On January 26, 2011, Ellen Rae Greenberg’s fiancé Sam Goldberg says he found his soon-to-be-bride dead on the kitchen floor of their Philadelphia apartment, her body punctured more than 20 times with a kitchen knife, its handle still sticking out of her chest. It was a nightmarish scene that seemed to come straight from a horror movie.
Police on scene treated the case as a suicide—after all, there were no signs of forced entry from the fire escape, no defensive wounds on Ellen. Sam attests he was locked out of the apartment at the time of her death—he would eventually need to break the lock to enter. Ellen had recently been diagnosed with acute anxiety.
At first, Philadelphia’s then-assistant medical examiner Dr. Marlon Osbourne disagreed. The 20 stabbings, some of which were found to be in the back of Ellen’s head, led him to believe the 27-year-old first grade teacher was the victim of a homicide.
Three months later, after meeting with investigators, Dr. Osbourne made the unprecedented move of changing his mind—opining that Ellen had done it to herself. It was a suicide. Ellen’s parents, Josh and Sandra Greenberg, were astounded. It simply didn’t make sense. Who stabs themselves 20 times?
For the past 11 years, Josh and Sandra have spearheaded their own investigation, hiring an attorney, Joseph Podraza, to help them file a lawsuit against the medical examiner’s office to change the cause of death to homicide. They found two neuropathologists to review the autopsy report and examine the brain tissue samples from their daughter retained by Dr. Osbourne, and both doctors agree that evidence shows suicide is not even a possibility.
In October 2021, a Philadelphia judge determined that the case could go to civil court and be argued there. The non-jury trial is expected to start in 2022 when a judge will determine if Ellen really could have ended her own life in such a brutal and torturous way. Below, some questions that will likely be addressed:
Is Stabbing Yourself 20 Times a Typical Method of Suicide?
“I’m not going to say it couldn’t happen…but it would be extremely rare and it would be extremely difficult,” says Courtney Conley, licensed clinical professional counselor who works with young adults contemplating suicide. Individuals who die by suicide generally “look for something quick,” she says. Statistically, this is most often a firearm, poisoning or suffocation.
In her experience, people who are suicidal also try to provide some kind of closure to those around them. “It’s really odd, because if someone’s committing suicide, they make it so it’s not that gruesome for others.”
Could Ellen’s antianxiety medication have played any part in her sudden death?
Conley says no: “The only thing that I could even consider that would make someone act in this extreme manner is some kind of a drug that…gives superhuman strength, increases pain tolerance.”
How Was Ellen Stabbed After She Died?
Podraza spoke to A&E True Crime about the pathologists’ findings, specifically regarding one of the stab wounds into the back of Ellen’s head.
“Our neuropathologist and the city’s paid neuropathologist both agree that the limited sample [of brain tissue] that still remains plainly shows there is a stab wound that shows…there is no bleed. That means there was no pulse when it [the stabbing] happened. That means Ellen was not alive when it happened.”
Accepting the finding of suicide as a cause of death, says Podraza, would then mean “accepting that someone would be able to stab themselves two times after they died.”
Could Ellen’s Fiancé Have Been Abusive?
Ellen was in the midst of planning her wedding to Sam Goldberg when she died. None of the investigative reports show she disclosed domestic violence, and no one stepped forward to suggest this after her death. Yet she had told her parents a month earlier that she wanted to move home, Josh Greenberg told a Pennsylvania newspaper. She started seeing a psychiatrist. She was taking antianxiety medication.
Sam told police investigators that on the night Ellen died, he went to their apartment building’s gym for a workout. When he came back to the apartment, he said, he could only open the door a few inches—the swing bar lock had been latched.
The investigation report would later show he sent a barrage of frustrated, and then angry, texts to Ellen.
Sam: “open the door”
Sam: “what r u doin”
Sam: “im getting pissed”
Sam: “you better have an excuse”
Sam: “what the f—”
Sam: “u have no idea”
Domestic violence author, advocate and expert Barry Goldstein says the text message “you better have an excuse” raises an especially concerning red flag. “What I’m getting from that conversation is he makes the rules and if she doesn’t obey the rules, he will punish her,” he theorized. “That’s the tone I’m getting, and that’s really the essence of coercive control.”
Ellen’s father told the hosts of the Crime Junkie podcast, Ashley Flowers and Brit Prawat, “We know…she was abused before the attack. She was being abused, she didn’t know how to tell us she was being abused, she didn’t know how to ask the right questions to find out if she was being abused.”
If that were true, the 10 bruises in various stages of healing that Osbourne also found on Ellen’s body during his autopsy might support the abuse theory. Abusers will almost always escalate from verbal abuse to physical violence, advocates attest.
Goldberg has never spoken publicly about his fiancé’s death and has not responded to previous inquiries for interviews from the media. Podraza says he’s not aware of any legal representation that Goldberg or his family has ever obtained.
A&E True Crime reached out to Sam for comment, and as of the publication date, has not received a response.
Katie Young Wildes, senior communication specialist at Women Against Abuse, Philadelphia’s domestic violence shelter, isn’t sure if they ever got a call from police 10 years ago asking if Ellen had disclosed abuse. Due to confidentially laws, they can’t confirm whether or not Ellen had ever called their hotline.
“Regardless of whether or not she did reach out for help,” says Young Wildes. “It doesn’t mean violence wasn’t at play. Victims might not reach out for help for so many reasons.”
Greenberg’s parents are still working to take their civil case against the Medical Examiner’s Office and Marlon Osbourne, the pathologist who conducted their daughter’s autopsy, to trial. An appeals court heard arguments on November 15, 2022. It could be a few months before a decision is made.
In October 2022, the Greenbergs filed a second civil suit against members of the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Philadelphia Police Department, and the District Attorney’s Office, seeking monetary damages.
If you believe you’re experiencing domestic violence, visit DomesticShelters.org/help to find a hotline or shelter in your area, or call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 800-799-SAFE.