For a week, the patient's body lay undiscovered at the sprawling West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus.
Then, just before noon on June 30, a groundskeeper found the decomposing remains of Jose Luis Plascencia while trimming foliage near Jackie Robinson Stadium, officials said.
Initially, investigators did not consider the grisly discovery to be foul play. The body was taken to the Los Angeles County coroner's office.
There, medical examiners discovered something the investigators had apparently overlooked: a "sharp force injury to the neck." The coroner ruled the 56-year-old's death a homicide. "His neck had been cut," said Ed Winter of the coroner's office.
Plascencia's death marks the first homicide at the 400-acre VA facility in more than two decades, and comes at a time when VA officials are encountering heavy criticism over their stewardship of the campus. Now, the FBI has been called in to handle the case because the property falls under federal jurisdiction.
According to authorities, Plascencia was undergoing unspecified medical treatment at the facility at the time of his death. VA officials would not say what branch of the military he served in. According to court records and prosecutors, Plascencia had a criminal record that stretched back two decades and included arrests for minor drug possession and sales. In January 2009 he was given a two-year prison sentence for burglarizing a Palos Verdes home in September 2008, according to prosecutors.
The FBI has released few details in the matter.
"We have an open investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mr. Plascencia's death, and so it wouldn't be appropriate to provide specifics," said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman. "We will share our findings with the coroner, of course, and so I would defer to the coroner's office with regard to their assessment." Eimiller said investigators believe Plascencia's body had been there seven days.
The West Los Angeles VA facility has its own police force with about 55 officers, who are much more accustomed to responding to patient suicides. (One week after Plascencia's body was found, 48-year-old Chris Serrato was found dead at Exodus House, a facility that helps veterans with a variety of issues, including addiction. Authorities are awaiting toxicology test results.
Though homicides there are rare, investigators have found them difficult to solve.
The 1989 beating death of Donald P. Wegner, a facility electrician, remains a mystery. And, in this most recent case, investigators overlooked a knife that was left in the vicinity of Plascencia's body, according to a police source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The weapon was recovered after the coroner's office deemed the matter a homicide and authorities returned to the scene, the source said.
Veterans activists say VA officials have made an effort to downplay incidents on the grounds and question why the body was not found sooner. "It's outrageous. They didn't find this guy for a week or more," said Robert Rosebrock, 68, who has led a group of military veterans in weekly protests of what they say is the VA's commercialization of the Wilshire Boulevard medical center's grounds.
The campus is not used by veterans alone. Many other groups pay to use the VA's grounds for various events. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against facility managers, alleging that they were not doing enough to help homeless veterans and were using the grounds for purposes other than what it was intended for. The suit alleged that a third of the facility was being leased to a car rental company, a private school, a hotel laundry service and other groups with no connection to veterans.