By Ann Gerhart and Ashley Surdin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 27, 2009
As thousands gathered and wept near Michael Jackson's star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, Los Angeles authorities yesterday bore down on the grim task of learning what killed the pop superstar, at 50, as he was about to embark on a lucrative 50-concert comeback tour.
Police seized a car used by a cardiologist who had been with Jackson when paramedics answered a 911 call at the singer's rented mansion Thursday.
The Los Angeles County coroner finished a three-hour autopsy yesterday and found no signs of trauma or foul play.
But spokesman Craig Harvey said a cause of death might not be known for four to six weeks, pending results from toxicology, pulmonary and neuropathology tests. He said Jackson had been taking some prescription drugs, but he refused to identify them.
Detectives talked briefly with cardiologist Conrad R. Murray Jr. and planned to question him more extensively, police said, but the department has not opened a criminal investigation.
"His car was impounded because it may contain medications or other evidence that may assist the coroner in determining the cause of death," police spokeswoman Karen Rayner said. The cardiologist had been hired less than two weeks ago by concert promoters to accompany the singer to London, Jackson associate Tohme Tohme, a physician, told the Los Angeles Times.
Murray is a native of Grenada and a 1989 graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville; he is licensed to practice in California, Nevada and Texas, state records show. His public record in California, where he was licensed in 2005, indicated no formal investigations involving him. Several civil judgments, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, have been issued against him in recent years, according to Nevada and Minnesota court records.
Murray treated Jackson for a cold last year when the singer was living in Las Vegas, Tohme said.
Jackson's parents and his three children remained in seclusion in nearby Encino yesterday. It was unclear who would gain custody of Prince, 12, and Paris, 11, his children with Debbie Rowe. Prince Michael II, 7, also known as "Blanket," is Jackson's child by a surrogate mother who has never been identified.
Facts trickled in and Twittered out during the day, each one seized by a global fan base so hungry for details that Google News initially suspected it was under automated attack, the Internet search giant said.
The audio recording of the 911 call featured a man urgently pleading with dispatchers to send an ambulance for a "gentleman here who needs help. He's not conscious. . . . He's not breathing." A doctor was performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the male, the caller said, but he never mentioned that the male in distress was Michael Jackson.
In January 2007, Jackson had settled with a Beverly Hills pharmacy that sued him for more than $100,000 in unpaid bills. The original news of that dispute had gone largely unnoticed; yesterday it turned into cable news scrawl, as did the list of previous Jackson ailments: back pain, painkiller addiction, vitiligo, chest pain.
In life, Jackson was hardly a collection of facts. He spent a lifetime subverting reality, settling a lawsuit to silence the most taboo of allegations, appearing to glide backward on air, resculpting the very face he showed the world.
But, in death, great energy began to go toward verifying exactly what happened to a 50-year-old man, living in a rented mansion, rehearsing to take his show on the road for what he said was his final tour.
The Michael Jackson infotainment industry cranked into action one last time, a cavalcade of weepers, scolds, spurned spokesfolk and theorists: Deepak Chopra, Donna Brazile, Sheryl Crow, ex-wife Lisa Marie Presley, alleged childhood friends from Gary, Ind.
Brian Oxman, who called himself a Jackson friend and former attorney, made the rounds of the talk shows yesterday to opine on what he called Jackson's escalating drug use: "I told the family that if Michael wound up dead I would not be silent, I would raise an alarm," he said. "Michael needed better care than what I think he has received."
Celebrity publicist Michael Levine sent a mass e-mail: "As someone who served as Michael Jackson's publicist during the 1st child-molestation incident, I must confess I am not surprised by today's tragic news. Michael has been on an impossibly difficult and often self-destructive journey for years. His talent was unquestionable but so, too, was his discomfort with the norms of the world. A human simply can not withstand this level of prolonged stress."
But Hamid Mouallem, a New York internist in practice for 40 years, said in an interview yesterday that he treated Jackson in 2005 for "only minor complaints. Nothing serious." He said he had become friendly with the singer, who invited the doctor and his children to his house several times.
"There was no sign of drug abuse or medications of any kind," Mouallem said. "He didn't show any sign of a heart problem when I knew him. There were no complaints about that part of his body."
In the shimmering California sunshine yesterday, massive crowds pressed together in the streets simply to be near Jackson's star. Superman and Marilyn Monroe impersonators lined the sidewalks. "It's like a movie premiere out there," said Police Officer Paula Davidson, commenting on an outpouring that she suspected would only build through the weekend.
A growing wreath of flowers and teddy bears encircled Jackson's star. "I can see you dancing on," read a letter in pencil. A white glittered glove rested just under Jackson's name on the pink and gold star.
Koen Van der Elst, 36, and Ruth Bosmans, 35, of Belgium waited at the wrong end of the line. For what, they weren't sure. It was their first day on vacation, and they just had to see, they said.
"In Belgium, not many people can say, 'Wow, I was here when Michael Jackson died,' " said Van der Elst, a backpack in tow and a camera slung around his neck.
Baltimore native Jade Greer, 28, who was also on vacation, leaned on the press barricade nearby. "It's bittersweet. It's a tragedy, but it's sweet so many people came out here. And in the heat. . . . Yes," she said, looking at the growing crowd, "it's love. I think it's love."
Up in the hills, near the Holmby Hills home where Jackson had been living, Starline tour buses packed with people kept rolling by.
Kinga Kozdran ) came from Thousand Oaks, 35 miles away, to "pay my respects." Kozdran and her husband, Marek Niklas, grew up in a small town in Poland under communist rule. "He was a symbol of the great America," she said. "He represented individuality to us. His music crossed the border of communism. You weren't supposed to buy it. It was a symbol of the horrible corrupt capitalism."
"Like Coca-Cola," her husband said.
Capitalism was good for decades to the King of Pop, but he died Thursday under a mountain of debt estimated at between $400 million and $500 million.
"Quite frankly, he may be worth more dead than alive," Jerry Reisman, general counsel for the Hit Factory, a recording studio where Jackson produced his best-selling album, "Thriller," told the Associated Press.
Fans drove the star's music back up the charts, emptying CD bins at stores and sending online sales soaring. Jackson records made up the entire Top 5 of iTunes' Top Albums -- with "Thriller" at No. 2 and the "Thriller 25th Anniversary" release at No. 5. On Amazon.com, the 25th anniversary release was No. 1; all of the site's top 10 albums, and 18 of the top 20, were Jackson's.
In London in March, Jackson had announced he would perform a series of concerts at the O2 arena there.
"This is it. I just want to say these will be my final show performances in London. This is it; when I say this is it, this is it," Jackson told the crowd, Rolling Stone reported. "I'll be performing the songs my fans want to hear -- this is it. This is really it. This is the final curtain call. I'll see you in July."
His schedule grew to 50 London concerts -- one for every year of his life -- and Jackson had been rehearsing for the past two months. Wednesday, he prepped on a big stage: the Staples Center, home to the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team.
In London, ticketholders began to queue up for refunds, a process made more complicated because people bought tickets to sold-out shows for huge sums from unauthorized dealers.
Among Jackson's possible creditors were the organizers of a proposed Jackson 5 reunion concert who last month filed a $40 million lawsuit against the singer, claiming that the "This Is It" London tour violated the terms of their 2008 contract. New Jersey-based promoter AllGood Entertainment claimed breach of contract and fraud, and demanded $20 million in compensatory damages and $20 million in punitive damages, according to the Guardian newspaper in London. The suit alleges that in November 2008, Jackson's manager, Frank DiLeo, signed an agreement promising that Jackson would perform in Texas in July 2010, along with his brothers, Marlon, Jackie, Tito, Randy and Jermaine, and that he had agreed not to perform solo until that time.
Raymone Bain, a press secretary to former District mayor Marion Barry, also filed suit against Jackson last month. She became his general manager in 2006, helming his business interests, settling legal matters, overseeing his living expenses and payroll, and supervising his moves as he relocated from France to Ireland to Las Vegas.
But in late 2007, she said that Jackson suddenly stopped calling her, and signed up with a different group to plan the London concerts. Bain claimed she was owed $44 million in unpaid business earnings.
Early yesterday, she said she was devastated by the news of Jackson's death.
"I'm hoping I'll wake up and it will be like the old days," she said, "when I had to send out a press release saying Michael Jackson isn't dead, please stop disseminating these vicious rumors, it's not true."
Surdin reported from Los Angeles. Research Editor Alice Crites and staff writers Monica Hesse and Lisa deMoraes in Washington and Paul Farhi in Los Angeles contributed to this report.