Autopsy shows street drugs, including fentanyl, killed Ilitch son
Troy — The son of the late billionaire Mike Ilitch died from a combination of prescription and street drugs, including powerful painkillers, cocaine and fentanyl — a synthetic opioid popping up with disturbing regularity in drug deaths nationally.
Ronald T. Ilitch, 61, of Bingham Farms had a history of drug abuse and an autopsy determined his death in February resulted from “drug intoxication” with a contributing cause of “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” according to records obtained by The Detroit News under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.
Ilitch’s toxicology results go further, revealing among the drugs he had ingested was fentanyl, a painkiller often substituted in heroin and cocaine sales and use because it is much cheaper and more readily available. It's also 200 times more potent than morphine and responsible for the deaths of celebrities including Prince and Tom Petty.
According to a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, almost half of opioid-related deaths in 2016 involved fentanyl, up from less than 15 percent in 2010.
Ilitch was found dead Feb. 23 in a room at the Detroit Marriott Troy. And while no one has suggested his death involves foul play, the case remains open, Troy police said.
“Fentanyl ODs occur every day — it’s an epidemic,” Troy Police Lt. Russ Harden said last week. “We are having a meeting in a few days and will probably make a decision whether this (death) should involve other (law enforcement) entities.”
Ronald Ilitch was one of seven children of Marian and Mike Ilitch, who died in February 2017 at age 87.
The Ilitches are the founders of the Little Caesars Pizza franchise and owners of the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings. Marian Ilitch is one of the original investors in the Motor City Casino, which she operates.
A spokesperson for Ilitch Holdings referred calls to Denise Ilitch, Ronald’s oldest sister, who is an attorney, businesswoman and past president of Ilitch Holdings.
Denise Ilitch declined to respond directly to questions for this article but issued the following statement on behalf of her family through a family spokesman, Matt Friedman:
“Ron’s entire family continues to grieve his tragic and untimely loss. We have nothing additional to share beyond our appreciation for the support we have received from friends, well-wishers across our community and professionalism of the Troy Police Department. During this difficult time, we ask for continued respect for the family’s privacy.”
Questions from Florida
More than four months after Ronald Ilitch's death, questions linger, including from a Florida man who described himself as an associate and friend. John Jenkins believes he may have been one of the last people to talk to Ronald Ilitch.
“Ron had left me a voicemail that I should get his car ready, that he was coming down and he would be doing the investment deal,” said Jenkins, owner-operator of Auto Nanny, which stores and maintains vehicles, including watching over Ilitch’s yellow 2003 Corvette for the past four years.
Jenkins, 53, a transplanted Canadian, said he became “instant buddies” with Ronald Ilitch, who frequently visited Sarasota and Naples. Jenkins said they met after Jenkins had cared for the vehicles of Chris Ilitch, one of Ronald’s brothers. They found they shared interest in autos and Ronald Ilitch saw potential in Jenkins' SandySail company, which manufactures personalized sun shelters for use on the beach.
“We had talked about a business deal in SandySail and he was excited about it and wanted to discuss it more,” said Jenkins. “He was real upbeat."
Jenkins said Ilitch left him a final voicemail the morning of Feb. 21, two days before his death, saying he planned to see him later in the week. Jenkins said Ilitch had expressed interest in buying property in Florida, possibly in Naples or Marco Island.
“I tried to reach him several times to find out where he was flying down and if I should pick him up and bring him to Naples," Jenkins said.
The calls would go through but there was no one on the other end. Jenkins said he learned of Ilitch's death on the internet.
“I’ve tried to find out more but the police – you would think they would have liked to talk to one of the last people who may have talked to him, but I called the Troy police and left my phone number and no one ever called me back,” Jenkins said. “I called his office and family – but they won’t return my calls," he said. I don’t even know what to do about his car. It's just rotting away in a Naples-area garage."
Jenkins said a Troy police officer called him this past week after The News inquired about the investigation and why Jenkins hadn’t been interviewed by investigators.
“They didn’t seem too interested, and the conversation ended with a ‘if you have any information about his death give us a call,’” Jenkins said.
A glass pipe, drugs and death
A 22-year-old Detroit woman made the 911 call in the afternoon on Feb. 23 after finding Ilitch lifeless on the floor of a rented room at the Troy Marriott. The woman, who described herself to police as a friend of Ilitch, said he had been smoking from a glass pipe the night before and when she found him on the floor the next morning it wasn’t unusual because he often slept on the floor.
According to investigators, the woman took a shower and when she returned was unable to rouse Ilitch. She determined he had stopped breathing and made the emergency call.
In the room, police recovered two hydrocodone pills containing Vicodin and a prescription bottle of Alprazolam, more commonly known as Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug.
“Those kind of drugs are very dangerous, especially when taken together,” said Oakland County Medical Examiner L.J. Dragovic. “There is no safe dose. It’s like a lottery. But one in which you don’t win, you lose.”
Fentanyl is increasingly present in drug-related deaths because a small quantity of it “can kill,” he said. “The amount found in his blood was about three times the amount that can cause death. … The cocaine level in his blood was also significant."
Ronald Ilitch was no stranger to drugs.
In August 2014, he was arrested on Detroit’s west side near the Riviera Hotel in his Corvette with a woman and less than 25 grams of cocaine. He later pleaded guilty to a charge that carried up to four years in prison, made a public apology, and told a judge it “was a big wakeup call” for him. He was placed on probation.
Despite his famous name and successful family, Ronald Ilitch struggled with “demons,” Jenkins said.
Ilitch, who was divorced, had four children.
“It breaks my heart,” Jenkins said. “I lost a partner and a friend. His kids lost a father and his family lost one of its members.”
“I know he knew the dangers of drugs and when he went off the rails, he went off hard,” Jenkins said.
A son’s thoughts
Ilitch’s 24-year-old son, Ronnie, didn’t want to talk about his father’s problems but said he hoped to set the record straight on claims others have made about his father’s plans — business-related or otherwise.
“I knew 95 percent of my dad’s friends and I never heard of (Jenkins),” said Ronnie Ilitch. “I never heard of his name coming up.”
The son said his father was the type to “make friends easily.”
“Everyone thought they were his ‘friend,’ " he said. “And there were no shortage of business proposals. But I never heard of that one (SandySail) or anything involving a portable beach shelter.”
As for the Corvette, Ronnie said he has inherited his father’s beloved sports car and arrangements are being made to ship it back to Michigan, where he plans to restore it, drive it and “maybe one day pass it on to one of my children.” Ronnie and his wife are expecting their first child.
Ronnie said when he last talked with his father the week of his death, no mention was made of investing in any company or going to Florida.
“At that time he was actually packing up to go to Colorado to visit my sister,” Ronnie said.
Ronnie Ilitch, who lives in Boston, is looking forward to raising his family and returning to Michigan soon. He said the length of the investigation doesn’t concern him.
“I have complete faith and respect in the police investigation being done of my father’s death,” he said. “I suspect police may have information they, for whatever reason, don’t wish to share with anyone other than his family. I’m just grateful they want to do a complete and thorough job.”