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Murder Under the Mountain

Sarah Stodder | October 26, 2016 | Story News and Features National

Editor's Note: This story was originally published by our sister magazine, San Francisco, as part of the November 2016 Real Estate Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue's contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.

When she moved
from San Francisco to Brisbane 26 years ago, Renee Marmion says, the first thing she thought when she arrived in town was, “My God, this looks like the perfect place to murder someone.”

You only have to spend an afternoon wandering around Brisbane to know what Marmion means. The tiny hamlet in the shadow of San Bruno Mountain is a peculiar place, an odd patchwork of the scenic, the quaint, and the unsightly. Brisbane, population 4,700, is just a 10-minute freeway drive south of downtown San Francisco, but it feels 10 light-years away. Geography alone sets it apart: The mighty mountain, green in winter and blond as a camel’s hump in summer, envelops the town with woolly arms from the south and west, cutting it off from Daly City and South San Francisco. Brisbane’s main artery is a sleepy commercial street that slopes upward for four blocks, passing a Mexican restaurant, a charmingly decrepit grocery store, and a smattering of other storefronts before it branches out into winding capillaries that wander along the base of the looming, 1,300-foot mountain.

So far, so bucolic. But the view to the north is a different story. The plain that extends toward San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley is an industrial wasteland reminiscent of Gatsby’s Valley of Ashes, bordered by the 101 freeway and punctuated by the ruins of the old Bayshore roundhouse, the massive Cow Palace, an electrical power plant, and a lagoon that San Francisco once used as its dump. This surreal landscape also happens to be one of the largest swaths of undeveloped land on the Peninsula—a fact that looms over the little town as portentously as its mountain.

Brisbane’s strangely sublime setting, its silent streets, and its general atmosphere of being lost in a 1950s time warp can give it an unsettling, David Lynchian quality. But its ominousness has never been anything more than a stage-set veneer. No real-life crime worthy of Twin Peaks has ever taken place here.

Until, this year, one did.

On Monday,
February 15, longtime Brisbane resident Paul Titchener reported that his wife of 24 years, Shelly, was missing. Paul told police she had walked out abruptly two days earlier, without her phone or medication, and hadn’t come home. He urged everyone in town to scour Brisbane and beyond. Neighbors sent out search parties, and posters with Shelly’s face appeared on phone poles all over town.

Six days later, on February 21, three fishermen pulled a black garbage bag from the waters near the eastern end of the Dumbarton Bridge, across the bay and south of Brisbane. Inside was a female torso, missing a head, arms, and legs. Later that day, police searching the area found a right leg in another bag, and a purse containing Shelly Titchener’s driver’s license. Two days later, on February 23, during an autopsy on the torso, a pathologist reported that the body had a bat tattoo on its lower back. Police showed a sketch of the bat tattoo to then-22-year-old James Titchener, the elder of the Titcheners’ two sons, who recognized it.

With all of these details not yet public, KRON 4 TV asked Paul in an interview that afternoon what he would do if Shelly didn’t come home. He replied in a monotone, his face expressionless: “Well, you know, that’s going to be very difficult. I’m trying to arm my sons for that. I’ve lost both my parents and that’s a very difficult thing and so I’ve gone through that experience with them.… I’ve kind of explained to them that it’s part of life that everyone eventually has to face.”

Before anyone had time to read much into Paul Titchener’s flat affect, or the fact that he had prepared his sons to lose both their parents, more shocking news broke: Just hours after the interview, Paul drove his car onto the Bay Bridge and jumped to his death.

In the space of a few hours, the horrific truth that some Brisbaneans had already begun to suspect was confirmed: Shelly had been murdered, and her killer was almost certainly Paul. Although the crime scene has not been found and the investigation has not been officially closed, authorities say Paul is the only suspect. (Update: On October 21, Brisbane police declared that they believe he is the killer.)

What had been a garden-variety missing person case was now a gruesome murder-suicide story. The central figures, as characterized by the media, were a fascinating odd couple: In the words of the Washington Post, Shelly was “a vivacious hairstylist with an ever-changing assortment of pixie cuts,” while Paul, an engineer with a PhD from Stanford who owned a small tech company, was “a somber, silver-haired brainiac.” According to the San Jose Mercury News, the couple were married in 1992, and Shelly filed for divorce nine years later, citing irreconcilable differences, but never followed through. Neighbors said they’d lived apart for several years after 2000; one said Paul had moved back in only a couple of years ago. Paul had told neighbors that his wife was bipolar and had been under a lot of stress. There were reports of loud shouting matches.

The story was irresistible. Press swarmed in from as far away as England. The Washington Post ran the headline “A Woman Vanishes, Body Parts Wash Up on a Pier, and Her Husband Throws Himself into the Sea”—as close to “Headless Body in Topless Bar” as the Washington (as opposed to the New York) Post was ever likely to get. The Titcheners’ street became a madhouse. Brisbane police cars, Fremont police cars, forensic vans, and half a dozen news trucks constantly hovered. Brisbaneans embarking on their evening strolls suddenly found themselves behind six microphones, with requests for a comment on the state of the deceased couple’s marriage.

It was a media circus like nothing the town had ever seen. And along with the jarringly, horribly incomprehensible murder, it threw placid little Brisbane into the small-town version of a nervous breakdown.

Since the days when
Brisbane was no more than a canyon in the northern folds of San Bruno Mountain, people have used it as a sanctuary from the world. The Costanoan Indians came to escape the fog, which is held up spectacularly every evening by the western ridges of the mountain. Fable has it that during the gold rush, the legendary desperado Joaquin Murrieta raided San Jose–bound stagecoaches and vanished into the shade of the canyon. Prohibition-era mobsters paid moonshiners to manufacture liquor in Brisbane, and residents from that time said their water had a whiskey-like tang from all the sour mash dumped into the mountain streams. Behaviors that would get you tossed into the hoosegow elsewhere—bootlegging, gambling, prostitution—found a haven in unincorporated Brisbane, which finally became a self-governing city in 1961. When development began to encroach on San Bruno Mountain in the late 1960s and ’70s, Brisbaneans organized to preserve much of it as a refuge for both endangered butterflies and local wanderers.

The people who settled Brisbane in the first decades of the 20th century were earthquake refugees and Okies, scavengers and self-starters—people who couldn’t afford, or had no interest in, the big city that loomed just northward. Isolated geographically by the mountain and socially by the town’s reputation as a redneck backwater, the people of Brisbane developed an ethos of fierce independence and self-reliance. They took scrap from the Baylands dump and pieced together shacks on the mountain. During the Depression, lots in Brisbane were deemed worthless enough to be given away at bingo nights in theaters on Mission Street. Banks were wary of lending in Brisbane, so while development boomed in the surrounding cities after World War II, the steep little town maintained its leisurely pace of life. While Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were creating the San Francisco sound a few miles north, Brisbane’s bars were swinging with rockabilly and hosting country legends. When my parents moved to town in 1993, their first wanderings down the main street led them into two now-defunct relics of old Brisbane: a small blues record store and the 23 Club, Brisbane’s favorite honky-tonk, where Johnny Cash had once performed and where my mom would later sing in a band while my sister and I checked IDs at the door (a pointless job, as we knew everyone anyway).

Today, Brisbane may be best known for the Christmas stars that adorn many of its homes and have inspired the treacly moniker “Brisbane—City of Stars.” The stars may be kitschy, but they’re also tangible evidence that this little town actually is a community, a place where everybody knows everybody else.

I was three when my parents moved to Brisbane, and lived in a house a street away from the Titcheners’ until I was 18. I didn’t know them well—the adults were my parents’ age, and their kids were younger than I was. We were connected more as members of a tribe, people who’d spent decades living in the same insular canyon town. Still, the couple’s deaths shook me, as they shook everyone in town.

About a month after the murder and suicide, with the town still buzzing, I grab coffee with Lisa Macias, Brisbane’s first locally born and bred police chief. We meet at Madhouse, the town’s only coffee shop (out of Brisbane’s 17 restaurants). Macias and I have never spoken before—my teenage mischief was low-level—but she recognizes me immediately, as she would any kid in town, where she’s known as “Brisbane’s Mom.” As she strides through the doorway, everything stops, and the crowd of middle-aged men discussing lotto tickets in the corner erupts into a chorus of “Hiya, Lisa!” and “Hail, Chief!”

When we finally sit down, Macias tells me what I already know: Brisbane’s violent crime rate is extremely low. Her police department and Atherton’s are the only ones in San Mateo County not to have undertaken a murder investigation in the past 20 years. Most of the crimes that Macias sees are small burglaries, usually committed by a handful of repeat offenders. It’s the kind of town where people don’t lock their doors, and children roam barefoot, unsupervised.

When Shelly disappeared, Macias was as stumped as anyone else in Brisbane. She knew the hairdresser’s face from around town, knew Paul as the basketball coach and knew their two sons. The family was well-liked and had never created any extra work for her. As the case morphed from a missing person into a homicide, Macias applied herself to the investigation as few police chiefs are able to, coming in early every day and demanding the latest from the only detective on her 16-officer staff. It was the first time a Brisbanean had been murdered on her watch as chief, and she took it personally.

Macias had spent years trying to get Brisbaneans to dial 911—suddenly now the phone at the small police station behind city hall wouldn’t stop ringing. The dispatch center was overwhelmed. Some callers wanted nothing more than to vent their grief, but other reactions were more troubling. Some residents began pressuring Macias to kick the investigation over to Fremont, where the body had been found. “I got phone calls from people who were very upset that now Brisbane was out in the world, that this gave a bad reputation to Brisbane, that I should just let the Fremont police solve the case,” Macias remembers. One caller worried that the sight of Brisbane officers on television would cause local home values to go down. But Macias knew what she had to do. “This was one of our residents,” she tells me. “This was not Fremont’s case. This was our case, the entire way.”

As the calls Macias received indicate, hiding from the rest of the Bay Area is a Brisbane tradition. But it’s no longer possible, and the main reason, not surprisingly, is money. A 1,500-square-foot home in downtown, Brisbane’s least desirable area, that sold for $100,000 in the early ’90s is now listed at $845,820. Boxy 1950s- and ’60s-era houses still dominate the town, but there are luxurious homes aplenty high up on the mountain boasting bay views and long-range panoramas of the city skyline. Old-timers tend to refer to the ritzier homes with pursed lips and adjectives like highfalutin.

But the biggest issue facing Brisbane—and one that has put the town squarely in the crosshairs of other Bay Areans—is the proposed development of the 684-acre Baylands, on the plain north of town. A developer has proposed building 4,434 units of housing and seven million square feet of office, retail, and R&D space there. But Brisbane officials, fearing that their burg will lose its small-town quality, have said they will oppose building any new housing—a stance that has enraged many regional affordable-housing advocates and urban planners, who see it as NIMBYism at a time when the Bay Area desperately needs new housing. In a tit-for-tat exchange with Brisbane’s mayor, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced a resolution asking the city to look into the possibility of annexing Brisbane.

Yet many, perhaps most, Brisbaneans are reluctant to open the floodgates. When I pay a visit to Dolores Gomez, a former librarian, a resident since the 1940s, and a beloved expert on Brisbane’s “good old days,” she tells me the story of a small city that posts a sign at its entrance telling strangers to go away. “That’s what we need,” she laughs, only half joking. She voices the worry of many in town that as Brisbane expands, neighbors won’t be as close as they used to be. City council meetings have gotten less lively, she laments, and even grief doesn’t feel as collective as it used to. “When I was growing up, people took care of each other,” she says. “There was a lot more empathy expressed years ago if someone died in town.”

In the half century between Gomez’s childhood and mine, Brisbane paved its roads, became an incorporated city, and nearly doubled its population. But the Brisbane of my halcyon days feels no less Podunk than the one Gomez describes. My family sang carols at the house of the man who invented the famous Christmas stars; we rented VHS tapes from the local video store on family credit; we once stole bread dough from the dumpster of a factory in Brisbane’s industrial park and took over a downtown block for a dough fight—and no one complained. Of course, Brisbane’s sleepy insularity wasn’t always idyllic. Reputation was everything, and being different could get you publicly shamed—as I found out when I signed up for dance lessons instead of the popular soccer team and was mocked by the coach whenever I ran into him (which was frequently, since he lived three blocks from me). Later, my most successful college application essay was a seething screed about how badly I wanted to escape my hometown.

But I keep coming back. So does Madison Davis, the 25-year-old council-member who made her first oral argument at city hall at age four and has been part of many more since. Despite the worries of old-timers, Davis doesn’t forecast the end of Brisbane. “‘Small town’ isn’t how many people there are,” she says. “It’s what happens among those people.”

But what happened among the people of Brisbane after the Titchener murder-suicide was not exactly the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. More like Edvard Munch.

It was the media
coverage of the event that led to Brisbane’s meltdown. As soon as reporters started knocking on doors for impressions of Shelly and Paul, the mood in town shifted from grief to anger: anger not only at the media, but at anyone who was willing to be interviewed. Behind closed doors, conversations seesawed between expressions of disgust at the news coverage and salivation at the case’s unanswered questions. My family, far from exempt, spent a week debating every turn of the story over a five-member group text. At a side job in a kitchen above a local bar, the Brisbane Inn, my coworkers and I couldn’t stop returning to the topic as we chopped bell peppers and grilled shrimp. The more we talked, the more it haunted our consciousness: With the crime scene still a mystery, I found myself praying I wouldn’t come across it as I jogged along San Bruno Mountain’s secluded paths. Every quiet canyon, once a peaceful hideaway, became a potential murder scene.

“This just is not Brisbane,” a bewildered neighbor told NBC News as he stood across from the Titcheners’ home. Indeed, Brisbaneans were hard-pressed to recall a single local event that had generated such fascination from inside and out. Some bring up the 2002 story of a local woman who purchased a winning lotto ticket at Julie’s Brisbane Liquor & Deli. (A Chronicle report predicted that the incident would finally put Brisbane on the map; it didn’t.) The town’s most recent previous murder, the death of a woman during a 1995 robbery, has been largely forgotten.

Though it was mid-February, Brisbaneans took out their holiday stars and lit them for Shelly. At its February meeting, the Brisbane City Council called for a moment of silence. But while city hall played host to Brisbane’s superego, another forum indulged its id: the community Facebook group, which often devolves into attacks that illustrate what things might have looked like if the Hatfields and McCoys had had access to social media. The wrangles usually involve a few frequent posters, with 800 other members logging on for their daily fix of snoopy savagery.

As soon as interviews with Shelly’s neighbors began to air, users began to publicly attack the interviewees. One neighbor who was caught by reporters while entering her house with her kids was immediately pilloried: “When I saw that nosy lady being interviewed…[it] made me sick to my stomach,” intoned one commenter. “I definitely will not talk to the media,” another neighbor wrote. “I have turned down many requests today.” The feud escalated as the “nosy lady” herself chimed in: “I have had about 30 reporters come to my door or call me,” she wrote. “I am most certainly not looking for 5 minutes of fame.” After merely letting one reporter use her bathroom, she’d received a dirty look from passing neighbors. “Please don’t contribute to that atmosphere in town,” she implored. But the ugly back-and-forth intensified.

Shelly’s close friends watched in dismay. To them, the descriptions of the Titcheners—especially the ones of Shelly’s mental state—seemed alien. “All these things I read, I’d never seen any of that,” says Danette Davis, Madison’s mother and the co-owner of Madhouse, who had known Shelly for decades. “That was really sad for me.”

Renee Marmion, a 60-year-old health educator, watched the vitriolic exchanges and thought: “These people need something to do.” She wanted to turn the conversation away from the Titcheners’ marriage and the neighbors who were being castigated for talking to the press. Marmion stepped straight into the line of fire, debuting her idea in a Facebook post: a candlelight vigil under the gazebo in the community park to show “unconditional love for the memory of Shelly and Paul.”

Marmion felt the two of them should be grieved equally. For many in town, Paul had been instantly transformed from a heartbroken husband into the dead father of two orphaned sons: The fact that he was likely a murderer, and that his own actions had left his sons orphaned, was too horrible to be voiced. It was easier to be angry at the reporters at the doors. It was easier to just feel sorrow for the whole situation, especially for the Titchener boys, who had stayed away from most people in town since the evening of February 23. Marmion went so far as to express empathy for Paul’s plight, saying, “Can you imagine the anguish Paul must have been going through that whole week? Having to lie to his community?”

Despite Marmion’s intentions, her post inspired more sniping. “Whoever posted this has no respect for the family,” railed one commenter. A sign about the vigil was posted on the giant community bulletin board in the park that serves as Brisbane’s principal mode of communication with its citizens, typically filled with flyers announcing garage sales, Lions Club crab feeds, and the annual December lighting of the holiday stars. The idea that reporters might find out about the vigil from the sign incited locals to begin calling for its removal. Still others joined in, and soon rumors began to circulate that reporters were haunting the park, waiting to film the memorial. In trying to calm the tensions around her friend’s death, Marmion lamented to Danette Davis, she was now being accused of creating a media sideshow of her own—a serious transgression in a town whose biggest fear is discovery by the outside world.

In an effort to defuse tensions, Marmion marched down to city hall and summoned the head of Brisbane’s Parks and Recreation Department. Together they walked to the community bulletin board, where Marmion ripped the massive sign down. But she had no intention of canceling the vigil. Some Brisbaneans still wanted to pay respects to Shelly, no matter how many reporters filled the park. By removing the sign, she was hoping to allow herself and a few neighbors to proceed with their grief on their own terms.

On the evening
of February 28, Marmion headed to the community park armed with candles, a small pedestal table, and a portable stereo. That day, she had received at least five texts and calls from agitated neighbors urging her to cancel the vigil. She steeled herself to confront a horde of cameramen, but when she arrived at the park, she found only one KRON 4 van.

Marmion approached the reporter in the van’s front seat. “Don’t waste your time,” she said. “It’s been canceled.” She went back to her car to unload her vigil supplies, and by the time she returned, several neighbors were walking across the park with candles in their hands. “There’s nothing going on here,” Marmion again insisted to the reporter, even as more Brisbaneans trickled down from the mountain. The KRON 4 team was unconvinced. Finally, when more than 50 people had gathered under the gazebo, Marmion relented: “OK, I lied!”

Standing at the edge of the swelling crowd, the reporter saw a cross section of Brisbane: adults and teenagers, neighbors who had known the Titcheners well and neighbors who’d barely known them at all. Danette and Madison Davis had heard rumors of reporters but came carrying church candles anyway. A friend from Danette’s Bible study group, Mary, had stopped on her way down to the park to chat with neighbors who weren’t going because of the rumored media presence; Mary had decided to go, in spite of what she’d heard, “for Shelly.” Though Chief Macias stayed home, she sent two of her officers to support the mourners. The mood was somber, still “dazed,” as one attendee later said, “but with a sense of purpose.” People held hands. No one smiled.

Marmion started her mix on the portable stereo and began to speak. “This is group healing and unconditional love,” she said. “We need to have our moment of sorrow together.” A Catholic, she told the group she wanted to recite the Our Father but would do it separately to respect the non-Christians in the crowd. When she began to step away, however, the entire group shuffled after her.

After about 20 minutes of prayer and singing, someone said suddenly, “The boys are here.” From the edge of the park, Shelly and Paul’s sons, James and Paul Jr.—tall like their father, known all their lives to so many of the mourners—came walking toward the gazebo. Marmion had hoped the vigil might show the two young men that they were “still a part of this community, that they didn’t have to hide,” but neither she nor anyone else had expected them to appear. The boys wove their way into the middle of the crowd, which tightened around them like a drawstring on a swatch of fabric. It was James who spoke: “Thank you all so much for coming. My mother and father loved my brother and I, and they loved Brisbane,” he said. “I hope you will all remember them as the loving people that they were.” Marmion’s playlist shifted to “Imagine,” and the circle of mourners picked up the tune. Neighbors’ hands reached out from all angles, coming to rest on the boys’ shoulders and on each other’s, as everyone began to sob. The bodies formed a cocoon, enveloping the Titcheners’ sons through the last verse of the song.

“How can we help? How can we help?” everyone asked the two young men when the circle finally parted. It was clear, though, that material assistance paled in comparison with what had transpired. “The vigil was a way of rejecting the bullshit on television and saying, ‘This is about Shelly, and about her community,’” one attendee later reflected. “It was a rejection of the horror.” The horror had been everywhere: in the footage of investigators under the Dumbarton Bridge, in the unkind Facebook posts, in the fear that motivated many of the calls received by Chief Macias. The horror would take a long time to go away. But it was easier to face under the gazebo, with an arm around a neighbor’s back.

As night fell and the candle wax dried on the gazebo pavement, the TV reporter lingered in the deserted park to put together his news segment. The events of the past few weeks had given him and his colleagues plenty to gab about, but this time he was modest with his words. For him, the story was over. When he packed up his gear and drove out of Brisbane, there was no telling when he would be back. For the next murder, he might have to wait another 20 years.

Out on 101, cars sped north and south over the Baylands plain and past the dark silhouette of San Bruno Mountain. Tiny stars flickered from the nearest canyon. As commuters rushed between the city and the Peninsula, they might not have noticed at all.

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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