Suicide Or Murder? Philadelphia Teacher’s Baffling Death Still Leaves Her Family Searching For Answers

For eight years, Joshua and Sandee Greenberg have tirelessly investigated the death of their 27-year-old daughter, Ellen, who was found stabbed to death in her apartment. Philadelphia authorities say she killed herself but they refuse to believe that.

By Dorian Geiger
Ellen Rae Greenberg

Elementary school teacher Ellen Greenberg sent her first grade students home early on Jan. 26, 2011—a nasty blizzard was on the verge of slamming the northeast. It was the last time they'd ever see her.

The 27-year-old reportedly filled her car up with gas and returned to the Philadelphia apartment she shared with her fiancé, Sam Goldberg. At 4:45 p.m., Goldberg went to the gym. When he returned roughly 30 minutes later, the suite’s the swing lock was activated from the inside. He shouted for Greenberg but received no response, according to authorities. Over the course of more than 20 minutes, Goldberg sent a series of increasingly frantic tests to his fiancée's phone. 

Eventually, Goldberg, a television producer who'd been with Greenberg for three years, forced his way into the suite with a building attendant. He found Greenberg on the kitchen floor of their two-bedroom apartment with a 10-inch serrated steak knife jammed several inches into her chest. She had been stabbed 20 times. Ten of those punctures were found on her neck. 

There was no sign of any intruder, forced entry, or “evidence of a struggle,” according to an investigation report by the City of Philadelphia, Office of the Medical Examiner. Greenberg hadn’t sustained any injuries consistent with self-defense in a knife attack. 

Neighbors hadn’t heard anything unusual and lobby surveillance cameras hadn’t captured anything suspicious. The only other entrance to their apartment was through their balcony, but it was on the sixth floor. No trace of any footprints was found in the snow. The only DNA police would find in the apartment was Greenberg’s.

Greenberg was pronounced dead on the scene. Her fiancé cooperated with authorities, was interviewed, and released. Detectives concluded her death was a suicide. 

But there was no suicide note. And police didn’t initially didn’t anything find related to suicide on Greenberg’s computer, according to an investigation report by the medical examiner's office. Shortly after, an autopsy reversed Greenberg’s cause of death to homicide. 

By late January, authorities were still treating Greenberg’s death as suspicious, but were again “leaning” toward suicide, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Police said they were looking into Greenberg’s alleged “mental issues.”

At the time of her death, Ellen’s career appeared to be blossoming. Her students loved her, she seemed to have a supportive family, a loving fiancé, and she was planning a wedding—but she had reportedly been suffering from work-related anxiety and had been "overwhelmed with her classroom work, according to the medical examiner's report. It also stated that she was "insecure [and] not sure of herself."

Ellen’s mother told police she had been “struggling with something” and was seeing a psychiatrist, who had prescribed her a range of pharmaceuticals. But at no point, did her family ever think she was suicidal.

“There was never any reason to suspect suicide in any way shape or form,” Ellen’s mother, Sandee Greenberg, 63, told Oxygen.com over the phone from California. 

“She was anxious but she was still happy,” her father, Joshua Greenberg, added.

But shortly before her death, family and friends observed a distinct change in the normally bubbly 27-year-old. Before her death, Ellen had expressed a desire to temporarily move back home to Harrisburg, P.A. with her parents, they said. This baffled the Greenbergs, particularly since their daughter was wedding planning. But Ellen had insisted the transition had nothing to do with her engagement to Goldberg. Her psychiatrist told police there were never any indications of physical or verbal abuse between the couple. And Ellen’s family also corroborated this, telling police Goldberg was a “fine, young man."

There were traces of zolpidem, a sedative and sleep aide, and clonazepam, an anti-anxiety medication, in Ellen's system when she died, according to a toxicology report. Ellen's psychiatrist, Dr. Ellen Berman, prescribed them to Ellen in the weeks leading up to her death. Both drugs, particularly clonazepam, a benzodiazepine, are known to induce suicidal ideation in some patients. 

A study by the The National Center for Biotechnology Information, which investigated the association between self-harm and benzodiazepines, the examined a case of a "previously stable" 62-year-old man who "inflicted serious stab wounds to himself, twice within a month," while taking the psychoactive medication. The study notes such incidents are rare and largely associated with withdrawal but similar studies in Canada and Sweden have also been published linking self-harm with benzodiazepines. 

Ellen's psychiatrist told police the schoolteacher had expressed "uneasiness" in taking medication, but that "there was never any indication of abusive behavior."

On March 7, 2011, the medical examiner’s office overturned Ellen’s death to a suicide, citing her alleged mental health struggles, and the fact she was found in a locked apartment bearing no signs of a struggle, with zero trace of anyone else’s DNA.

The re-reversal upended the Greenbergs' lives.

“There’s a big hole—there’s a tremendous hole in our lives,” her father Joshua said.

For the past eight years, the first grade teacher’s parents have been waging a painstaking, and so far fruitless, “crusade” to uncover what exactly happened to their only child. And to this day, the Greenbergs don’t believe their daughter killed herself.  

“There’s no way my daughter would harm herself or anyone else,” her mother Sandee said.

“This is not a clear cut case of suicide,” echoed Walter Cohen, former Pennsylvania state attorney general, and one of the Greenbergs' lawyers, told Oxygen.com.

Last month, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Stephanie Farr published an extensively researched article, which has revived local and national interest in the Greenberg case, and raised deep-rooted questions over the teacher’s death.

The Greenbergs, speaking over the phone from California, said their daughter was too squeamish to pierce her ears for a second time—let alone stick a knife in her back 10 times.

“She chickened out [of getting her ears pierced]—she didn't’ like pain, her own pain,” said Joshua. “The whole thing, it just didn't make sense. When we found out certain facts along the way—she had wounds on her back. How do you do that?”

As the case’s peculiarities trickled in, the Greenbergs' suspicions grew. 

“We didn’t like what was happening,” Joshua explained. “We didn’t believe it was a suicide.”

The Greenbergs obtained Ellen’s autopsy report and hired a plethora of medical experts, lawyers, and law enforcement officials to look at her case. Esteemed forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht, who disputed the single bullet theory of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and Henry Lee, the forensic scientist who testified on behalf of O.J. Simpson’s defense, both authored independent reports questioning the manner of Ellen’s death. 

Both medical professionals came to the same conclusion: Ellen’s death appeared suspiciously consistent with a homicide. Wecht, in particular, took issue with the stab wounds.

“Suicidal stab wounds can rarely be multiple,” Wecht wrote in the 2012 report. “Stab wounds to the back are unlikely to be suicide.” 

In the end, Wecht concluded that: “The manner of the death of Ellen Greenberg is strongly suspicious of homicide.”

Lee’s findings, in a separate report last year, supported Wecht’s conclusion, according to The Inquirer. 

“The number and types of wounds and bloodstain patterns observed are consistent with a homicide scene,” Lee stated. 

Ellen Rae Greenberg

One of the primary reasons Philadelphia authorities ruled Ellen’s death a suicide stemmed from a complete lack of defensive wounds found on her body. But Tom Brennan, a retired state trooper of 24 years and a former detective, who also represents the Greenbergs, said that theory isn’t airtight—and doesn’t necessarily mean Ellen’s injuries were self-inflicted.

Brennan, 75, a member of Philadelphia’s crime-solving organization the Vidocq Society, began diving into the circumstances around Ellen’s death about six years ago. He said it’s possible Ellen was taken by complete surprise when she was stabbed. The law enforcement veteran referred to this as a “blitz attack,” which he said would’ve left Ellen totally defenseless and could explain the absence of a struggle. 

“The victim is taken by surprise and doesn’t have the opportunity to defend themselves,” Brennan, 75, told Oxygen.com. “[They’re] confronted unexpectedly. They don’t get the opportunity to defend themselves.”

Brennan’s sleuthing led him to forensic pathologist Wayne Ross, whom he hired to examine a fragment of Ellen’s spinal cord, which the medical examiner’s office was still in possession of. In 2017, Ross concluded Ellen’s cranial cavity had been punctured, which would have likely rendered her unconscious—and prevented her from stabbing herself so many times. 

“You could plainly see the nerves were severed,” recalled Brennan. “She would have lost her motor skills and been in excruciating pain. [She] would have most likely passed out or died.” 

The Inquirer, in an effort to bolster the credibility of their own investigation into Ellen’s death, also contracted out their own independent medical experts to assess the evidence.

Gregory McDonald, a Montgomery County coroner and the dean of the School of Health Science at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, was one of them. But he found himself on the fence between suicide and homicide. In his assessment, McDonald also focused on Ellen’s stab wounds—but in this case, how shallow they were. 

“Typically when we see a series of shallows stab wounds, they could be consistent with hesitation marks,” McDonald told Oxygen.com. “When someone is self-inflicting these wounds, often times they’ll stab themselves superficially first to kind of see what it feels to them and then they’ll go deeper and deeper as they progress with the self-inflicted wounds.” 

In homicides, McDonald explained, shallow stab wounds are uncommon.

“Typically if a person is stabbing you, they’re not going to stab you several times superficially and then start to stab you deeper. It’s possible, but that’s one of the things that struck me as not being consistent with a homicide.” 

Still, McDonald was conflicted. He also noted the deeper stab wounds, the number of punctures, and a gash that was also found on Ellen’s forehead complicated the case. These, he said, were representative of a knife attack.

“You can stab yourself fairly deeply in a lot of different areas of your body,” McDonald said. “She could have done it physically, of course. [But] it’s unusual to stab yourself that many times that deeply in those areas.”

Another oddity jumped out at McDonald: Ellen had been stabbed through her clothing, something that also isn’t often indicative of suicide. 

“Most people who commit suicide don’t stab themselves through the clothes, they usually pull the clothes up and usually expose whatever area they want to target, so that was a little unusual for a suicide.”

Out of the hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of suicide investigations McDonald said he’s worked on, he admitted the Greenberg case is one of the most unusual he’s ever seen in his career.  

Greenberg’s parents also told Oxygen.com the fact that Ellen filled up her vehicle with gas before returning to her apartment on Jan. 26, 2011, is something they found odd, if their daughter was planning to kill herself. 

“It doesn’t sound logical, does it?” quipped Ellen’s father, Joshua. “It doesn’t fit.”

In 2018, the Greenbergs saga for closure entered a new phase. Coincidentally, their former lawyer, Larry Krasner, had been sworn in as the District Attorney of Philadelphia. Hopeful, the family approached him to re-open the investigation into their daughter’s death, but Krasner referred the case to the State Attorney General’s Office so as to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.   

Earlier this month, the attorney general’s spokesman released their latest findings to The Inquirer. The case had been opened and closed again with the same conclusion: suicide. 

The AG’s office pointed to new computer forensic evidence not referenced in the medical examiner’s 2011 findings. They provided a search history from Ellen’s computer, which showed she had used an internet search browser to look up suicide. Her search history reportedly included the terms “suicide methods," "quick suicide," and "painless suicide.” 

It remains unclear why this forensics report wasn’t included in the medical examiner’s 2011 investigation, which stated there wasn’t “anything indicative of suicide on the computers or in the rest of the apartment.”

Brennan, the former Pennsylvania detective, called the attorney general’s findings “totally ridiculous.”

“There’s not enough litter in the box,” he said. “No matter how much they scratch around, it’s still going to stink.” 

After eight years of twists and turns in their heart-wrenching saga to to unearth the truth behind their daughter’s demise, the Greenbergs feel authorities have failed them once again. They said the attorney general never reached out to them or any of their experts during the course of the most investigation, except for their attorney, Cohen. 

“[It’s] very frustrating, very emotionally frustrating, emotionally hurtful,” said Ellen’s father, now 69. “Sometimes I feel like somebody’s punched me in the stomach. [We] have these steel doors or walls that keep coming up in front of us every time we try to do something, every time we try to get an answer.”

Yet, the Greenbergs are adamant this isn’t the end.

“I’m going to be six feet under [before this over],” added Joshua. “Until [Ellen] is cleared of being suicidal, it’s not over.” 

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