“I don’t understand how they wrote this off as a suicide.”
It was the 26th of January 2011. A Wednesday. Twenty seven year old Ellen Greenberg was supposed to be at work that afternoon but the school closed early due to heavy snowfall. Ellen worked as a teacher at the Juanita Park Academy. She taught first grade and the student's grades were due to be submitted that day but due to the weather, they were told to go home early. There was a blizzard. Ellen returned to her Venice Lofts apartment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States where she lived with her twenty eight year old finance Samuel Goldberg.
Ellen initially wanted to be a speech pathologist but when she graduated from Penn State as a communications major, she realized that she wanted to do something else so she went to Temple University at night to earn her teaching credentials and got a job at the Juanita Park Academy.
Ellen and Samuel had been together for three years. He worked as a TV producer and proposed to Ellen in the Summer of 2010. She said yes and her family and friends believed she was excited about planning her wedding. On the 22nd of January, Ellen sent out her save-the-date cards for the wedding as they had set a date to get married in August 2011.
Ellen Greenberg and Samuel Goldberg
That day, the 26th of January, Samuel was also home at the apartment with Ellen. But, at 4.45pm, he went to the gym which was inside the apartment complex. When Samuel returned a half hour later or a little after, sometime between 5.15pm and 5.30pm, he tried to open the door but it was locked. Samuel had his key but it appeared that the door was locked from the inside. He said that the apartment's swing bar lock was engaged from the inside.
Samuel initially knocked and then sent Ellen text messages, followed by phone calls and even emails. Over the course of 22 minutes, he sent her multiple text messages such as:
“open the door”
“what r u doin”
“im getting pissed”
“you better have an excuse”
“what the f***”
“u have no idea”
Samuel then went downstairs to the lobby and asked Phil Hanton, the security guard, to help him break the lock. Phil refused as he told him it was against policy. Samuel forced the door open himself.
Just inside the door, Samuel found Ellen slumped on the floor in the kitchen leaning against the cabinets. He called 911 at 6.33pm. Samuel was instructed to start CPR but when he told the Operator that there was a knife in Ellen's chest, he was instructed to stop administering CPR. Police and paramedics were there within minutes but it made no difference as Ellen was declared dead at 6.40pm.
Ellen had been stabbed to death. She was stabbed twenty times and a ten inch knife was embedded in her chest through her clothing. The serrated knife was plunged four inches into her chest. She was fully clothed and found on the hardwood kitchen floor located just inside the door entrance of the apartment. Ellen was found supine and some of her upper body and shoulders were resting against the lower half of the white kitchen cabinets next to the range. Ellen's legs were splayed in front of her and she was holding a white towel in her left hand.
The 10 inch knife found in Ellen’s chest
Police searched the apartment. The apartment was on the sixth floor. Samuel told police that when he returned to the apartment from the gym, he couldn’t open the front door as it was locked from the inside. The common latch lock on the inside of the door was broken and the screws on the door were loose and it appeared that it had been forced in from a locked position. If the front door was locked from the inside, as Samuel claimed, the only way out of the apartment was via the rear slider leading to the patio. The patio was narrow and six stories high and there were no marks or footprints in the snow on the patio.
There was no evidence of a struggle and nothing was missing from the apartment. The rest of the apartment seemed undisturbed. There was no blood spilled beyond the kitchen. A strainer that contained blueberries and an orange, appearing freshly sliced, was on the counter. Two clean knives were in the sink.
Police believed they were dealing with a suicide. They believed that Ellen stabbed herself. They found prescription medication, Rx:alprazolam (sold under the brand name Xanax), clonazepam (sold under the brand name Klonopin) and zolpidem (sold under the brand name Ambien) inside the master bedroom. Further investigation revealed that Ellen had been battling issues with anxiety since late 2010 and that was the confirmation police needed to determine that Ellen’s death was a result of a tragic incident and nothing more sinister.
Police discovered that Ellen saw a psychiatrist called Ellen Berman three times. She first saw her on the 12th of January 2011, then on the 17th of January 2011 and her third appointment was the 19th of January 2011. She had a fourth one scheduled for the 27th of January 2011, the day after she was found dead.
According to her psychiatrist, Ellen was stressed due to work. She had worked at the school for three years and was described as bright and dedicated but she found it stressful . The psychiatrist said that Ellen presented initially as severe anxiety and felt overwhelmed and under pressure. She told the psychiatrist that she was looking forward to her wedding and was happy when she spoke about Samuel. She did not indicate there were any problems in their relationship. Ellen did not mention any physical or emotional abuse. The psychiatrist prescribed medication for Ellen to take. Ellen was uneasy about taking it. She tried Zoloft but switched to a low dose of Xanax to help her sleep and was later prescribed ambien and klonopin. They were the only drugs found in Ellen's system at the time of death and they were found in trace amounts which indicated she just took the prescribed amount.
According to the psychiatrist, Ellen did not discuss having any suicidal thoughts. The psychiatrist said that even in Ellen’s darkest times, “she starts thinking about everything else, not suicide.” That was echoed by Ellen's parents, Josh and Sandra Greenberg. Ellen's mother Sandra spoke to Ellen the morning of the 26th of January. They spoke on the phone at around 7am and were both on their way to work. She said Ellen gave no indication that anything was wrong. But she was aware that Ellen had been "struggling with something" as of late. Ellen had asked her parents if she could move home which caused them to worry about her and they suggested that she should see a psychiatrist.
Due to the medication found in the master bedroom and that there was no indication of a struggle or an intruder inside the apartment and no indication that Ellen tried to flee, police treated the investigation as if it was a suicide case despite the fact that there was no suicide note found in the apartment or on Ellen's computer. Due to the manner in which the investigation took, namely that it was determined that Ellen's death was the result of a suicide, no thorough search of the complex and surrounding grounds took place.
While it appeared that the case was almost completely closed the same day that Ellen's body was found, that changed the next day when the Assistant Medical Examiner, Dr. Marlon Osbourne, carried out the Autopsy.
There were twenty stab wounds found on Ellen's body, ten of them were to the back of Ellen's neck. The wounds to the back of her neck ranged from small nicks to two significant ones that were three inches deep. Those two wounds penetrated deep in her brain.
There was a further stab wound to the back of Ellen's scalp, another wound was on her stomach, and eight wounds were found on her chest. The eight wounds to Ellen's chest included punctures that were just .2 centimeters deep and went up to the to the 4-inch final plunge of the knife that was found embedded in Ellen's chest. The wound on her stomach was a 2-inch stab wound and the one across Ellen's scalp was a 2.5-inch-long gash.
Dr Osbourne also noted bruising on Ellen's body. He recorded that there were eleven bruises "in various stages of resolution" on Ellen's right arm, abdomen, and right leg.
Dr Osbourne ruled Ellen's death as a homicide. The matter was handed over to the Philadelphia Homicide Unit.
As Samuel was the person who found Ellen's body and the person who claimed the door was locked from the inside, police looked into his movements that day. A lot of what they believed happened that day was due to Samuel's account of the time up to him leaving for the gym, when he was at the gym and when he returned. The police reviewed his key fob records and the security videos to see if they tallied with his version of events. Police said that they did. The videos revealed that there was no sign of any unauthorized access of entrances by anyone around the time of Ellen’s death. But, while the Venice Lofts had surveillance cameras at the main entrance, there were none in the hallway leading up to the apartment and police could not see what happened outside of Ellen's apartment that day.
Police spoke to Ellen's neighbors. They only heard Samuel banging on the door around the time that he said that he was locked out. They didn't hear any other noises or disturbances that day.
Despite the ruling of the Assistant Medical Examiner, police still believed that Ellen's death was the result of suicide, not a homicide. They had the knife tested and only Ellen’s DNA was found on it. They pointed to the fact there was no sign of a disturbance or a struggle and Ellen had been on anti anxiety medication.
Both Klonopin and Ambien, which were the only drugs found in her system, list suicidal thoughts and behavior as possible side effects. Police spoke to those closest to Ellen. Her parents noticed a huge change in Ellen in the month or two before her death. She was normally an outgoing and happy person but seemed anxious and worried as of late. They asked her what was wrong and she told them she was stressed about work. When she asked them if she could move home, Ellen told them that it was nothing to do with Samuel and she just wanted to move home.
One of Ellen's friends, Debbie Schwab, also noticed the change in Ellen and described her as being "filled with anxiety":
“She kept saying it was because of school. She was very vague about everything. If I asked her anything, there would be a long silence. She didn’t want to talk about it.”
Police also stated that Ellen had conducted online searches for suicide prior to her death. They claimed that searches such as “quick suicide” and “painless suicide” were found on Ellen’s hard drive.
Months after his initial ruling, Dr Osbourne reversed the cause of death to say suicide. The reversal came when police had asked Dr Osbourne to review his findings in light of their claim that they hired a neuropathologist to review a portion of Ellen’s spinal cord.
Two months after Ellen was found dead, Dr Osbourne changed the cause of death to suicide by multiple stab wounds. It was claimed that the change was based on a report from Dr Lucy Rorke-Adams, a consultant for the Medical Examiner’s office, in which it was alleged that part of Ellen's spinal cord was examined but no defect was found. An examination of that sort would normally be carried out if someone wanted to establish if the spinal cord was damaged by any of the stab wounds to the back of her neck.
That piece of information would have been relevant and hugely significant to the ruling in relation to the cause of death as if Ellen's spinal cord was damaged, it would have rendered her incapacitated and as such she would not have been able to stab herself multiple times.
It was claimed that the neuropathologist determined that the spinal cord sheath was hit but the cord was not severed. This would have likely meant that Ellen would have been numb but not rendered incapacitated and therefore could have stabbed herself multiple times.
It was a decision that shocked Ellen's parents. Josh and Sandra did not believe that their daughter, their only child, took her own life. They filed a lawsuit against the Philadelphia County Medical Examiner's Office and Dr Osbourne to compel officials to change the cause of death back to homicide or undetermined. Their Attorney, Joe Pedraza, said:
"This is a homicide case and it's indefensible as suicide."
Josh and Sandra Greenberg began their own investigation. They consulted the forensic pathologist Cyril H. Hecht in 2012. He noted that Ellen's death was "strongly suspicious of homicide" and was particularly concerned about the location of the wounds, especially the wounds at the back of Ellen's neck.
The family continued to fight to have their daughter's case reopened and hired a number of experts. One such expert was Dr Wayne K. Ross. Dr Ross was concerned about the stab wound that penetrated into Ellen's brain as that would cause:
"severe pain, cranial nerve disfunction and traumatic brain signs, numbness, tingling and irregular heartbeat."
Dr Ross also worked with Detective Scott Edelman and they reviewed the crime scene photos. They believed that the body was moved due to the trail of blood found.
The Greenbergs worked with a company called Biomax. Biomax used the Assistant Medical Examiner's report and recreated the depth and angle of the wounds.
The process, called photogrammetry, allowed the recreation of Ellen's anatomical and physiological attributes. That showed the two wounds in the back of Ellen's head that penetrated her brain. According to Ellen's family, it shows that Ellen would not have been able to do that to herself due to the force it would have required.
Tom Brennan, a retired police veteran offered to assist the Greenberg family. He looked at the crime scene photos and the Assistant Medical Examiner’s report. Tom noted that the crime scene photos showed Ellen had a stream of dried blood running horizontally across her cheek, from the side of her nose toward her left ear. If she stabbed herself standing up, as police believed, and slid down to the floor in the upright position that she was found in, why was the blood running horizontally across her cheek? Was her body moved? Was the scene in the kitchen staged?
Tom also did not believe that a lack of defensive wounds indicated a suicide had taken place:
“It’s referred to as a blitz attack. Where the victim is attacked that quickly that they’re unable to defend themselves.”
If a victim is taken by surprise with multiple stab wounds to their body, they may not be in a position to do anything.
Ellen Greenberg and Samuel Goldberg
The Greenberg family, having consulted and spoken to many experts, are pursuing their case against The City of Philadelphia and Assistant Medical Examiner Marlon Osbourne.
They need Ellen's case reopened as there are still so many unanswered questions. The fruit found in the kitchen where Ellen's body was found indicated she had been in the kitchen slicing fruit. Her two laptops showed she was looking at work material and also wedding planning sites. Those who knew Ellen agreed she had changed just before her death and was clearly worried about something but she never indicated that she wanted to end her life.
In relation to the online searches police believed Ellen carried out, the Greenberg family hired a technology expert and they discovered that there was no evidence that Ellen made specific queries about suicide. Their Attorney said:
“Our expert states that the ‘searches’ identified by OAG were not direct searches but instead phantom searches which appear because of analytics, etc."
They will show at the civil suit that closer examination revealed that Ellen did not directly access the links and was instead searching for information relating to the medication she was on and the side effects. Those searches brought up searches about suicide.
There are also questions that remain over what tests exactly were carried out on Ellen's spinal cord. The Autopsy referred to a report by Dr Rorke-Adams, but when PennLive reached out to Dr Rorke-Adams, she said that she has no records or recollection of ever examining Ellen Greenberg. That was a crucial bit of information stated in the revised Autopsy in relation to Ellen's cause of death being ruled as a suicide instead of a homicide and yet nobody has ever seen such a report.
The Greenbergs case is due to proceed in 2021. They deserve to know exactly what happened to their beautiful daughter.
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"When someone just disappears for no reason, it's shocking, it's devastating. I just feel like my life stopped that day and I've just been in a tailspin ever since."
- Adam Vaughan, Janine's brother
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