed Larry the scar? As a huge fan I try not to get too deep into the facts and try to focus more on his music and what he represents in my mind…someone who advocated kindness and generosity. But I also find it hard not to be curious about these things as well.

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      2. alysoncamus says:

        He didn’t try to stab himself, he had a scar because he fell down on a tree one night when he was running in the dark and didn’t see there was a cliff. This episode was often interpreted as another suicide attempt, although Elliott would laugh about it later and said, It was dark, I was upset and drunk. You can find the exact details and I wrote about it too because people often use it as an example of another suicide attempt. It’s hard not to think about these things, you are right, and especially people interpret a lot of his songs a certain way because he is the guy ‘who stabbed himself in the heart’

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  2. Steve says:

    I stumbled upon this page after randomly hearing an Elliott Smith cover on the HBO show “Crashing.” I didn’t know who sang it and found out it was done by Seth Avett of Avett Brothers along with a Female singer I hadn’t heard of. Great cover… Down the YouTube rabbit hole, then end up googling Jennifer Chiba. This is not the point of why I’m posting.

    About 2009, I was l living in NYC working in the healthcare industry. I was also a musician playing in bands and had a lot of musician friends. I went to a party at an apartment of a friend who worked at the hospital that I worked at as well (no musician friends at this party, totally different crowd). There were a lot of people there. I met a friend of the host of the party who said that they were visiting from out of town. Made some small talk and I mentioned that I was a musician. This person then asked me who were some of my favorite musicians? I named a few and then said Elliott Smith. Without any prompting, he said, “Oh, my old college roommate is good friends with Jennifer, his girlfriend. You know, she killed him.” I said, “Huh? What are you talking about?”
    This person had no reason to lie to me. I had just met this guy.. He began to tell me a few more details that Jennifer called his friend a few days after Elliott’s death and was freaking out because she thought she was going to be arrested. There were more details that I can’t remember. I just remembered that after that conversation with a stranger who I’d randomly met at a party, I was floored. This random guy had no ties to any “musician” or NYC music scene gossip bullshit. He had absolutely no reason to tell me this or even go into as much detail.. This guy was so convincing with details that it felt like he was telling the truth. Mind you, this was something like 6 years after Elliott’s death. There was no real reason to have this conversation. It wasn’t like Elliott had just been recently deceased.

    I know what you’re thinking, I’m just a troll. Think what you want but I’ve never forgotten that conversation I had with a stranger 9 yrs ago. It still creeps me out just thinking of it.

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    1. alysoncamus says:

      Thank you for your comment Steve. I hope you are not a troll… I will send you an email if you don’t mind!

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  3. GH says:

    Applying repetition as both a literary device and learning strategy here… I am going to reiterate points regarding the investigation of this case.

    There is a helluva lot more to this story than what has been printed in any music magazine or online post (other than Alyson’s work, that is; and even she has not posted all of what has been learned). But, even after (almost) 15 years, it is still extremely difficult to get people to talk.

    Steve – you are not the first person to have heard hearsay from a seemingly far-flung source who paints a different scenario than the media usually portrays. That’s why we researchers encourage you (and anyone else who has heard hearsay regarding this case) to try to recall details and names. We have learned through our efforts that many of these far-flung sources (even some who have left comments online) actually turn out to have connections to the protagonists in this case and those connections can be substantiated (and are usually credible). We do our best to systematically compare the information we receive with other information we have been given.

    No one I know who is researching/investigating this case has ruled out either manner of death. But, whatever the circumstances that led to Smith’s tragic outcome, no doubt it must be harder for friends to adjust to the idea that the only witness might have stabbed him – even during a heated argument. Accepting the possibility of homicide, especially perpetrated by someone with whom one is acquainted, is by far a more jarring thought than suicide. No reasonable person wants to assign guilt for such an act to any individual without first having full knowledge of the circumstances. However, in this case, the same reticence should be applied to the idea of suicide.

    Many still believe that IF the only witness were the perpetrator of this act, she would have been arrested already. Not necessarily; and definitely not under these circumstances. There is no definitive evidence for either manner of death. Statistically speaking, Smith’s injuries tell a story, yet they are not 100% proof of either manner of death. However, if examined in conjunction with forensic statistics – and without the added layer of the only witness’s statement – the wounds are as consistent with homicide as with suicide. (Perhaps even more so when compared to recent forensic data regarding sharp force injury.) Still – the wounds do not provide the total picture.

    One has to consider ALL statements made by the only witness – that is, before she “lawyered up” and ceased talking with the authorities and afterward when she began, instead, to speak more freely with the media. There are plenty of discrepancies in the narrative(s) that have never been explained.

    For example: The possible injuries inflicted upon Smith when the only witness “tackled” him after she removed the knife from his chest. This scenario was NOT included in available/leaked official investigative reports (Smoking Gun). Neither is it/was it included in the official autopsy report/analysis of Smith’s injuries. (I am specifically referring to the reports available to the public without a FOIA request).

    The leaked investigator’s narrative states that Smith was “ambulatory” and “walked away” after the only witness removed the knife. However, Chiba revealed to the general public (through other media) that she had tackled Smith sometime after she pulled the knife from his chest. And, apparently, her reason for tackling him was a fear that Smith was going to jump off the apartment’s balcony in order to insure his suicide attempt was successful. [In my opinion, this particular part of her story evokes the “cliff jump” mentioned briefly in Liam Gowing’s 2004 SPIN article. Unfortunately, Gowing should’ve fact checked this account before he included it in his piece on Smith. There was never an actual suicide attempt by “cliff” on Smith’s part. Those close to Smith know this.] But – this addition to her narrative brings up more questions about Smith’s injuries, as well questions about his physical movements at the time she tackled him.

    For any reader seriously doubting the reason for any in-depth investigation of Smith’s case, consider actress Natalie Wood’s manner of death, and how the coroner’s opinion has officially evolved over the decades. In fact, the LAPD recently held a press conference to report their findings about Wood’s death after new information came to light from a witness. At this time (2018), LAPD considers her death to be suspicious. We don’t tend to hear a lot of talk of “conspiracy theory” regarding Wood’s case though. Perhaps the fact that there were other people present during the incident – other witnesses – makes a difference.

    Again – Smith’s case is OPEN.

    If anyone has pertinent information about Smith and Chiba’s relationship either on a business level [including information about the bank account Smith had created for his foundation for abused children; a charitable entity which was not yet legally established because he was in the process of filing the required paperwork around the time of his death]

    OR, if you have information on a personal level… please contact the LAPD — OR — contact Alyson.

    We realize that memories are far from infallible, but details – even after 15 years – are still worth examining. If you aren’t familiar with what is known and not known about the case itself, you probably will not even realize how WHAT YOU KNOW or HAVE HEARD relates to what others have provided us OFF the record.

    AGAIN – If anyone reading this blog has ever thought about sharing information regarding this case, please follow through with contacting the authorities, or Alyson Camus.

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