Autopsy: Prince died of accidental overdose of fentanyl

Michael Tarm
Associated Press
Tests show Prince died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

Minneapolis — Prince died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl, a powerful opioid painkiller that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, autopsy results released Thursday show.

The findings confirm suspicions that opioids played a role in the death of the superstar musician, who was found dead April 21 at his Minneapolis-area estate.

It was not immediately clear whether Prince had a prescription for the drug and, if not, how he obtained it. The results raised the possibility that anyone who provided the drug illegally could face criminal charges.

After Prince died, authorities began reviewing whether an overdose was to blame and whether he had been prescribed drugs in the preceding weeks.

According to a one-page report released by the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office, Prince administered the drug himself, but the date he took it was unknown. The office said the death investigation is complete, and it had no further comment.

Fentanyl is a synthetic drug that is partly responsible for a recent surge in overdose deaths in some parts of the country. Because of its risks, it is tightly controlled by the Food and Drug Administration.

Pain patients who have built up a tolerance to other prescription painkillers, or who have become addicted, sometimes seek out stronger drugs such as heroin or fentanyl.

More than 700 fentanyl-related overdoses were reported to the Drug Enforcement Administration in late 2013 and 2014. The drug also has legitimate medical uses.

Prince, 57, died less than a week after his plane made an emergency stop in Moline, Illinois, for medical treatment as he was returning from an Atlanta concert. The Associated Press and other media reported, based on anonymous sources, that the superstar was found unconscious on the plane, and first responders gave him a shot of Narcan, an antidote used in suspected opioid overdoses.

The autopsy was conducted the day after Prince’s body was found.

The focus of the investigation will now probably turn to determining who supplied the fentanyl and whether the sources were legitimate or illegally, said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago-based attorney who has represented multiple clients facing drug charges. He has no link to Prince.

Authorities may also look to the singer’s associates.

“The investigation may expand to people who surround him,” Pissetzky said. “If fentanyl was obtained illegally, I don’t think Prince would have gone out to meet someone in a dark alley to get the substance.”

Illegally distributing fentanyl to someone who then dies from it is punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years under federal law. Under Minnesota law, the same actions can result in third-degree murder charges and up to 25 years in prison.

At least two doctors’ names have come up in the death investigation.

Dr. Michael Todd Schulenberg, a family practitioner, treated Prince twice in the weeks before his death and told investigators he prescribed medications for the singer. The medications were not specified in a search warrant for the Minnesota hospital that employed Schulenberg at the time.

Schulenberg saw Prince April 7 and April 20 — the day before his death — according to the warrant. Schulenberg’s attorney has declined to comment on the case.

Dr. Howard Kornfeld, a California addiction specialist, was asked by Prince’s representatives on April 20 to help the singer. Kornfeld sent his son Andrew on a redeye flight that night, and Andrew Kornfeld was among the people who found Prince’s body the next morning.

The superstar had a reputation for clean living, and some friends said they never saw any sign of drug use. But longtime friend and collaborator Sheila E. has told the AP that Prince had physical issues from performing, citing hip and knee problems that she said came from years of jumping off risers and stage speakers in heels.

A tribute to the late musician Prince is shown with footage from his prior performance at Coachella 2008 during day 1 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival Weekend 2 at the Empire Polo Club on April 22, 2016 in Indio, California.

Timeline of key events in last 2 weeks of Prince’s life

Prince died of an opioid overdose, a law-enforcement official said on Thursday. In the month before his death, a Minnesota doctor saw Prince twice — including the day before he died — and prescribed him medication, according to contents of a search warrant.

Some key events in the last two weeks of Prince’s life:

April 7: Dr. Michael Schulenberg, a Minnesota primary care physician, sees Prince, according to the search warrant. Also, two Prince concerts in Atlanta are postponed. The artist said at the time he had fallen ill with the flu.

April 14: Prince performs makeup concerts in Atlanta, apologizing to fans. He jokes about having been “under the weather,” giving a slight smile. His voice seems a bit weak at times while speaking, but sounds fine when singing during his 80-minute show.

April 15: Prince falls ill on a flight home from Atlanta, and the plane makes an emergency stop in Moline, Illinois. A law enforcement official who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said that Prince was found unconscious on the plane and that first responders gave him a shot of Narcan, an antidote used to reverse suspected opioid overdoses.

April 16: Prince hosts a dance party at his Paisley Park complex and makes a brief appearance, showing off a new purple piano. “Wait a few days before you waste any prayers,” he tells fans.

April 20: Prince is seen by Schulenberg again, according to the warrant. At some point, Schulenberg prescribed medications to Prince and ordered tests, according to the warrant, which does not specify what medications were prescribed or whether Prince took them.

April 20: Dr. Howard Kornfeld, a California addiction specialist, is asked by Prince representatives to help the star, according to Kornfeld attorney William Mauzy. Kornfeld sends his son, a non-physician, on a red-eye flight to Minnesota, carrying a drug used to treat opiate addiction.

April 21: Andrew Kornfeld and others find Prince unresponsive in an elevator at Paisley Park. Schulenberg arrived “on the death scene” at some point, according to the warrant. He tells a detective he was there to drop off test results, and that he had prescribed medications that were to be filled at a Walgreen’s pharmacy.