The Santa Barbara Police Department officially reopened its investigation into the suspicious death of a 43-year-old homeless man named Ross Stiles on Monday, seven weeks after publicly announcing it was throwing in the towel.
Captain Armando Martel, who heads the police’s investigative division, said the reopening was triggered by the receipt of the Sheriffs-Coroner’s finished autopsy on Stiles’ body, which concluded he died of blunt force trauma or, in medical jargon, a subdural hematoma.
But Martel said with no new leads to follow, detectives wouldn’t be spending any time on the case. However, if further information developed relating to Stiles’ case in the course of other investigations, detectives would actively pursue it. The case has been reassigned to Detective Jose LaTorre, who had it from the beginning.
Though many things can cause a blow to the head severe enough to produce a subdural hematoma, the Coroner’s finding is congruent with what Stiles’s himself told friends on the morning of February 2 and with what witnesses claimed to have seen the night of February 1- that he was struck on the head. The two witnesses (who are also homeless) said they heard glass breaking and suspected the assailants, who were reportedly trying to get Stiles’s sleeping bag, used a glass bottle.
On March 18, city police issued a statement saying that they were closing down their investigation into Stiles’s death because a cause of death couldn’t be determined. At the time, Detective Ed Olsen said an oral report relayed in the course of the autopsy - which detectives regularly attend - indicated a cause of death couldn’t be deciphered. Based on this, Stiles’s high blood alcohol level, the fact that he didn’t report being assaulted when police arrived at the scene of his camp on February 3, and the fact that there were no laceration marks on his skull, police decided to abandon their efforts.
Santa Barbara’s homeless community, and the many advocates who work on their behalf, took the news poorly to say the least. Judging the move premature, they protested that if Stiles had been well-connected and housed, rather than an alcoholic street person, police would still be in hot pursuit of his attackers.
“He could have been hit over the head, he could have fallen,” Martel said. “When you have something with violence, you usually would see a fracture when you look at the skull. There wasn’t any damage to his skull. It was all to the brain.”
Police said they worked hard, questioning witnesses and potential suspects in all the areas that homeless tend to congregate, but got nowhere.
Two days before his death, Stiles told friends at his Cabrillo Boulevard campsite that he had a bad headache and attributed it to being “clocked” the previous night. As his symptoms progressed, friends became worried, and on Tuesday morning called 911.
When police arrived, Stiles did not mention his assault; but after he was taken to Cottage Hospital, his friends relayed his story to law enforcement. By the time police arrived at Cottage to question Stiles, he was unconscious. He died after emergency surgery to relieve pressure from his brain’s swelling was unsuccessful.