Much like the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial that recently came back into the news, Brittany Murphy's "accidental death" in December 2009 at age 32 is a Hollywood story that continues to confound.
In this age of snaps, tweets and instas, celeb news comes in and out of our feeds faster than a swipe right. So it speaks volumes when a Hollywood tragedy sticks in our ADD-addled minds more than six years after the fact. And in that sense, Murphy's death is among the stickiest, chiefly because many believe that far more questions than answers linger.
One outspoken skeptic is respected forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, who, after reviewing the Murphy case, tells E! News, "I had questions initially and those questions remain."
The official L.A. County Coroner's report cited pneumonia, anemia and a trace mix of prescription drugs as causing an "accidental death" from "natural causes."
But over time, more theories have surfaced casting doubt on those findings, especially considering that her screenwriter husband, Simon Monjack, 40, died in the same Beverly Hills house of the same cause just five months later. Raising more doubt was an independent lab report, commissioned in 2013 by Brittany's father, Angelo Bertolotti, that purportedly found alarming levels of "heavy metals" in her system and suggested the possibility of "a third party perpetrator."
Brittany's friend Jamie Pressly recently fanned the conspiratorial flames on the E! reality series Hollywood Medium when psychic Tyler Henry told her during a reading he felt a spirit was communicating that a "Brittany" in Jamie's life had been in a manipulative situation and was badly influenced by someone close to her.
That exchange reignited previous suspicions that Brittany's husband had not only been a negative influence on Brittany (who late in her brief life never matched her early career successes in hits such as Clueless and 8 Mile), but that he may have been in some way involved with it.
Here are five reasons why mystery still looms over what really killed Brittany Murphy:
1. Drugs May Have Played a Bigger Role Than Initially Believed: Sources tell E! News that Brittany was found by Monjack in their master bathroom on Dec. 20, 2009. At first, the coroner said Brittany died strictly of "natural causes" after suffering a bout with pneumonia and anemia. But months later, the final report (which included toxicology tests) concluded that Brittany had stopped breathing due to the combined effects of pneumonia, anemia and—a very noteworthy addition—prescription and over-the-counter drugs, including the prescription painkiller hydrocodone and pain reliever-fever reducer acetaminophen.
Unconvinced by the coroner's findings, Brittany's father obtained a court order to get testing done on Brittany's hair samples, which found "abnormally high levels" of 10 potentially toxic heavy metals, among them barium, which is used in rat poison.
E! News reached out to L.A. County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter, who says he is aware of the independent lab test, adding, [T]he only thing they found was heavy metals present, but I guess either our folks or doctor explained to them it was due to Brittany coloring her hair…It was determined it was from color. She wasn't poisoned, and we stand by the cause of death. She died from over-the-counter medicines, pneumonia and anemia."
Wecht, however, calls the independent lab test "reputable" and says, "If the coroner wanted to dispute or reject those lab results, their duty and responsibility is to investigate and those authorities look into that," adding, "The autopsy makes no mention of heavy metals and, as I recall, the toxicology performed by the L.A. office didn't show any high metals either."
The coroner does reveal that a shocking number of prescription pill bottles were found in the home. "We took almost 90 empty pill bottles out of bedroom," Winter says. "They were in Simon's name and aliases. It was like, Who has that many pill boxes? He popped pills. When we went back when Simon died, there were a bunch of prescriptions again."
2. Simon Eerily Died Just Five Months After Brittany: Wecht says that though it is not "impossible" for two people to die of pneumonia while living in the same house within such a brief period, "It is pretty darned rare."
Nonetheless, the LAPD has never publically stated that they have treated the deaths as even being possibly criminal in nature. When contacted for an update on the status of the department's involvement in these deaths, an LAPD spokesman said, "At this time, Robbery Homicide Detectives are not available to provide additional information on the matter."
After his lab tests' findings, Brittany's father, who had been long estranged from Brittany and his ex-wife, was quoted as saying, "I have a feeling that there was definitely a murder situation here."
Calling his claims "madness," Brittany's mother, Sharon Murphy, promptly wrote a letter to The Hollywood Reporter in late 2013 that asserted, "His claims are based on the most flimsy of evidence and are more of an insult than an insight into what really happened."
Ed Winter from the Coroner's Office sheds some light onto the unhealthy environment in which both Simon and Brittany were living and how they treated their bodies. "They both had similar causes of death," Winter explains. "Brittany had an overdose of over-the-counter meds along with pneumonia and anemia, and Simon died of, again, pneumonia had he was anemic and his overdose was from prescription meds."
Winter adds, "I think it could have been preventable. The problem is Simon would doctor shop and got numerous medications with numerous names and had a problem with prescription meds. Brittany was sick and instead of getting her treatment, Simon and her mother didn't take her to the doctor and used an abundance of over-the-counter meds."
Winter concludes, "My feeling it was inevitable that [Monjack] was at some point going to die either because of overusing or his body couldn't take it any more."
3. Simon's Shady Reputation Casts a Dark Cloud: Almost from the moment Brittany—who had once dated Ashton Kutcher—and Simon Monjack became a couple in 2007, there were questions about the 8-years-elder Monjack's intentions and influence on her. George Hickenlooper, director of the movie Factory Girl (for which Monjack received a writing credit) has called Monjack a "con man and a bad guy." In a post on a Hollywood movie blog shortly after her death, Hickenlooper wrote, "I only hope that this creep wasn't instrumental in her sad demise."
A list of various misdeeds didn't help Monjack's image:
- Two warrants for his arrest in Virginia for alleged credit-card theft and fraud
- An unpaid $6,087 legal bill
- A $502,910 judgment against him by a British investment firm
- His reported eviction from four different homes
- He was jailed in 2007 for overstaying his tourist visa (Murphy reportedly bailed him out)
Following his wife's death, Monjack gave an interview to Radar Online to defend himself. "I think the biggest misconception is that I was living off my wife," he said. "Brittany, forgive me—people don't seem to want to hear it. I was paying the bills. Brittany was making these god-awful films that went straight to DVD—so horrible that she wanted to kill herself."
Monjack's comments did little to help his tarnished public image.
4. An Environmental Review of Brittany's House Was Never Made Public: After Simon and Brittany's deaths, Sharon filed a lawsuit in which she alleged she hadn't been informed about the possibility of toxic mold being present in her daughter's mansion, where Sharon resided with the couple. Although no evidence of the effects of a mold infection was found in Brittany's body by the coroner, the results of any environmental reviews of the 10,000-square-foot property have never been made public.
Further, the LAPD won't confirm or deny whether her father's claims of possible "rat poisoning" due to the presence of barium in Brittany's system have been investigated. And since the LAPD never treated the house as a crime scene, there is no verifiable accounting of any other chemicals or other agents present in the house at the time of Brittany's death.
5. The Coroner Has Not Reopened the Death Investigation: The coroner's final report called Brittany's death "accidental but preventable." As Assistant Coroner Ed Winter stated at the time, "She had been sick for at least two weeks. Had they taken her to a doctor or a hospital, it would have been treatable."
Of course, there is a big difference between her loved ones exercising poor judgment and not getting Brittany to a doctor as she struggled to breathe in her final hours and actual criminal behavior. But, according to E! News' investigation, the LAPD never investigated her death as anything but accidental.
Despite questions about Monjack's personal character, a law enforcement source familiar with the case tells E! News that while Monjack "obviously was a shady guy," LAPD detectives in a case like this rely on the coroner's report to guide them. "If the coroner concludes it is 'accidental' death, there isn't much police can do unless there is other evidence to suggest foul play. Their hands are tied."
Wecht, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says, "I would have checked to see if the private lab results were valid and if they could be corroborated and analyzed whether there was exposure and where did the exposure come from. You have two people, a husband and a wife five months of each other, and, not engaging in any wild speculation, two young people dying five months apart. You've got to check it out."
In a statement to E! News, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office said, "We have no comment on this case. It's all up to the Coroner's Office and police on whether any new evidence warrants any death investigation being reopened. You need to contact the Coroner's Office. We have no involvement."
—Reporting by Erin Lim