A Real-Life Locked Room Mystery

Date Published 05.31.08
“Did he write poetry?” the homicide detectives asked one neighbor, who was also a friend of the victim’s.  Poetry, their tone implied, was not something happy people did.

“Was he right- or left-handed?” the detectives asked another friend.

Drugs?  Break-up?  Depression?

They hammered it from different angles, but the foregone conclusion always hung in the air:  this was a suicide.

They never asked the neighbor what he heard that night.  If they had, they would have learned that while Hugues de la Plaza was allegedly stabbing himself to death, the neighbor heard Hugues’ front door slam three times, several crashes, and the sound of footsteps growing quieter as someone ran away.

Melissa Nix is not by nature anti-police.  In fact, she grew up in a military family and is inclined to respect law and order.  But the San Francisco homicide detective in charge of her former boyfriend’s case lied to her the first time she talked to him, and her opinion of him, and the department’s work on the case, never improved.

“He told me that he’d talked to Hugues’ parents, and all the pertinent people,” Melissa said. 

Expecting to commiserate, Melissa called the de la Plazas in France. 

They didn’t know their son was dead. There had been no call from the detective.  She had to break the news to them.

Hugues de la Plaza

The de la Plazas made arrangements to come to San Francisco.  Melissa wanted to make sure Hugues’ apartment was clean of his blood when his parents arrived; she began running interference with the biohazard crew. 

The biohazard crew was from out of town.  Apparently all the local crews were busy.  San Francisco, it seems, has a murder problem.  In 2007, when Hugues was found stabbed to death, murder was up 20 percent in the city.  A statistic on the website dedicated to Hugues’ case says that from 2004 to October 2006 San Francisco had 253 homicides, and only one conviction.

The police, sensitive about statistics, didn’t want another unsolved case on the books.  Looks like a suicide, they said.

There was one problem:  the facts.

An expert familiar with crime scene clean-up, upon seeing Hugues' blood splattered apartment, said it looked like he'd put up a hell of a fight.

“You know the police think it’s a suicide?” Melissa said.

This was no suicide, the expert said.

On June 2, it will be a year.  For Hugues’ family and friends it’s been a year marked by two losses --- first Hugues, then faith that the San Francisco Police would investigate his case thoroughly.

And thoroughness, Melissa emphasizes, is all they’re asking for.  Hugues’ advocates are remarkably sensitive to issues of privilege.  Well-educated and articulate, they realize they have resources others do not.  A passage on Hugues’ website humbly places Hugues’ wrongful death among many:

Hugues was an ordinary person, special to few, unknown to many. Regardless, his murder - as well as the 253 other unsolved murders in San Francisco - deserves a thorough and complete investigation.

Hugues, 36, was born and raised in France.  He was self-taught, Melissa says, with a wonderful ear that led him to music and a career in sound engineering.  In France, he was a conscientious objector who said he did not wish to be in a situation where he would be asked to kill anyone.  

A job working alongside Americans piqued his interest in the country, and he moved to New York in 1999.  There he met Melissa, and for a while the couple lived together in Brooklyn.  Pictures from this time show a slim, darkly handsome young man with a well-developed sense of style and wry smile.

Hugues de la Plaza

Glimpses from Melissa, and friends’ comments left on the blog, form a picture of a man with somewhat contradictory, but recognizably human, qualities.

He was a vegetarian with a Frenchman’s sophisticated palate.  He could tell you where to buy the coolest pair of jeans.  He loved to flirt, loved American women, and would sometimes call a co-worker at Leapfrog, the educational software company where he worked, and invite him to art shows where they could meet “cute ladies.”

He loved motorcycles, philosophy, and Burning Man.  He wasn’t an extrovert, Melissa says; at a party he was the person off to the side, engrossed in a lively conversation. 

A “gentle dreamer” was how one acquaintance described him.  He didn’t want to work for the rest of his life, Melissa says, and he saved his money carefully with an eye toward early retirement.  A recent trip to Buenos Aires enthralled him; he talked of maybe moving to Argentina.  He already knew how to tango.

The smallest amount of blood made him queasy.

Friday, June 1, 2007 was by all accounts a good day for Hugues.  Leapfrog promoted him.  That night, he went out with friends to Underground SF, a club on Lower Haight Street not far from his apartment, to celebrate.  He and Melissa had broken up but remained close, and now he was an avid online dater; earlier in the evening he’d met up with a woman for a date at an art gallery.

His friends reported that he was in good spirits.  He made plans with a friend to go on a motorcycle ride the next day.

Cameras outside Hugues’ apartment at 462 Linden Street show him returning home alone at 2:06 a.m.  The cameras don’t cover a side door.

Once home, Hugues used his new laptop to go online.  Tests later revealed that at 2:38 a.m. the power cord was yanked from his computer.  That’s about the time neighbors heard thumping, Hugues’ door slamming, and footsteps.

The next morning a neighbor noticed blood on Hugues’ doorknob and front stoop and called police, who kicked in the back door.

The apartment was ruined with blood; there were smears along the wall, a trail leading to the kitchen.  Hugues was lying on the living room floor.  He’d been stabbed twice in the chest and once in the neck.

There was no bloody knife found in or near Hugues’ body.  There was only a washed steak knife, flecked with spots of red, in the kitchen sink.

He must have stabbed himself and then washed the knife, detectives concluded.  Nonsense, Hugues’ friends said.

Tests showed the flecks of red weren’t blood, but tomato sauce.

He must have stabbed himself and then disposed of the knife, detectives said.

Melissa lists the outrageous missteps.  She and others encouraged detectives right away to check Hugues’ computer.  They felt his online dating was an obvious lead.  In fact, Melissa feels this is still the most likely scenario.  Without elaborating, Hugues had told a friend shortly before he died that he was having trouble with a woman.  A jealous boyfriend or husband could account for the personal nature of the knife attack.

The San Francisco Police told Melissa they didn’t have the resources to check Hugues’ computer.  The department only got e-mail last year, Melissa says.

Hugues had strands of black scalp hair stuck to the fingers of his left hand.  Police never tested it. 

Police wondered why, if Hugues was being attacked, no one heard him cry out.

“He was stabbed in his neck,” Melissa points out.  “His laryngeal nerve was injured.  He was vocally paralyzed.”

And wasn’t it suspicious that both his doors were locked?

“His back door is a just button lock,” Melissa says.  “Someone closing it behind him could lock it.”

One of the last people to see Hugues alive, a friend from work who’d been out drinking and dancing with him, called police a dozen times.  They never called him back.

Hugues’ parents, distraught and feeling like they were getting nowhere, lobbied the French government for help.  In an unusual move, French investigators are now working the case.  They did the initial tests on Hugues’ laptop and cellphone, and on June 7 French police officials will arrive in San Francisco to retrieve more equipment and evidence to test. 

Meanwhile, the news gets worse for the San Francisco Police.  On May 25, The Washington Post ran a story ("Frustration With San Francisco Police") detailing the department’s troubles.

In the end, Melissa doesn’t think Hugues’ case was derailed because he was French, or because the city was plagued by too many homicides.  She thinks it’s a simple case of lack of incentive.  The district attorney is unlikely to prosecute a case with no witnesses.  Why bother?

“Hugues was an ordinary person, special to few…” the statement on his website reads, but the truth, of course, is that he was anything but ordinary to the people who loved him. 

Melissa recalls a kind man who, like a 21st century St. Francis, had a magnetic way with animals.  “The gnarliest bull dog on the street would roll over for Hugues,” she reminisced.

“I miss him,” she says.  “Can you tell?”
Hugues' friends are organizing a "March for Justice" in San Francisco on Saturday, June 14 to demand justice for Hugues and other victims of unsolved murders.  You can find more information on the website dedicated to his case, but here are the main details:

Date: Saturday, June 14, 2008
Time: 6:00pm - 8:00pm
Location: Hall of Justice -
Street: 850 Bryant Street
City/Town: San Francisco, CA

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.