Chris Cornell death probe leaves some unsatisfied

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The investigation into Chris Cornell’s death is closed, but the rock star’s widow and some of his fans aren’t satisfied with the ruling by police and medical examiners that the Soundgarden frontman committed suicide.

Detroit police wrapped up their investigation into the incident after determining there was no foul play involved in Cornell’s hanging death inside a room at the MGM Grand Detroit hotel. The Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death a suicide.

But what some say are unexplained gaps in the official timeline of Cornell’s final moments and perceived inconsistencies in the records have led to assertions that Cornell’s death was not suicide at all, but a premeditated homicide.

Those are theories police and medical examiners steadfastly reject.

According to a police report obtained by The Detroit News, Cornell’s bodyguard Martin Kirsten told police Cornell’s wife called and asked him to check on Cornell shortly after he returned to the hotel from a Fox Theatre show the night of May 17.

Kirsten told police the door was latched from the inside, and after hotel security wouldn’t let him into the room, he kicked the door open. He found Cornell on the bathroom floor with a red exercise band around his neck, according to the police report.

Authorities determined within days the death was a suicide, although wife Vicky Cornell told People magazine she thought the ruling was premature, because it came before the toxicology or autopsy results were complete. She said the drugs in her husband’s system may have altered his mental state.

“He didn’t want to die,” she told the magazine in a June 30 article. “If he was of sound mind, I know he wouldn’t have done this.”

Kirk Pasich, Cornell family spokesman and attorney, did not return a phone call last week seeking comment.

Among the theories: Cornell was killed because he was about to expose a child sex ring allegedly associated with Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor some claimed was a front, although Washington police said that theory was “fictitious.”

Wayne County Medical Examiner’s spokeswoman Lisa Croff said: “We stand by our cause of death,” while Detroit police media relations director Michael Woody insisted there were no signs of foul play.

“We investigated all possible angles, and there were no signs this was anything but a suicide,” Woody said. “But we’ve been getting inundated with different theories.”

A head wound?

A psychic has been contacting police, giving them advice about where they should focus their investigation, Woody said.

Blogger Randy Cody is among those questioning the suicide ruling. He points to perceived timeline gaps, forensic questions and what he says are two signs that Cornell had a head wound that was not mentioned in autopsy reports.

He references alleged Detroit police scanner audio in which a medic is heard saying: “patient did have an exercise rubber band around his neck, suggestions of possible strangulation, trauma to the back of the head, history of depression. Patient is cool to the touch in all areas at this time.”

“There’s a YouTube video of (Cornell’s) last concert that clearly shows a wound on his head, but that’s never mentioned in the autopsy report,” Cody said.

The News could not verify the audio’s authenticity, because the police scanner files from midnight to 2 a.m. on May 18 are missing from the website, which archives scanner traffic.

“It’s probably because the feed was down and offline at the time,” Brodcastify CEO Lindsey Blanton said in an email. “We never remove archives from the system, so that is the only explanation.”

Cody would not say where he obtained the audio he posted on his website. The Detroit Police Department said it could not immediately release tapes from that night.

Woody said information gleaned from scanner traffic and police reports is not always reliable, and that first responders at scenes sometimes make initial observations that turn out different than what is determined by a more detailed investigation.

A child sex ring?

Cody, who runs the heavy metal rock website The Metal Den, said he believes Cornell — who established a foundation with his wife to help vulnerable children — may have been killed because he was about to expose a child sex ring.

Cody claims a rock star who was a friend of Cornell’s wife showed up in a “black book” that, according to the theory, named pedophiles associated with Comet Ping Pong. Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police said the allegations are untrue.

In December, Edgar Welch opened fire inside the Washington pizzeria. He told police he’d gone there to investigate if children were being abused. Welch was sentenced last month to four years in prison.

On his website, Cody claims that a source close to Cornell told him the rocker was about to expose pedophiles among the political and entertainment elite.

Cody added he isn’t focusing on the sex ring theory anymore, although he said he still believes that’s why Cornell was killed.

Checking the timeline

Several have questioned what they say are gaps in the timeline. The police report says the bodyguard was in Cornell’s hotel room at 11:30 p.m. to help the star with the victim’s “computer, which was not working at that time.” It says Vicky Cornell talked to her husband at 11:35 p.m., and, alarmed by what she heard, she phoned the bodyguard to ask him to check on her husband. He told police he went to Cornell’s room at 12:15 a.m.

Some question the apparent 40-minute gap between the start of Vicky’s conversation with her husband and the bodyguard’s welfare check at his room.

After Kirsten reportedly kicked in the two hotel room doors, according to the police, a medic arrived at 12:56 a.m — 41 minutes after the bodyguard said he went to check on Cornell.

It’s unknown how long it took Kirsten to gain entry to the room and find Cornell. Still, some question why it took until nearly 1 a.m. to get a medic based at MGM Grand to the scene of a dead or dying man.

The police report says a medic “untied red exercise band from victim’s neck” to begin CPR. There are questions about why the band was still around Cornell’s neck when the medic arrived.

Police insist there are no gaps. Investigators looked at the length of the phone call between Cornell and his wife, and the calls the bodyguard made to security. Police also pored through video surveillance footage from the hotel hallway outside the rooms of Cornell and his bodyguard.

After a thorough investigation, investigators determined the timeline was accurate and the bodyguard’s story checked out, Woody said.

Cody also questions the toxicology report that said 41 ng/mL of Lorazepam — or Ativan — was found in Cornell’s system. According to the police report, Cornell’s bodyguard said he gave the singer two Ativan pills.

“The Ativan pills that the bodyguard said he gave to Chris Cornell did not show up in his stomach according to the official autopsy,” Cody wrote in an email to The News. “Only a residual ‘therapeutic’ level in system from having taken it in previous days. So that is a pretty major discrepancy.”

Macomb County Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz, who was not involved in the case, said there wouldn’t necessarily still be intact pills inside the stomach, and that the amount of the drug found in Cornell’s bloodstream is not alarming.

“You would have to check to see if there were any traces in the stomach, and that test is not usually done,” Spitz said. “If you die before the drug in your stomach gets absorbed into the bloodstream, you’d have some in the blood and some in the stomach.”

‘I’m not buying it’

Assistant Wayne County Medical Examiner Theodore Brown said that upon a visual examination, “no pills were found in the stomach,” according to his report. But there’s no indication in the toxicology report that Cornell’s stomach was tested to determine the level of drugs there, since only the blood sample is cited.

Because Cornell’s wife is claiming Ativan contributed to his death, medical examiners should have checked the stomach, Cody said. “Why wouldn’t they? That’s an important point, don’t you think?” he said.

Cody also questioned why the man heard in the alleged scanner audio said Cornell felt cold to the touch so quickly after dying. Spitz said the observation was too subjective to be meaningful.

“If there wasn’t an actual body temperature taken, what does ‘cold to the touch’ mean? If there’s no blood running through someone’s body, it’s going to feel colder, even after a relatively short period of time,” Spitz said.

Cody also questions whether medics really broke so many of Cornell’s ribs in efforts to resuscitate him.

“You mean these medics did nine rib fractures (during CPR)?” Cody said. “I’m not buying it.”

A 2014 study by the American Heart Association found that of 362 patients studied, 90 percent suffered rib fractures after CPR.

“In the majority of cases there were multiple bilateral rib fractures, with a median of 10 fractures per case,” the study said.

Spitz said sometimes people don’t want to accept when people kill themselves — especially when the victim is famous.

“People have a problem with celebrities doing this because they’re wealthy and have a lifestyle everyone wants,” Spitz said. “They say, ‘He couldn’t have killed himself; he’s got fans and people love him.’ But that doesn’t change what’s going on inside his head.”

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN