Curse of the Dead
The body of Anna Nicole Smith lies beneath ten feet of Bahamian dirt. But eight months after her death, her ghost still stalks South Florida, thanks to a case filed last April in Fort Lauderdale's U.S. District Court. Though it caused barely a ripple in the otherwise-vigilant tabloid press, Stern v. O'Quinn has blockbuster potential.
"This case is going to open up a whole bunch of doors that were closed before," says Rob Klein, an attorney in the matter. "It will be a very public exposition of what facts are out there."
The stakes are bigger than they were last February, when Broward Circuit Judge Larry Seidlin sobbed his way through the fight over custody of Anna Nicole's remains. This time, the case might lead to a murder trial.
That's because Howard K. Stern, Anna Nicole's former boyfriend, is suing Houston-based attorney John O'Quinn over remarks in which O'Quinn implied that Stern killed Anna Nicole and her son Daniel. By doing so, Stern gives O'Quinn, one of the nation's most cunning lawyers, the right to subpoena documents and question witnesses under oath on that very question. Should that inquiry turn up evidence that Stern did kill Anna Nicole, then it could provide the basis for a criminal indictment. After all, there is no statute of limitations on murder.
Nothing would be more delightful to America's tabloid press. An accusation of murder would place the Anna Nicole Smith case in the pantheon of great celebrity scandals — O.J. Simpson territory, even.
At the very least, this case will convene that familiar, unsavory cast of characters who last spring were so eager to sling hearsay in TV appearances, tell-all books, and gossip rags. Only now they'll be forced to either swear to their claims under oath or admit that they sexed up their stories to feed a hungry tabloid press corps.
The prospect may be dreadful for South Florida residents still suffering from Anna Nicole overload, but for the ghost herself, this, finally, has the makings of a satisfying climax.
To followers of the Anna Nicole case, John O'Quinn may be best-known as the lawyer whose blood-sugar level caused him to collapse, causing an off-camera thump during a February 22 hearing. It prompted Judge Seidlin to intone, "Stay with me, Texas. I want to be with you a long time from now."
Within national legal circles, however, O'Quinn is better-known as the lawyer with a flair for scoring colossal payouts from corporations on behalf of injured customers. His targets include tobacco companies (a $17.3 billion settlement), Halliburton ($70 million), and a diet pill manufacturer (roughly $1 billion).
O'Quinn entered the Anna Nicole custody case to represent Virgie Arthur, the former Houston police officer who is Anna Nicole's estranged mother.
Stern's attorney is Lin Wood of Atlanta, whose celebrity-client list includes former congressman Gary Condit, the Colorado woman who accused Kobe Bryant of rape, and the parents of JonBenet Ramsey.
So the lawsuit against O'Quinn represents a clash between two legal titans, a fact the two lawyers seem to appreciate. In an August 16 deposition at O'Quinn's Houston office, Wood asked O'Quinn about his reasons for taking the case when it was offered to him by Arthur's son, an FBI agent.
"If an FBI agent asks you to do a favor," O'Quinn said in his Texas drawl, "I don't know about your part of the country, but you try to do him a favor."
Wood responded by recalling one of his own famous clients, falsely accused Olympic bomber Richard Jewell, a case that, Wood said, made Atlanta folk such as him "a little leery of FBI agents." Touché.
But Wood of all people could understand how a case like Arthur's might be attractive to O'Quinn — not for the fees he could charge Arthur but for the publicity it could generate.
O'Quinn signed on pro bono, and his firm bankrolled the Arthur contingent's February trip to South Florida from Houston, including flights to Fort Lauderdale on O'Quinn's private jet, a lengthy stay at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66, and a legal team that included a brass-knuckled private detective who could dig up dirt on Stern and make threats to opposing attorneys.
Pressed by Wood to give an estimate of how much his firm had spent on Arthur's case, O'Quinn named the figure $400,000. Since the case led to his being named in a defamation suit, the final cost is likely to be closer to $1 million. For a man of his means and love for legal pageantry, that's probably a bargain.
In his August deposition, O'Quinn spoke with awe about the media crush on SE Sixth Street in Fort Lauderdale, a daily gauntlet for him and his client, Arthur. "Once you got within 50 feet of the front door of the courthouse... it was literally crazy," Quinn says. "Sometimes, she and I would lock arms and I'd just say 'Follow me' and I would somehow make a path for us."
O'Quinn was also an obliging trailblazer when it came to television appearances. Although his past cases involved bigger sums of money and a wider political impact, none had a celebrity factor like this one, and O'Quinn proved a quick study in the art of the tabloid TV sound bite.
On February 19, MSNBC's Rita Cosby caught O'Quinn and Virgie on their way into the courthouse. She asked O'Quinn about a report that Stern had requested a chance to see Anna Nicole's will in early February.
"Real fascinating, isn't it?" O'Quinn said. "Why did he need to read that will unless he knew she was going to die?"
O'Quinn was even more direct on February 21, speaking to Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, who remarked how it seemed that Virgie "doesn't have much fondness for Howard K. Stern" — to which O'Quinn replied, "She believes Howard K. Stern murdered her daughter."
In a March 15 appearance on Van Susteren's program, O'Quinn broadened his accusations to include the drug-overdose death of Daniel Smith. O'Quinn said that his client "has a granddaughter [Dannielynn] who's still in the hands of the man who all arrows are pointing to as having killed her daughter and her grandson."
As for Stern's alleged motive, in a March 27 interview, O'Quinn told Van Susteren that Daniel wanted to "investigate Stern, and he went to his mother to get the money, and Stern learned of that, and he decided he needed to get rid of Daniel."
These statements form the evidence in Stern's defamation suit against O'Quinn. To win his case, Stern must prove that the charges are false and — since Stern would likely meet the legal standard for a public figure — that O'Quinn knew his statements were false when he spoke. Because the statements suggest that Stern is a murderer, the case against O'Quinn will, in effect, be an evaluation of the murder case against Stern.
"The burden of proof is on the plaintiff in a libel case," Wood says. "Mr. Stern is prepared to prove by credible evidence that he had no involvement in the deaths of Anna Nicole and Daniel Smith."
In that sense, it would seem that by attracting a lawsuit from Stern, O'Quinn performed the ultimate service to his client, Arthur, whose own public remarks suggest she wanted nothing so much as the chance to investigate Stern's dealings with her daughter.
But that doesn't mean that O'Quinn, for all his famed ingenuity, hoped to get sued. "I don't think anyone wants to walk into a lawsuit," says O'Quinn's attorney, Klein. "John was facing a situation where Virgie was being slandered in the press by the Howard Stern media machine, and John felt that Virgie's opinion needed to be aired."
Still, it's a serendipitous turn of events for Arthur, who can now watch as one of the nation's foremost attorneys investigates the man who she thinks murdered her daughter. And it won't cost her a dime.
In the weeks after Anna Nicole Smith's February 8 death in a Seminole Hard Rock Hotel suite, Broward County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Joshua Perper had to rule on the cause. Though it was soon evident that Anna Nicole had died from a lethal combination of drugs, Perper had to also consider the evidence gathered by Seminole Police Department investigators, who had interviewed witnesses and sifted through the material in the hotel suite. Since this was not a natural death, Perper would have to choose among accidental death, suicide, and murder.
The national tabloid media added another variable to Perper's calculation, which he acknowledged in the opening remarks of the news release that contained his ruling, when Perper congratulated his research team for "operating under intense public and media scrutiny."
A homicide ruling would have amplified the intensity of that scrutiny not just for Perper's team but for the police and prosecutors who would have had to build the case. By the time he issued his ruling, on March 26, Broward County had already played host to a media circus for more than six weeks.
According to Perper's report, the sheer volume of chloral hydrate, a prescription-strength sleep medicine found in Anna Nicole's body, suggested only two scenarios: that she was force-fed or that she voluntarily ingested it. And since Perper found "no oral trauma to suggest force-feeding," she must have taken the medicine voluntarily.
Perper eliminated suicide based on witness statements that she was in "good spirits," and the finding that Anna Nicole might have been able to survive the excessive doses of chloral hydrate had she not also had the flu and ingested a slew of pain and anxiety medication.
Not that there wasn't also evidence suggesting suicide. Perper conceded that Anna Nicole had made remarks about wanting to die not long after son Daniel's death in September 2006. She nearly drowned in a pool in the Bahamas around that time — an episode that looked suspiciously like a botched suicide. And Anna Nicole had made past statements that "she wished to die in the same fashion as her idol, Marilyn Monroe," who used chloral hydrate to commit suicide. For Perper, this evidence was not as persuasive as that which supported his final ruling: that Anna Nicole died by accident.
His explanation failed to placate the tabloid media and its consumers if only because the media had conducted a much more theatrical investigation in a venue less hostile to speculation than the one in which Perper toils.
Even before Anna Nicole's death — in fact, it started after Daniel's death — the tabloid media cast Howard K. Stern in the role of villain. The Los Angeles lawyer who handled Anna Nicole's modeling contracts had somehow managed to turn their professional relationship personal, around 2002. In seemingly every public photograph that had Anna Nicole at its center, Stern filled the margin. That included the scene in the Bahamas hospital room where a heavily sedated Anna Nicole would give birth to a daughter only to lose her son Daniel to an overdose of methadone. Media reports placed Stern in the room, fueling speculation that he provided the drugs to 20-year-old Daniel.
In the weeks to follow, Virgie Arthur went public with her conviction that Stern had a role in Daniel's death — and that if she wasn't careful, Anna Nicole "may be next." So when Anna Nicole died, it seemed to fulfill that prophecy. And in the weeks after her death, Stern's beady eyes and lurching gait suffered by comparison with Virgie Arthur's distraught demeanor and the earnest, sun-kissed mien of Larry Birkhead, Anna Nicole's other boyfriend.
The lawsuit by Stern against O'Quinn will provide the chance to see how much of these suspicions was warranted. Since the main characters, as well as the cast of ancillary characters, have already marched before national talk-show cameras and contributed to unauthorized biographies, followers of the case are unusually equipped to anticipate the testimony that will be given at trial.
Attorneys for O'Quinn can draw from a deep pool of witnesses who suspect Stern of having a role in Anna Nicole Smith's death, starting with O'Quinn's own client, Virgie Arthur, who can be expected to repeat her previous claims about Stern using drugs to control Anna Nicole and separate her from her family.
In establishing potential culpability for the death of Daniel Smith, California-based private investigator Jack Harding may be a key. Last March, Harding told CNN's Nancy Grace that he received a visit from Daniel about a month before Daniel's death in the Bahamas in which Daniel expressed concern about Stern's "control" over his mother.
"He told me that Stern had given orders to the staff that any time that he would call to hang up on him," Harding said of Daniel. "And the boy was frightened to death of Stern, according to what he told me."
Daniel planned to come back with money, Harding said, but never did. Bahamian police found Harding's business card in Smith's pocket when he died.
A list of witnesses who were to testify at the April inquest into Daniel's death reportedly includes two nannies to Dannielynn who claim to have heard Anna Nicole accuse Stern of killing Daniel.
That inquest, in the Bahamas, in which Anna Nicole was to be a lead witness, stalled when Stern's attorneys objected to the jury selection. The coroner, Roger Gomez, has since been dismissed from the case by the Bahamian Supreme Court due to his speaking about it to the media. Now, 13 months have passed since Daniel's death, and there is still no official ruling about the cause.
Though Stern and Birkhead have become cordial since the paternity battle over Dannielynn ended, there's no taking back statements Birkhead made in February about Stern enabling Anna Nicole's drug abuse. "We had a couple of clashes in the hospital room [during Anna Nicole's pregnancy] because she and Mr. Stern brought in a duffle bag," he said during testimony in Seidlin's courtroom, "and when there wasn't enough [pain killer] administered through the drips that she was on, they were taking [drugs] out of the bag... thwarting the efforts by the hospital to get her off the medications."
Ford Shelley, son-in-law of the man who owned the house in the Bahamas where Anna Nicole was living, told Bahamian police that on the day of Daniel's death, he saw Stern rifle through Daniel's pants pockets, finding two white tablets that he then flushed down the toilet.
Tasma Brighthaupt, whose husband, Maurice "Big Mo" Brighthaupt, was a bodyguard for Anna Nicole, will also be a crucial witness in the question of whether Stern ought to be a suspect in Anna Nicole's death. Tasma was one of two women who discovered Anna Nicole dead.
In an interview with Fox News' Van Susteren, Tasma Brighthaupt said she found it odd that after encountering Stern at a Hard Rock Hotel elevator on the afternoon of Anna Nicole's death, he told her he was coming down to make a phone call — except that he didn't make a call; he boarded the elevator again and went back to the room with the Brighthaupts. Tasma also found it strange that he would leave Anna Nicole rather than stay till she awoke.
On the day of Anna Nicole's death, Tasma, a registered nurse, claimed Stern left her with the instruction to help Anna Nicole to the restroom if needed. For this reason, Tasma doubted the story Stern told police: that Anna Nicole took the drugs herself. "How could she have gotten up and dug up medications?" Tasma asked.
She never explicitly accused Stern of murder, but Tasma told Van Susteren, "A lot of things are bothering me. I have a lot of suspicions."
Former MSNBC talk-show host Rita Cosby can expect to be called upon to produce evidence supporting the most explosive allegations in her book Blonde Ambition. The tawdry text, which went straight to the New York Times bestsellers list when it debuted last month, says that Stern and Birkhead were lovers and that they struck a deal whereby Birkhead would not challenge Stern's control of the Anna Nicole Smith estate in exchange for Stern's not challenging Birkhead's custody of Dannielynn and letting him live in Anna Nicole's Studio City, California, home, where Birkhead remains today.
It remains to be seen whether O'Quinn will be able to call witnesses who can corroborate two other pieces of circumstantial evidence he made public last February: that Stern had asked to see Anna Nicole's will a few days before she died and that there were several life insurance policies that named Stern as the beneficiary. These allegations appear to be the fruits of the investigation conducted by O'Quinn's in-house P.I., Don Clark.
O'Quinn's attorney, Klein, refused to discuss those questions in advance of the trial. Clark also declined to elaborate on his findings.
Stern's attorney, Lin Wood, calls the allegation of life insurance policies "absolute, total, unadulterated fiction." He asserts that a faxed request for a copy of the will has a misprinted date and that the matter was clarified in Seidlin's courtroom, in O'Quinn's presence. On this point, Wood says, "we're prepared to prove actual malice, which is to say Mr. O'Quinn had knowledge of the falsity of his allegation when he uttered the statement."
The lack of a motive is the single glaring weakness in a murder case against Stern. If he was, as O'Quinn has alleged in public remarks, a "Rasputin type guy" who had ingratiated himself with a wealthy heiress, enjoying an opulent lifestyle only through that association, why would he kill the golden goose?
Anna Nicole Smith's will named Stern as its executor — a job worth no more than several million, which pales next to the nearly half-billion dollars owed to Anna Nicole's one surviving heir: Dannielynn.
Stern's motive, then, would seem to depend entirely on proving that Stern had reason to expect that Birkhead, as father to Dannielynn, would share the girl's fortune with Stern.
Cosby's book offers no on-the-record sources who can back the claim of such a deal.
The charge of a love affair between Stern and Birkhead comes from two sources — a nanny who claims to have seen Anna Nicole watching a sex video made by the two men, and Jackie Hatten, a former friend of Anna Nicole's who claimed to have accidentally walked in on Birkhead and Stern while they were having sex.
Stern's high-priced attorney is already champing at the bit for the chance to discredit these claims. "Jackie Hatten has not had contact with Anna Nicole Smith since 2002," Wood says. "And besides her trip to the Bahamas after the death of Daniel, she has never been in the same Zip Code as Howard Stern or Larry Birkhead at the same time."
For Wood, the best defense against claims harmful to Stern's reputation might be a good offense. To that end, he will demand records and ask witnesses under oath about whether they were paid in exchange for their quotes about Stern. "At least one witness in the Bahamas has received money in exchange for her statements about Mr. Stern," Wood says. Such transactions, he says, will "go to the credibility of the witness."
A parallel defamation suit that Wood says he plans to file against Cosby for Blonde Ambition may help Wood more closely examine potential conflicts in her reporting on Stern.
Stern's lawyer, who has already filed a preliminary witness list in his case against O'Quinn, can count on favorable testimony from Eric Gibson (AKA King Eric), a musician from the Bahamas who was friends with the couple and who was visiting on the day of Anna Nicole's death, along with his wife, Gelene. The pair has maintained that Anna Nicole controlled Stern, not vice versa.
Two California doctors who had prescribed medication for Anna Nicole — Dr. Sandeep Kapoor and Dr. Khristine Eroshevich — seem likely to support Stern's assertion to police that Anna Nicole requested the prescriptions and took the medications voluntarily.
In a February interview, Kim Walther, a personal assistant to Anna Nicole, told Entertainment Tonight that Stern could not have killed Anna Nicole because "she was his whole world." Walther is also on the witness list submitted by Stern's attorneys.
And while Tasma Brighthaupt's interview with Greta Van Susteren would seem to support the casting of Stern as murder suspect, her husband Big Mo Brighthaupt gave an interview to CNN's Larry King that suggests he'll be a witness for Team Stern. "It seems like everyone is blaming Howard to being some type of control freak," Big Mo said. "But I've been there, and I know Anna was very conscious... every decision she had, it was from her own mind."
Big Mo, who lives in Hollywood, Florida, refused to reconcile his public statements with those of his wife, saying, "I have absolutely no comment."
Stern's star witness, of course, will surely be Dr. Joshua Perper, who can be expected to testify that his own objective research and consultation with police and state prosecutors led him to rule that Anna Nicole was not murdered by Stern or anyone else. Rather, she died by accident.
It is still not clear whether Stern is suing O'Quinn despite his dread of the media or if he's doing so for the sake of the media.
Wood will argue for the former. "We will receive a level of media attention with this lawsuit," he said recently in a weary tone. "But the alternative is to do nothing. So while Mr. Stern does not welcome the media attention, he understands that it is a byproduct of going to litigate with Mr. O'Quinn for the accusations he made."
Stern understands, Wood added, that his suit invites subpoena-powered scrutiny of his past, but he welcomes it. "There's nothing about Mr. Stern's life with Anna Nicole Smith that he's concerned about discussing."
It is evident that Stern's side perceives him to have lost last spring's trial-by-media and that this more official trial can provide a second chance to make a more favorable impression.
"While the lawsuits are not brought to litigate in the court of public opinion," Wood said, "part of that process is that Mr. Stern is not the individual portrayed in the media."
O'Quinn's side is currently preoccupied with its effort to convince presiding Judge William Dimitrouleas that the defamation case should be tried in Houston. Of course, O'Quinn is much too wealthy to argue that flying back and forth to Fort Lauderdale is a financial burden. Rather, it's for the sake of convenience and based on the fact that O'Quinn made some of his allegedly defamatory remarks while in his downtown Houston law office.
One of those two regions, then, must accept the burden of another trial-for-the-tabloids, not to mention the specter of a star-crossed celebrity who could imitate Marilyn Monroe's body and even her mysterious death but not nearly her charm. Either South Florida is destined to have another symbol of its excesses or a restless ghost will soon be heading back to her home state.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.