Last Updated: Thursday, May 11, 2000, 1:30 p.m.

Police offering little information on case

Palo Alto police have expanded their investigation into the mysterious death of music teacher Kristine Fitzhugh but continue to offer few clues on the status of the case.

The Police Department has not yet revealed the existence of any suspects, knowledge of a possible motive, a murder weapon or the nature of the evidence collected by officers. Detectives and evidence gatherers, who have been at the family's Escobita Avenue home since Fitzhugh's body was found there Friday, were expected to continue searching for evidence until at least tomorrow.

Police obtained a second search warrant Wednesday to continue their search for evidence in the house, and they have brought in investigators and forensic experts from an array of outside agencies.

But the lack of public information about suspects or details about the crime has fueled some speculation that police may be stalled in their investigation. Police officials have refused to discuss specifics about the case, explaining that they don't want to jeopardize an ongoing homicide investigation.

"I wouldn't characterize the investigation as being in trouble," Coffman said. "We're working on it as we speak."

Nearly a week has passed since employees in the Palo Alto Unified School District first noticed the 53-year-old Fitzhugh was missing. A music teacher for the district, Fitzhugh failed to show up for a 12:50 p.m. class at Addison Elementary School. Unable to reach Fitzhugh, the district called her husband, Kenneth.

Kenneth Fitzhugh returned to the Southgate neighborhood home with two friends to find Fitzhugh lying at the bottom of the basement stairs. Saying the scene revealed no signs of foul play, police initially attributed Fitzhugh's death to an accidental fall down the basement stairs. But a day later, the coroner determined that a fall could not have caused the type of head-trauma injuries Fitzhugh had.

When police officers and paramedics first responded to the Fitzhugh home Friday, they attempted life-saving measures before police finally shut the house down as a crime scene. Coffman said the presence of so many people in the house could make it more difficult for evidence gatherers seeking out hairs, fibers, blood spatters, fingerprints or other items that could point them to a killer. But Coffman added that police often have to work under such conditions.

"It would be nice to have everything secured and locked down and not have contaminants coming in," Coffman said. "But that's not the real world--we go to scenes after the paramedics go tromping through there. We can control it only after we get there. It happens all the time."

About 20 members of the Police Department, including detectives and officers trained to gather evidence, are working on the case. The department has also called in blood-spatter experts from the San Jose Police Department and criminal profilers from the state Department of Justice. Often employed in homicide cases, profilers take details about the crime to help police figure out what kind of person might be responsible.

So far, the police have not ruled out anyone as a potential suspect, including members of the Fitzhugh family. Earlier this week, Kenneth Fitzhugh hired Palo Alto attorney Thomas J. Nolan, a well-known criminal defense lawyer, to represent him. Coffman said Fitzhugh's husband has been cooperating with police in the investigation.

Members of Palo Alto's community policing unit met with Southgate residents Tuesday to answer questions and discuss safety issues. Those officers faced the task of easing the neighborhood's concerns even though they couldn't answer the central question in people's minds: Was Fitzhugh a specific target, or was the killing a random attack?

Residents in the small Southgate neighborhood--bounded by El Camino Real, Alma Street, Park Boulevard and Churchill Avenue--have been worried about a rash of home burglaries that occurred in north Palo Alto late last year. The police never arrested anyone for the burglaries, which eventually stopped. The experience prompted Southgate residents to form a neighborhood watch program.

At the meeting, members of the Police Department tried to assure a group of more than 100 residents that Southgate and Palo Alto are still safe. Residents asked whether the killing may have been related to the burglaries. The officers told the residents they couldn't discuss the case or a possible burglary connection but advised the audience to be more aware and to look out for their neighbors.

Residents asked what they should do to improve home security and what they should tell their children. One woman asked if her 16-year-old daughter, a Palo Alto High School student, and her friends could go home by themselves to eat lunch. Police Lt. Torin Fischer responded that people should be cautious but not change all of their habits.

"I would not stop my child, if I had teenage children, from going home," Fischer said. "I would not say, 'Don't walk home alone.'

"I think there is always a threat around," Fischer said. "I want people to leave here a little bit more concerned ... but not paranoid."

Helen Stavropoulos Sandoval, a Southgate resident, said the meeting was "a good first step" to starting dialogue between the police and residents. Sandoval said she didn't think the police took the neighborhood's concerns seriously enough last year when the burglaries were occurring. Her biggest fear, Sandoval said, is that Fitzhugh interrupted a burglary.

"My concern is that it was a stranger who came to the house and she walked in on it," Sandoval said. "That could happen to any of us. She just happened to be the unlucky one."

A second community meeting will be held Thursday evening, to give residents who could not attend Tuesday's daytime meeting an opportunity to speak with police. Tonight's meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the Palo Alto school district offices at 25 Churchill Ave.

This week, school district officials have also been dealing with the aftermath of Fitzhugh's death. Fitzhugh taught music classes at six of the district's schools--Addison, Duveneck, El Carmelo, Escondido, Fairmeadow and Nixon. The district prepared a letter to go out to parents at those schools but left it up to each school whether to send the letter home.

Kay Remsen, Fitzhugh's friend and the district's director of musical programs, met with students in each of the classes Fitzhugh taught and introduced their new substitute teachers. Psychologists have also gone to those classes. The students will likely hold a tribute to Fitzhugh at their end-of-the-year concerts in June.

Superintendent Don Phillips said psychologists have also been made available to the staff. "Events like this trigger other life experiences in children and adults," he said. "They may have lost a parent or been hurt in a serious accident, and this will bring back emotions."

Friends and family will attend a memorial service for Fitzhugh on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Roller, Hapgood & Tinney at 980 Middlefield Road. In addition to her husband, Fitzhugh is survived by two adult sons, Justin and John.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Palo Alto/Ravenswood Music Collaborative--an initiative Fitzhugh and Remsen established between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto students--c/o Dr. Kay Remsen, 85 D Churchill Avenue, Palo Alto 94306.

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