The Tragic Death Of Elliott Smith

October 2003 was going well for Elliott Smith. As Spin notes, he had given up on alcohol and went further, depriving himself of red meat, sugar, and caffeine as well. This was a considerable improvement over the last two years in which any show Smith played in could derail quickly: "As he sat down and cradled his guitar in his lap, Smith raised his right hand to strike the strings, then dropped it onto the instrument as if he had, at that very moment, fallen asleep. 'I'm sorry,' he called out after train-wrecking most of the first half of his set. 'I can't remember the words. I'm so f**ked up.'" So the apparent beginnings of sobriety were welcomed by everyone.

But, again, that all collapsed on October 21, 2003 when Elliott Smith's partner, Jennifer Chiba, called 911 to collect Smith. Smith was bleeding out from two self-inflicted pectoral stab wounds. Next to him, as The Smoking Gun relates, lay a post-it note with a scrawled message: "I'm so sorry-love, Elliott God forgive me." Elliott Smith died later that day.  On January 6, the Los Angeles County Department of the Coroner completed its report on Smith's death. No drugs beyond the normal level of therapeutic intake were present in his system but the type of stabbing, through the clothes into the chest, and a few "possible defensive wounds" on his wrist lay the groundwork to construct theories that contradict the official narrative.

The mystery of Mr. Misery

Alternate theories focused on Jennifer Chiba. In The Guardian's telling, Jessica Chiba and Elliott Smith had a row which resulted in Smith's declaration that he would kill himself, a not too uncommon threat for Smith to make: "After all, this was a man who, when he decided to relocate from Portland to Brooklyn in the late 1990s, bade farewell to his Oregon friends by informing them that it was likely he would never see them again because he was 'probably going to kill himself'." Chiba locked herself in the bathroom, then upon coming out, found Smith's body surrounded by blood, called for an ambulance, and Smith died around 1:36 pm.

The coroner's report ruled out a specific decision of Smith's death: "Since a complete knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the stabbing is lacking, the mode will remain undetermined until such time as sufficient additional information becomes available."

For many, this was a simple case. Elliott Smith suffered from debilitating memories of childhood abuse and was a junkie who had quit several types of drugs simultaneously, making him even more vulnerable. All roads lead to passing away via his own hand. However, because of the fact that Smith was clean at the time of death, others amongst the fanbase believe that Chiba killed him. Both Rocks Off and the website Justice for Elliott Smith, for instance, put forth the narrative that Chiba killed Smith. 

Post mortem

While the circumstances surrounding Smith's death remain uncertain, the fact that he is gone is not, bringing the matter of his estate to the fore. And, true to form in the eyes of her detractors, Jennifer Chiba, attempted to claim money she believed was due to her. As The Hollywood Reporter covered at the time, she sued the Smith estate in 2004.

The basis of her claim was that as Elliott Smith's cohabiting partner and the fact they held themselves public as husband and wife, she deserved a portion of the estate. Furthermore, Smith, she claimed, had said that he would support her for the rest of her life. And furthermore on top of that, she was entitled to 15% of all the proceeds he earned as she worked as his manager and agent.

The court threw out the last charge, deciding that since she acted as an unlicensed agent under the state's Talent Agencies Act, she had no claim. Furthermore, even though they cohabited, she also served as his manager, so the two cases could not be considered separately.

While we can't speak for Elliott Smith — obviously — it would be premature to celebrate such a decision, because no one ever really wins in these cases. But in keeping with Smith's charitable nature, his family has set up a charity, the Elliot Smith Memorial Fund, involved in multiple avenues of giving back to the community.