Pain, Prescriptions and Prince: Questions Remain Over the Death of a Cultural Icon

June 07, 2019

Prince performing in Los Angeles circa 1993 [Photo by Larry Busacca/WireImage]

By: Catherine Townsend

On April 21, 2016, the world was stunned when Prince was found dead inside an elevator at Paisley Park, the massive compound he built in Chanhassen, Minnesota. He was 57.

Today would have been the "Purple Rain" star's 61st birthday.

Instead, like other worldwide musical icons including Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, he died after allegedly abusing prescription painkillers. Investigators would later state that they believed Prince died of an accidental overdose of Vicodin laced with fentanyl, a powerful painkiller many times more potent than heroin. Once authorities in Carver County, Minnesota announced that no one would be charged in connection with his death, the investigative files became public - and were posted online on the Carver County Sheriff's Office website.

Here's what we know, and what we don't, about the death of a superstar that still shocks the nation...

There were no signs of violence on his body.

Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson said Prince’s body had no signs of violence when he was found unresponsive at home, and there was nothing to suggest it was suicide.

Pronounced dead at 10:07 am, a press release from the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office stated that there was no evidence of suicide or foul play.

A released report by Sgt. DeWitt Meier described the scene that investigators found when they arrived at the home on the day Prince's body was found. The released report contains five videos that show Prince's body on a rug. He was not wearing shoes, was dressed in black and grey clothes with black socks and a knit cap. “This is certainly a big event internationally and nationally, and I can tell you that we are going to leave no stone unturned with this and make sure the public knows what happened,” the sheriff said at a news conference at the time.

Where he got the "fake Fentanyl" is still a mystery.

Police issued search warrants for Prince’s home, and for a local Walgreens drugstore. "There is no evidence that any person associated with Prince knew that Prince possessed counterfeit pills that contained fentanyl," attorney Mark Metz said during a news conference, according to NPR. The police investigation was inconclusive - and it appears that Prince took that secret, of the provenance of the counterfeit pills, to his grave. Typically, fentanyl is only prescribed if a patient becomes opioid tolerant to the point where other drugs no longer are effective.

"Prince likely had no idea he was taking fentanyl pills that could kill him,” the report stated.

Investigators talked to Prince's personal assistant, best friend, chef and doctor.

According to USA Today police questioned several people including Prince's personal assistant Meron Bekure, his friend Kirk Johnson, and his personal chef Ray Roberts. Johnson knew Prince since the 1980s. As well as drumming for him, he was the best man at Prince's first wedding, his bodyguard and estate manager. Johnson told investigators that "he's always been private so I mean even from me he would keep me at a distance," according to Detective Chris Wagner.

The transcripts of Meron Berkure's interviews show she was reluctant to talk to investigators due to the fact that she said that she and all of Prince's staff had signed "confidentiality agreements" as a condition of employment. She said he went to the doctor the day before for a "checkup," and told Sheriff Jim Olson that her employer had seemed unusually "quiet" on the day before his death.

Ray Roberts, who had been Prince's personal chef since 2013, was charged with making sure that Prince, a vegan, regularly got enough nutrition. He said he served the star a roasted pepper bisque, a salad and a smoothie on the night before his death. "Roberts stated that night Prince didn't seem good. Roberts stated Prince looked distressed. Roberts stated Prince looked like he wasn't feeling good," the transcript from the interview with the chef reads. Roberts told investigators that shortly before Prince's death, he was concerned that his employer did not appear to be drinking enough fluids. Roberts told investigators that Prince would be "happy and energetic and then he would be sleeping or not feeling well," according to the report.

Attorney Mark Metz said local, state and federal investigators were unable to determine who supplied Prince with the counterfeit Vicodin pills and that for this reason, no charges could reasonably be filed. "There is no doubt that the actions of individuals around Prince will be criticized and judged in the days and weeks to come," he said. "But suspicions and innuendo are not sufficient in bringing criminal charges."

Prince’s doctor reached a settlement in a civil suit.

Documents from an investigation into Prince's death revealed that controlled substances had been found hidden in various pill bottles throughout the Paisley Park complex. Like Michael Jackson, who died at age 50 from an overdose of the drug propofol, Prince reportedly used multiple doctors, and when one would refuse to fill a prescription for controlled substances, it was relatively easy to find another doctor who would comply with the celebrity’s request. In Jackson’s case Conrad Murray, the doctor who treated him shortly before his death, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, and served two years in prison.

The day before his death, doctor Michael Todd Schulenberg prescribed clonidine (for high blood pressure) and the anti-anxiety drugs Valium and hydroxyzine pamoate, allegedly for Prince, however the prescriptions were issued in Johnson's name. Schulenberg later reached a $30,000 settlement with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Minnesota and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Schulenberg was alleged to have prescribed controlled substances to one person (Johnson) despite knowing they were intended for another (Prince), a claim which he denies and a claim for which he did not admit guilt.

Prince did not have a cell phone.

Police stated that Prince, who was notoriously private, communicated with his staff through a landline telephone or email. He did not use a cell phone. Meier obtained a search warrant for a laptop found at Prince's home five days after the star's death, but authorities reportedly did not find any evidence of value on the device. Authorities said that the fact that Prince did not use a cell phone made it more difficult to determine where - and from whom - he obtained the counterfeit fentanyl.

He had a medical emergency mid-flight a week before his death.

On the way home from an Atlanta gig a week before his death, Prince became unconscious on his private plane and the pilot made an emergency landing in Moline. At that time, Prince was given doses of the drug Narcan, which is used to treat narcotics overdoses. He was treated and released – against medical advice.

The battle over his estate continues.

Prince's estate, which is believed to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is still unsettled and has not been distributed to his six siblings, according to USA Today. So far, according to reports, Prince’s relatives have spent over $10 million in legal fees in court battles over the estate.

Within months of Prince's death, administrators of his estate opened the Paisley Park property as a museum. It is managed by Graceland Holdings, which also runs Elvis Presley's Graceland.

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