Autopsies by Thomas Noguchi

Post-Mortem Exams by the ‘Coroner to the Stars’

THOMAS NOGUCHI joined the Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office in 1961 and was the county’s chief coroner from 1967-1982. Noguchi’s investigations of celebrity deaths earned him both his wry nickname — the Coroner to the Stars — and a certain celebrity status of his own. He was finally forced from office in 1982 by the county Board of Supervisors, who felt Noguchi’s fame and ego were interfering with his work. (Noguchi discussed the demotion, and many of his high-profile cases, in his best-selling 1983 book Coroner.) Here are some of the famous fatalities who earned autopsies by Noguchi and his staff.

Marilyn Monroe

MARILYN MONROE was Noguchi’s first celebrity autopsy, performed while he was a pathologist in the county coroner’s office. Monroe was found in her bedroom on 4 August 1962, her lifeless body stretched out on her bed, with an empty bottle of sleeping pills nearby. Based on Noguchi’s autopsy, chief coroner Theodore Curphey concluded that Monroe died from an overdose of drugs — specifically the sedatives chloral hydrate and Nembutal. Curphey ruled the case “probable suicide.”

Robert F. Kennedy

ROBERT F. KENNEDY was shot by assassin Sirhan Sirhanin Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel on 5 June 1968. Noguchi’s autopsy suggested that the shot which killed Kennedy had been fired from three inches away — not from a few feet as most observers had described. This led conspiracy theorists to declare that Sirhan must have been joined by a second gunman — a notion similar to conspiracy theories about the death of RFK’s brother John F. Kennedy. Noguchi agreed that his evidence did not match what observers saw, but declared in Coroner that “My own professional instinct instructs me that Sirhan somehow killed Senator Kennedy alone.”

Sharon Tate

SHARON TATE was a rising young actress when she and four friends were murdered on 9 August 1969 at a hillside estate in Bel-Air. (The slayings and subsequent conviction ofCharles Manson were described in the best-selling bookHelter Skelter by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.) Noguchi’s office performed the autopsy on Tate and the other victims, and helped tie the murder weapons to the later deaths of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca, also killed by Manson’s gang.

Janis Joplin

JANIS JOPLIN died of a heroin overdose on the morning of 5 October 1970 in Hollywood’s Landmark Hotel. Her fellow rock star Jimi Hendrix had died in London two weeks earlier from a fatal mix of sleeping pills and alcohol, making Joplin’s demise all the more sensational. Noguchi ruled death by accidental overdose; his investigation showed that Joplin had probably injected herself with heroin that was unusually pure and strong, leading to her death.

Freddie Prinze

Comedian FREDDIE PRINZE shot himself in the head in front of his manager, Martin Snyder, on 29 January 1977. Prinze had reportedly been despondent; given the eyewitness and the overwhelming evidence (including blood tests which showed the presence of Quaaludes), the coroner ruled suicide. Prinze’s family later challenged the ruling and won, convincing a jury that Prinze was playing a prank and had not expected the gun to go off. The jury called the shooting accidental and Prinze’s family collected on his $200,000 life insurance policy.

William Holden

WILLIAM HOLDEN‘s body was found in his Santa Monica apartment on 16 November 1981, discovered by a building worker who let himself in with a passkey. Holden had a two-inch gash in his forehead and had bled profusely. Toxicology reports found his blood alcohol level was .22 percent, more than twice the legal driving limit of .10 percent; investigation suggested the actor had been dead for four days. Noguchi concluded that Holden, intoxicated, had tripped on a rug, hit his head on a teak bedside table, and then passed out and died from loss of blood. Noguchi caused an uproar when he announced his findings publicly, upsetting those who felt the unfortunate details of Holden’s death should have been kept private.

Natalie Wood

Two weeks after William Holden’s death, on the night of 28 November 1981, actress NATALIE WOOD disappeared from the yacht Splendour off Catalina Island. The next morning her body was found floating face-down in the ocean a mile away, dressed in a nightgown, socks, and a waterlogged down jacket. The yacht’s dinghy was found drifting even farther away.

Wood, her husband Robert Wagner and their guest Christopher Walken had been drinking earlier on the evening of the 28th, and rumors of drunken fights or foul play aboard the Splendour quickly appeared in tabloid newspapers and magazines. Noguchi ruled the death accidental, deciding that Wood must have untied the dinghy, fallen into the water, and then drowned. Left undetermined was why Wood had untied the dinghy in the first place.

John Belushi

JOHN BELUSHI was only 33 when he died in bungalow #3 at the Chateau-Marmont Hotel on 5 March 1982. (Earlier he had visited the Roxy nightclub with Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.) Noguchi performed the initial examination of Belushi’s body at the hotel, but by coincidence Noguchi was on the same day asked to step down from his post. The autopsy was performed by Dr. Ronald Kornblum, who ruled death by accidental overdose of cocaine and heroin, a combination sometimes called a “speedball.” An acquaintance of Belushi’s, Cathy Smith, was later sentenced to a short prison term for supplying Belushi with the drugs.Belushi was Noguchi’s last big case as chief coroner. He accepted a lesser post and remained with the county until his retirement in 1999.

Next: Death By Car

From Grace Kelly to Princess Diana and “Left Eye” Lopes, read about some famous people who died in car accidents.

See Death By Car »

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