A locked-room mystery
The death of Ellen Greenberg confounds forensic experts and anguishes her parents as they try to find out how their only child died.
Joshua and Sandra Greenberg were settled in for the evening when the call came from Philadelphia:
“Something terrible has happened to Ellie.”
Their only child, Ellen Greenberg, was dead.
In an instant on that night in 2011, the Greenbergs’ world turned “Weird. Strange. Black,” Sandra said.
Little did they know that it would only get more so.
Ellen, a 27-year-old elementary schoolteacher, had been discovered seated on the kitchen floor inside her locked Manayunk apartment with a serrated knife plunged four inches into her chest.
A strainer filled with blueberries and an orange, appearing freshly sliced, rested on the counter. Two clean knives were in the sink.
And 20 stab wounds, with 10 alone to the back of Ellen’s neck, covered her body.
Police on scene treated Ellen’s death as a suicide. But the next day, the Medical Examiner’s Office determined it was a homicide. Then, after detectives dug up more information, they dug in their feet and the ME’s Office made a rare flip-flop, changing the manner of Ellen’s death to suicide.
The Greenbergs found their emotions whipsawed as Philadelphia officials disagreed about what happened in that corner of the small and otherwise undisturbed kitchen. Josh, 68, a periodontist, and Sandra, 62, a dental hygienist, felt a world away at their home in Harrisburg.
But as they gradually came to learn the extent of their daughter’s injuries and the peculiarities of the scene, they began asking: “What the hell is going on here?”
And so they started a quest that no parent should ever have to undertake: to find out how their daughter died. To that end, they’ve enlisted the help of respected forensic experts, including Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht and Connecticut forensic scientist Henry Lee.
“It doesn’t add up,” Sandra said. “… We just want to know the truth.”
A trip to the gym, then tragedy
On the day Ellen died — Jan 26, 2011 — a nor’easter blanketed the city with snow. Juniata Park Academy, where Ellen taught first grade, was dismissed early, and she returned to the Venice Lofts apartment she shared with her fiance, Samuel Goldberg, then 28.
Goldberg, a TV producer, and Ellen were together in their sixth-floor apartment until about 4:45 p.m. when he went to use the gym in the complex. He returned a half hour or so later to find himself locked out; the apartment’s swing bar lock was engaged from the inside, he told police.
He banged on the door but got no response. So he tried to reach Ellen using his phone.
Goldberg sent her increasingly frustrated texts over 22 minutes, according to the ME’s investigation report:
“open the door”
“what r u doin”
“im getting pissed”
“you better have an excuse”
“what the f***”
“u have no idea”
Goldberg went to the lobby and spoke with Phil Hanton, 67, the lone security guard that night. He pressed Hanton to help break the lock. It was against policy, the guard told him.
He forced open the door himself, then called 911. It was 6:33 p.m.
Goldberg was “instructed to start CPR until he noticed a knife in her chest, then was instructed to stop.”
Ellen Greenberg was pronounced dead on scene at 6:40.
Inside the apartment, police found no signs of an intruder or that Ellen tried to flee. Her body was in the kitchen, just inside the front door, with her head, neck, and shoulders propped up against corner cabinets and her legs splayed in front of her. In her left hand was a nearly pristine white towel.
Looking at her hands and arms, police did not see any wounds that might be expected if she’d tried to fight off an attack by someone wielding a knife.
There was no blood spilled beyond the kitchen. The knife was tested later and showed only Ellen’s DNA.
The Venice Lofts had surveillance cameras at the main entrance, but none in the hallway leading up to the apartment.
Neighbors would tell police that aside from Goldberg banging on the door, there had been no sounds of a disturbance.
The couple’s sixth-floor unit had a narrow balcony. The day’s snow there was undisturbed.
“Everything that happened pretty much happened right where she was,” Homicide Sgt. Tim Cooney would later say. “The rest of the apartment was pretty unremarkable.”
Cooney said Ellen’s death was treated as a suicide that night for several reasons. The apartment door had been locked until broken in by Goldberg. He had remained on scene and was cooperative. There were no signs of an intruder. And the lack of defensive wounds also factored heavily in police’s determination.
Investigators looked at Ellen’s laptop computers and found nothing indicative of suicide, the investigation report said. She didn’t leave behind a note.
An autopsy, now homicide
The day after Ellen’s death, in a grim brick building in University City, Assistant Philadelphia Medical Examiner Marlon Osbourne began Ellen’s autopsy at the city morgue.
He labeled her stab wounds with letters, beginning with A. He stopped at T.
He noted eight wounds to her chest. They ranged from punctures just .2 centimeters deep to the 4-inch final plunge of the still-embedded knife.
She had a 2-inch stab wound to her stomach and a 2.5-inch-long gash across her scalp.
There were 10 wounds — from nicks to two about 3 inches deep — on the back of Ellen’s neck.
And there were 11 bruises “in various stages of resolution” on Ellen’s right arm, abdomen, and right leg.
At the end of the autopsy, Osbourne weighed all his observations and reached a manner of death: homicide.
Josh and Sandra Greenberg were preparing for their daughter’s funeral when they learned of the ruling through friends who’d seen it in news reports.
At the packed service in the Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, Josh eulogized his daughter, then shared the news. You may have heard that Ellen killed herself, he told the mourners, but her death has just been ruled a homicide.
The room was silent.
A marked change
With the ME’s ruling, Ellen’s death became the concern of the Philadelphia Homicide Unit.
Investigators reviewed Goldberg’s key fob records and security videos to see if everything matched what Ellen’s fiance had told them. Police said it did. The videos also showed no signs of unauthorized access of entrances by anyone around the time of Ellen’s death, police said.
On Jan. 29, 2011, a police spokesperson said that despite the homicide ruling, authorities were “leaning” toward suicide in Ellen’s case and looking into “mental issues” she might have had.
A month or two before her death, Ellen had begun to display a marked change in demeanor.
Her parents watched as their bubbly and outgoing daughter suddenly became unsettled and anxious. When they asked what was wrong, she would only say she was stressed about her job.
“I was trying to go full circle, everything I could think of to find out what she was so concerned about,” her mother would later say. “I just thought she felt overwhelmed.”
Debbie Schwab, one of Ellen’s best friends, was struck that Ellen went from being “one of the happiest people I knew” to “filled with anxiety.”
“She kept saying it was because of school. She was very vague about everything,” Schwab said. “If I asked her anything, there would be a long silence. She didn’t want to talk about it.”
“If I asked her anything there would be a long silence. She didn’t want to talk about it.”
Amy Schwartz taught school with Ellen at Juniata Park. While Ellen had some tough kids in her class, Schwartz said, she seemed no more stressed than other teachers.
Around this time, Ellen asked her parents if she could move back home to Harrisburg. They thought it odd, given her impending marriage in August, but their daughter assured them it had nothing to do with Goldberg, her fiance.
“At no time did she complain about anybody or anything except that she wanted to come home,” Josh Greenberg would later say.
Concerned, they urged her to see a psychiatrist, Ellen Berman of Merion. Ellen had three appointments with Berman. Ellen felt overwhelmed at work, but “there was never any feeling of suicidal thoughts” and she had “nothing but good things to say” about her fiance, the psychiatrist would later tell investigators.
“Berman even noted a smile when she spoke of him,” the ME’s report said. “Berman recalls asking about abuse, the decedent denied any verbal or physical confrontations.”
She described Ellen as having “severe anxiety” and prescribed her the antianxiety drug Klonopin and Ambien, a sleep aid. Both list suicidal thoughts and behavior as possible side effects. They were the only drugs found in Ellen’s system when she died.
Berman last saw Ellen on Jan. 19. Three days later, Ellen had her last communication with many of her loved ones when save-the-date cards for her wedding arrived in their mailboxes.
It was four days before her death.
A new quest
Cooney, the homicide sergeant who supervised the investigation, Detective John McNamee, and other assigned detectives believed the information they developed strengthened the case that Ellen had killed herself. She was anxious. She was found in a locked apartment with no evidence of a struggle. No other person’s DNA was on the knife. Detectives believed the shallow punctures on her body were “test or hesitation” wounds made as Ellen considered stabbing herself to death. She had no marks on her body that indicated she fought with an attacker.
In an effort to resolve the dispute over manner of death, McNamee said he suggested hiring an outside neuropathologist to review a portion of Ellen’s spinal cord to determine if it was damaged by any of the wounds to the back of her neck.
If it was, it would have rendered her incapacitated and unable to inflict the subsequent wounds on herself, including the final plunge to her chest.
According to McNamee, the neuropathologist who conducted the exam told police that the spinal cord sheath was hit but the cord was not severed. Ellen most likely went numb, thus allowing her to stab herself repeatedly.
After initially ruling Ellen’s death a homicide, on March 7 the ME’s Office reversed itself and changed the manner of Ellen’s death to suicide, siding with police investigators.
“We couldn’t prove anything else,” McNamee said. “We were just letting things go where it went, and that’s where it went.”
The Greenbergs were devastated. “I was in so much shock,” Sandra Greenberg said.
They were also upset about how they found out: through media reports.
After months of emotional back and forth, the Greenbergs decided to launch their own quest for answers. They purchased Ellen’s autopsy report, photos of her body from the autopsy, photos of her body at the scene, and the ME’s investigation report from the scene.
At the advice of a friend, the Greenbergs sent those materials for review to Wecht, the Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who famously challenged the single-bullet theory of the John F. Kennedy assassination.
Wecht had specific concerns about the number and location of the stab wounds and, particularly, those to the back of Ellen’s neck.
“I don’t understand how they wrote this off as a suicide,” he would later say.
“I don’t understand how they wrote this off as a suicide.”
Wecht’s January 2012 report labeled it “strongly suspicious of homicide.”
But Wecht had the disadvantage of not having the detectives’ files to review.
Armed with Wecht’s report and wanting more answers, the Greenbergs retained a private attorney who had a reputation for taking on the police, civil rights lawyer Larry Krasner.
Krasner believed “substantial questions remain unanswered” in Ellen’s death, according to a February 2012 draft retainer agreement he penned for the Greenbergs. In May 2012, he convened a meeting for the Greenbergs with police officials and representatives from the District Attorney’s Office in an effort to get the investigation reopened. But nothing would come of it, the Greenbergs said.
So, through their current lawyer who is representing them at no cost — former state Attorney General Walter Cohen — they filed a public records request to get the police case file. After being turned down, Cohen continued to press, and police allowed them to view it without making copies or taking photographs. The Greenbergs said they were uncertain what to look for.
Meanwhile, they continued to get experts to join their quest.
One was Tom Brennan, a retired 25-year state police veteran and former chief of the Dauphin County Detectives, who is working Ellen’s case for free.
After studying the death-scene photos and medical examiner’s documents, Brennan, a member of Philadelphia’s well-known crime-solving club, the Vidocq Society, said the lack of defensive wounds on Ellen didn’t necessarily support suicide. He has seen many stabbing victims without defensive wounds.
“It’s referred to as a blitz attack,” he would later explain. “Where the victim is attacked that quickly that they’re unable to defend themselves.”
Something else nagged at Brennan. Images of Ellen at the scene show a stream of dried blood running horizontally across her cheek, from the side of her nose toward her left ear. But her body was slumped upright when found.
Police theorized that she stabbed herself while standing and slid seated to the floor — and that her body was never moved. But, Brennan asks, how to explain the horizontal stream of blood on her cheek?
The blood flow baffles Guy D’Andrea as well. Once a Philadelphia homicide prosecutor, he is now in private practice. While still in the DA’s Office, D’Andrea reviewed Ellen’s entire case file in 2015 at the request of an acquaintance who’d heard about the puzzling case.
The blood path “defies gravity,” D’Andrea said. “You don’t need to be a pathologist to have an appreciation for that. Either she moved herself or someone moved her."
And then there is the question of whether any of the 10 stab wounds to Ellen’s neck damaged her spinal cord.
Just a single line about the spinal cord exam appears in Ellen’s autopsy report: “Note: Neuropathologist Dr. Lucy Rouke [sic] examined the spinal cord and concluded there is no defect of the spinal cord.”
The reference was to Lucy Rorke-Adams, a renowned neuropathologist who retired from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 2015.
When D’Andrea, the former homicide prosecutor, looked through Ellen’s file, he said he couldn’t find a neuropathology report. So he requested a copy from police and the ME’s Office but was told it couldn’t be found or didn’t exist. An invoice couldn’t be found, either.
Rorke-Adams, in an email, confirmed she did contract work for the ME’s Office in 2011. Without a report or a bill for her services, “I would conclude that I did not see the specimen in question although there is a remote possibility that it was shown to me,” she wrote. “However, I have no recollection of such a case.”
In a rare bit of kismet during his research, Brennan would make a surprising discovery: A piece of Ellen’s spinal cord is still kept in storage at the ME’s Office.
He contracted with Wayne K. Ross, a forensic pathologist for Lancaster, Dauphin, and Cumberland Counties, to examine the specimen. Ross concluded that one of the stab wounds penetrated Ellen’s cranial cavity and “severed the cranial nerves and brain,” according to his January 2017 report.
“As a result she would experience severe pain … and impaired/loss of consciousness,” Ross wrote.
Connecticut forensic scientist Henry Lee, who testified for the defense at the O.J. Simpson murder trial, also reviewed the ME’s files for the Greenbergs.
In a report he coauthored last year, Lee concluded: “The number and types of wounds and bloodstain patterns observed are consistent with a homicide scene.”
And then there is the question of the locked door, which police said factored heavily in determining Ellen was alone when she died.
The Inquirer also asked two independent experts to review the ME’s reports, autopsy photos, and scene photos that were provided by the Greenbergs.
Gregory McDonald, dean of the School of Health Sciences at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and chief deputy coroner for Montgomery County, was struck by the many shallow stab wounds to Ellen’s body.
“Those tend not to occur in homicides. They will stab you, not hesitate significantly,” McDonald said of knife-wielding assailants. “The other issue is it wouldn’t have been impossible for her to inflict them upon herself. It’s unlikely, it’s unusual, but it’s not impossible.”
But four of Ellen’s wounds were several inches deep. The depth, number, and required force of those wounds, as well as the gash on Ellen’s head, could be indicative of a homicide, McDonald said. “That is not the typical pattern of someone who commits suicide through a sharp instrument like that,” he said.
Like others, McDonald noted that the stabs went through Ellen’s clothing. “Most people if they inflict the wounds themselves, they pull the clothes up. They don’t go through the clothing,” he said.
Robert D. Keppel, retired chief criminal investigator for the Washington State Attorney General’s Office who investigated Ted Bundy and Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, was struck that the knife was left lodged in Ellen’s body, something he’s never seen in a suicide.
“In this particular case there’s so many different wounds it almost looks like somebody else is doing their thing with her,” he said.
D’Andrea, the former prosecutor who’s reviewed about 100 homicides and has seen the entire file, unlike other experts, believes "for every piece of evidence someone could point to and say ‘This was a suicide!’ I think someone could reasonably, on the other end, point to evidence, even that same evidence, that would suggest it was a homicide.”
A punch in the stomach
After Krasner’s election as district attorney, the Greenbergs contacted the DA’s Office to see if their old lawyer would reopen Ellen’s case. Krasner referred the matter to the state Attorney General’s Office in February 2018 to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
That was more than a year ago. The Inquirer recently pressed for answers and last week AG spokesperson Joe Grace in a statement said his office had done a “thorough investigation."
Grace provided a search history from Ellen’s computer, between Dec. 18, 2010, and Jan. 10, 2011, that was recovered by law enforcement’s Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory (RCFL) and turned over to police on April 1, 2011. It included the search terms suicide methods, quick suicide, and painless suicide. He provided some of Ellen’s text messages, as well.
“I’m starting the med I know u don’t understand but I can’t keep living with feeling this way,” Ellen texted her mom, Sandra, on Jan. 8.
Nine days later, Ellen texted her: “Klonopin helped!! … Thnk god.”
“Soooo happy for you,” her mom wrote back.
“Me too Omg!!!!!!”
The day before Ellen’s death, Sandra texted her, “You need to see a professional." Ellen replied: “OK I’m trying just scared a bit for everything.”
According to Grace, “this evidence supports ‘Suicide’ as the manner of death” and the AG has "closed this investigation.”
When asked why the ME’s April 15, 2011, report said nothing indicative of suicide had been found on Ellen’s computer and why D’Andrea saw no RCFL report in the DA’s file, Grace said his office didn’t find the analysis in the DA’s file, so “we cannot say if anyone, police or prosecutor, ever looked at it," Grace wrote. His office obtained it last year from the RCFL.
When asked about the neuropathology exam, Grace said: “Dr. Rorke-Adams has no independent recollection of participating in the investigation and we have not found a copy of the report." Still, the office believes there’s “ample evidence” it happened based on the line about it in the autopsy report and statements from two detectives.
The Greenbergs have these questions and more. “The fact that Ellen’s computer Googled ‘painless suicide’ and she’s stabbed to death and I have experts that say it’s suspicious of homicide, what am I supposed to say?” her father asked.
They feel Ellen’s case did not get a thorough reinvestigation. They want to get copies of all her files. Grace said his office would not release them.
“I’m disgusted and disappointed and punched in the stomach," Josh Greenberg said, “but this is not over.”