When 27-year-old elementary school teacher Ellen Greenberg was found deceased inside her own home in Philadelphia in 2011, her death was quickly ruled as a suicide—despite the 20 stab wounds she sustained.
SECTION 1: Locked Door Mystery
On January 26, 2011, Philadelphia was hit with a massive blizzard, and as a result, teachers were sent home early that day, including Ellen. She left her workplace at Juniata Park Academy and arrived at her and her fiance, Sam Goldberg’s apartment in Manayunk.
Sam was at home too, and the couple spent some time together before he took off to go to the gym at 4:45 PM. He was away no more than 45 minutes, but when Sam returned to the apartment, he could not get back in. As Sam tried to unlock the door, it only budged a few inches as the swing bar lock was engaged from the inside. He kept banging the door for some time but got no response. Frustrated, Sam began calling and texting Ellen, sending her the following messages:
“open the door”
“what r u doin”
“I’m getting pissed”
“you better have an excuse”
“what the f***”
“u have no idea”
Still, Ellen did not answer. Not knowing what else to do, Sam went to the lobby and spoke with Phil Hanton, the lone security guard that night. Sam asked if Phil could help him to open the door. After all, he had keys to the apartment, but he needed to break the swing bar lock. However, breaking down a door was against company policy, so Phil refused. Sam kept asking several times, but as he only got the same answer, again and again, he finally returned to his apartment and broke the door down by himself. Inside, Sam was faced with a grisly scene.
Ellen was sitting on the kitchen floor, her head, neck and shoulders against corner cabinets. In her left hand, Ellen held tight a nearly spotless white towel which was strange because there was blood all over her. From how Ellen’s eyes stared ahead without seeing anything, Sam knew she was already gone. At 6:33 PM, he dialed 911.
As it usually is done in situations like this, the dispatcher gave Sam instructions to begin chest compressions. However, he allegedly replied:
“Do I have to?”
Which is a rather weird thing to say, but perhaps Sam thought there was nothing he could do. Also, it took him over three minutes to tell the operator that there was a knife sticking out of Ellen’s chest. For that reason, the CPR had to be stopped, but there was nothing anyone could have done to save Ellen anyway. When police and paramedics arrived at 6:40 PM, she was pronounced dead at the scene.
SECTION 2: Suicide
The autopsy quickly revealed the cause of death—Ellen had been basically butchered. She had been stabbed ten times in the back of her neck, once across the scalp, eight times in the chest and once in the abdomen. Altogether twenty times with a 10-inch knife.
As expected, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the case as a homicide. However, not long after, Philadelphia Police Department changed the manner of Ellen’s death to suicide—without giving any proper explanation why.
It is true that Ellen suffered from anxiety and had visited a therapist, mainly because of stress at work. But nothing was indicating she was seriously depressed. Nevertheless, the police added the anxiety diagnosis together with the fact that there was no evidence of forced entry, no defense wounds, no blood outside of the kitchen area and no anyone else’s DNA on the handle of the knife other than Ellen’s and said: This was a suicide.
It did not seem to matter that there were literally 20 stab wounds on Ellen’s body, most of them in the back of the neck. It would be anatomically almost impossible to stab yourself in that way. On top of that, stabbing yourself dozens of times is a highly unusual way to commit suicide anyway.
Needless to say, Ellen’s parents did not accept the official version of the events. So they began their own investigation by hiring several experts to take a look at Ellen’s case.
Pathologist Cyril West determined one stab found had penetrated Ellen’s cranial cavity, which would have meant immense pain and loss of consciousness. So it would not have been possible for Ellen to keep stabbing herself.
On top of that, neuropathologist Lyndsay Emery concluded that whoever had killed Ellen had kept stabbing her when she was already dead. Lyndsay explained that some of Ellen’s wounds lacked hemorrhaging, meaning her heart had not been beating anymore when she was stabbed.
Also, there was some evidence suggesting Ellen’s body had been moved, even though Sam said he had not done so. Curiously, Sam had also called two other numbers before calling 911—his parents and his uncle, who is a lawyer.
The police’s suicide theory is highly based on the idea that the apartment door was locked from the inside, and Sam had to break down the door. But there were no signs on the apartment door indicating a forced entry, and just a single screw was missing from the safety latch. And as the security guard never left his post, nobody else than Sam had seen that the door was locked from the inside.
Ellen’s parents, Josh and Sandra, have also said that their daughter was planning to move back in with them for an unknown reason. Was she having problems with Sam? The couple was supposedly planning their wedding, so Ellen thinking about moving out did not seem to fit the picture.
Lastly, a day after Ellen’s death, Sam’s uncle and cousin returned to the apartment “to get him a suit for the funeral.” However, they left with Sam’s laptop, Ellen’s two laptops and her cellphone. Why? We do not know.
Despite all the unanswered questions, Sam has never been a suspect in the case, and Ellen’s death is still seen as a suicide by the police.
Ellen’s parents have been viciously fighting against the official conclusion of the case for a decade. The couple is suing the medical examiner’s office, and they were granted a non-jury trial in 2021 to try to get the cause of death changed to “undecided” or homicide. Josh and Sandra hope the change would force investigators to reopen the case:
“We just want Ellen’s name cleared. She did not do this to herself.”