Last Updated: Monday, May 8, 2000, 4:30 p.m.

Music teacher presumed murdered in her home

Palo Alto police detectives and evidence technicians spent Monday combing through a well-kept gray house on Escobita Avenue, looking for any clues that might shed light on the killing of a popular Palo Alto music teacher in her home Friday

Monday morning, a team of police detectives return to the
Fitzhugh home on Escobita Avenue to collect evidence.
Weekly Photo by Kate Robertson

If police had any inkling of who killed 53-year-old Kristine Pedersen Fitzhugh, they weren't letting on late Monday, when the Weekly went to press. Several members of the Police Department said they couldn't release more information for fear of jeopardizing the investigation.

"We're right in the middle of the investigation," said Agent Jim Coffman of the Palo Alto Police Department. "We're not in a position to give out any more information yet."

The serene atmosphere that usually characterizes the Southgate neighborhood, a small collection of homes nestled between El Camino Real, Alma Street and Churchill Avenue, has been shattered in recent days by the sight of yellow police tape, squad cars and news trucks. Police have cordoned off the entire Fitzhugh property as well as two cars--one in the driveway and one in the street in front of the home.

"This is the sort of thing that shakes up a neighborhood, particularly a quiet neighborhood like Southgate," said Harry Press, who lives down the street from the Fitzhugh family. Press learned of Fitzhugh's death when he picked up a newspaper over the weekend.

Police have been at the two-story home around the clock since Friday afternoon, when Fitzhugh's body was found at the bottom of her basement stairs. Initially assumed to be a terrible accident, the case shifted suddenly Saturday to a homicide investigation, when the coroner determined that an accidental fall could not have caused Fitzhugh's injuries, which police characterized as "head trauma."

As of Monday afternoon, the Police Department would not reveal whether any suspects had emerged, the exact nature and extent of Fitzhugh's injuries, whether the house showed any signs of a forced entry, or whether the killer is suspected of knowing Fitzhugh or was simply a random intruder.

Police also haven't publicly ruled out anyone--including Fitzhugh's husband, Kenneth, or their two sons--from suspicion in the case. But Coffman has said repeatedly that the Fitzhugh family has been cooperating with the investigation. Fitzhugh's family members have been forced to stay out of their house while the police search for evidence.

Southgate residents have been jittery ever since a string of burglaries hit the neighborhood last fall. Police never caught a burglar, and the rash of about a dozen home invasions ended as mysteriously as they began. But now, last year's neighborhood crime spree has fueled speculation that Fitzhugh's death might be somehow connected to those burglaries, that perhaps she interrupted a burglary in progress.

The Police Department acknowledged that the burglary theory has come up but wouldn't disclose how carefully detectives are considering that possibility.

"I don't know how serious it is," Coffman said. "We're leaving everything wide open at this point, but there hasn't been a burglary here in months."

Without concrete information available, the public has been left to speculate on what happened to Fitzhugh in her home on Friday. A traveling music teacher for the Palo Alto Unified School District, Fitzhugh apparently went home Friday between two of her classes. When she failed to show up for her afternoon class at Addison Elementary School, district officials apparently became concerned and called her husband.

Kenneth Fitzhugh and two friends from the school district went to the Escobita Avenue home and found Fitzhugh at the bottom of the stairs. Fitzhugh's husband called the police at 1:40 p.m., but neither the police nor fire paramedics were able to revive her.

On Friday, the Police Department said the home showed no signs of foul play and were treating the incident as an accident. That strategy changed after the coroner examined Fitzhugh's body. The police on Saturday released a new statement, saying Fitzhugh's pattern of injuries and "other circumstances" did not fit an accident.

About 20 members of the Police Department are working on the case, Coffman said, and have been interviewing people who knew Fitzhugh--family members, friends, neighbors and associates. Detectives had also planned to retrace Fitzhugh's steps, to find out who else she might have been in contact with during her last week.

Police were scheduled to hold a meeting for Southgate residents on Tuesday to update them on the case. Several residents in the neighborhood appeared concerned about what had happened but seemed determined not to be overtaken with fear.

"No, I'm not worried about walking around," said Jim Selvidge, who has lived on Castilleja Avenue for the past 30 years.

A neighbor of the Fitzhughs said he was shaken by what happened to Fitzhugh, but was not necessarily more concerned for his own safety. "It's been an ongoing concern," said the resident, who asked not to be identified. "I don't know if it's worse now."

Jim McFall, whose family lives across the street from the Fitzhughs, said Fitzhugh's death is a great loss. "She really cared about the community." McFall and his wife met Kristine years ago when she taught a Gymboree class for their son.

"She was always very friendly, stopped to chat," McFall said. He could often hear the family playing their grand piano, which was in the front of their home, or would see them taking off for ski trips.

Palo Alto schools will make guidance counselors and psychologists available for students who need help dealing with Fitzhugh's death. Schools may be sending a letter to some households, advising students on how to help their children cope with grief.

The last homicide in Palo Alto occurred in September 1998, when a man killed his wife and 12-year-old son before committing suicide. Those murders took place on Ferne Avenue in south Palo Alto.

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