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Autopsy Report: Prince Died Of An Accidental Overdose


The list of celebrities who have died from drug overdoses is long. Included among those names now is Prince Rogers Nelson, better known to his fans as Prince. The official word came yesterday from the Midwest Medical Examiner's Office in Minnesota. It confirmed that the 57-year-old pop superstar had died from an overdose of fentanyl, a powerful opiate used to control severe pain. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Prince's autopsy report is brief - just a page long. His death is checked off in a box as an accident, the cause listed as fentanyl toxicity that occurred because, as the report notes, Prince self-administered the drug. Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller opioid that's like morphine but much more powerful.

CHARLES REZNIKOFF: Fentanyl is what I call the Ebola of opioids.

CORLEY: Dr. Charles Reznikoff is an addiction specialist at the Hennepin County Medical Center.

REZNIKOFF: Fentanyl kills you quickly. Any little error with the use of fentanyl leads to death.

CORLEY: And Prince, one of the most talented, influential musicians of his generation, died in his home on April 21 because of an accidental overdose. Marichel Mejia (ph) is standing outside Prince's Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota, purple flowers in hand, to pay her respects. She says the autopsy results don't change how she feels about an incredible artist.

MARICHEL MEJIA: People may have personal struggles and issues that they deal with. And it's unfortunately that we had to lose him to an overdose, but I don't think it takes away from who he was as a person. His music is going to live on for sure, so - and his legacy, too.

CORLEY: The autopsy report offered some bare basics - Prince's address and age, the names of his parents, clothes he was wearing and a few physical features - 5'3'', 112 pounds, a scar on his left hip and the lower part of his right leg. Under Minnesota law, little else will be made public. Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, who spent time with Prince at Paisley Park, says the autopsy report contradicts Prince's reputation.

GREG KOT: Well, he was, you know, notorious for being a teetotaler, almost draconian in the way he would run Paisley Park - you know, no drugs, no alcohol on the premises. You know, for a good long stretch there, too, you know, he was totally meatless, as well. And he was very strict about that. It was not just only applied to him but to anybody who set foot inside the doors of Paisley.

CORLEY: And while secretive about his private life, Kot says it was clear that Prince pushed his body to its physical limit.

KOT: He did damage his hips pretty severely through jumping and doing the splits and, you know, running around in basically stacked heels all his life on stage. He started to walk around with a cane which some people thought a fashion statement, but in fact, you know, people who knew him well said that he needed it to, you know, to help himself sometimes because, you know, the pain got to be too much. And he had to manage it somehow. And that's when the painkillers apparently came in.

CORLEY: It isn't clear whether Prince had a prescription for drugs after a reported hip surgery, or if he did, what doctor prescribed it. The names of at least two doctors have come up in the death investigation being conducted by local and federal officials. New York Medical Center Emergency Room doctor Lewis Nelson says when it comes to opioid abuse, doctors often play a role.

LEWIS NELSON: This is probably the most common form of drug dependency you're going to see that comes from a doctor's prescription pad - would be the opioids. Certainly, you know, people get addicted to cigarettes and to alcohol and to other things, but those don't typically come from doctors. This is a tremendous concern.

CORLEY: Chicago music critic Jim DeRogatis says what many consider an opioid epidemic is what makes the Prince death so different from other superstar drug tragedies.

JIM DEROGATIS: It wasn't like the day when the call came that Kurt Cobain had died because it was well documented that he had been using heroin. You know, with Prince it seems to have been something that really could have happened to you, me or parents.

CORLEY: In fact, more than 700 fentanyl-related overdoses were reported to the Drug Enforcement Agency in late-2013 and 2014. Health experts say there are now many more, such that Prince, the brilliant artist who set the trends of his time, succumbed to the trend of another. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.