She was one of those rare actresses with a sweetness and vulnerability that migrated from the screen to the viewer’s emotions. She had many poignant films behind her, and more than a few in front of her by 2009. But in her last films such as Abandoned, when she played a stressed, betrayed woman caught inside a nightmare of a mystery, she looked just a little too much the part. Thin and unhealthy, fatigued, something vacant and haunting about her eyes.
On December 20, 2009, Brittany suddenly collapsed and died, only 32 years old. It splashed across the news as Hollywood tragedy does, sensational for the moment, but with the ring of inevitability. “One more star who abused self and drugs,” the mind goes, “so, sure, another bites the dust. What else is new?”
Yet Brittany Murphy’s intimates claim she did not abuse drugs, in fact had to be circumspect in her habits due to a heart abnormality. She was married to the screenwriter Simon Monjack, and they were thinking of starting a family.
She died of complications from lingering pneumonia, the doctors say. Probably accurate, but who dies in their youth of pneumonia, in the 21st century, in an upscale mansion in L.A.–a city full of doctors and health programs? Who, besides Brittany? Actually, ten months later, so did the widower Simon Monjack, in the same multi-million dollar home, of the same diagnosis as his late wife.
Nothing about the demise of Brittany and Simon quite makes sense. We’re not alleging, necessarily, foul play. But we’re alleging that all the statistical odds were badly abused by such exceptional events.
Brittany’s sweetness haunts us. So does her death, and that of her husband. We open the file “The Curious Death of Brittany Murphy, and Simon Monjack.”
AMERICA’S SWEETHEART, AMERICA’S TRAGEDY
On December 20th, 2009, the world received the news that Brittany Murphy had died suddenly after collapsing in the upscale Los Angeles home she shared with her husband and mother. He death was ruled an accident, but the questions and rumors surrounding her death have plagued her fans for nearly a decade.
The young star collapsed in the bathroom of her Hollywood Hills home on Dec. 20, 2009 after battling flu-like symptoms for a few days. She cried, “Mommy, I can’t catch my breath. Help me,” before passing out in the arms of her mother.
The coroner ruled Murphy’s death accidental and the police closed the case. Yet its circumstances cast a spotlight on the Murphey/Monjack home, just months before he, too, succumbed to similar symptoms.
Even though she didn’t feel well herself, Brittany was there to care for her mother, Sharon Murphy, a breast cancer survivor suffering debilitating neuropathy, and her ailing husband of three years, 39-year-old Simon Monjack. For nearly a year, the England native had been having seizures and a month earlier suffered an apparent heart attack. When he had a seizure, his arms and legs flailing on the big four-poster bed, Brittany would rush to his side. Although weakened by anemia and gasping for breath from her own ailments, Brittany held his 300-pound body down, using a spoon to keep him from swallowing his tongue.
Simon joked that his wife’s bathroom was “her comfort zone.” He called it the “Brittany-sized room,” reflecting her diminutive 5-foot-2 stature, and recalled how she spent hours sampling the cosmetics and perfumes that crowded every inch of counter space, critically studying her body image, sometimes singing to herself or writing bits of poetry in a journal, listening to music or paging through magazines from which she would tear out pages with clothes she just had to have.
While Brittany dozed on the big bed beside him after midnight, Simon and Sharon talked about the practical aspects of their plan to move to New York. They discussed selling the big house Brittany had purchased in 2003 for $3.9 million, fully furnished, from Britney Spears, who had lived there with Justin Timberlake. Brittany always felt the tri-level Mediterranean at the top of Rising Glen Road was unlucky. She wanted to start fresh in 2010 in New York, where they could start a family, Simon would find work as a screenwriter and director and she’d star in independent films that would revive her career.That Saturday night was chilly and windy. The electric power kept going out, and the backup generator failed. They used flashlights when it went dark, afraid to light candles near the wheezing oxygen machine Simon relied on to ease his sleep apnea, bouts of asthma and frequent respiratory infections.
“She absolutely hated the Rising Glen house,” Simon told me in January 2010. “Every time we would drive up Sunset, Brit would say, ‘Please, can we stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel?’ I’d say: ‘Honey, you’ve got to be realistic. We have our house, a 10,000-square-foot home. We’re going to stay in it.’
Alex Ben Bloc,The Hollywood Reporter, 1/11/2011
A sobering thought about the other side of stardom–most of us live in a kind of sad obscurity. Were it not for Brittany’s Hollywood-pull,
The following is not a cheery YouTube video, in fact it’s all audio, of the futile attempt to save her life. It’s the raw truth of that final day.
AND SIMON - WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?
Shortly after her death, the L.A. County coroner concluded that Murphy died as a result of pneumonia combined with anemia and “multiple drug intoxication” from prescription and over-the-counter medication.
“She was really sick with pneumonia, very anemic, and she was taking medication,” Ed Winter of the Coroner’s office said, “and all that combined killed her.” Apparently, no illegal substances were involved: “It was only prescription and over-the-counter meds,” the Coroner’s Office asserted.
Her hubby, Simon Monjack, was far from universally liked (although that’s true of any man who wins the hand of the princess, so to speak) and some accuse him of keeping her from adequate medical care. He denied that and claims the family simply underestimated her illness, they thought she had the flu
. “I had no idea she had pneumonia.”
Keep in mind that Brittany’s mother Sharon shared the 10,000 square foot home. Her daughter died in her arms, she too bears the burden of “if only.” And grim circumstances continued for Sharon, she apparently found her son-in-law deceased, five months later in the same bedroom..Simon Monjack was barely 40.
Remarkably, the paperwork on his death was the ghost of his wife’s diagnosis: pneumonia, complicated by anemia.
Everyone agreed with the Los Angeles police official who called it ” just a tragic set of circumstances, a sad, sad case.” But would everyone agree with the celebrated forensic pathologist Cyril H. Wecht (one of the very few in his field with both medical and legal training), who felt that the coincidence was terribly strange, that perhaps more testing, more investigation of some stripe would be called for?
“I had questions initially and those questions remain,” Wecht said. “I would have checked to see if the private lab results were valid and if they could be corroborated and analyzed whether there was exposure and where did the exposure come from. You have two people, a husband and a wife (dying within) five months of each other, and, not engaging in any wild speculation… you’ve got to check it out.”
Rarely in the modern age do young people die of pneumonia, much less in upscale circumstances. Two such deaths, only months apart in the same mansion in the industrialized world has no precedent we’re aware of. Any medical Sherlock would ask, “What’s happening here?”
In addition to doubts raised by mainstream sources, family and fringe (a bit different from family and friends) have been heard from. We’ll return to some of that perspective in the next section but note for now:
In a Holly-world of paparazzi-speak some of Brittany’s friends, like Jamie Pressly, weighed in with speculation. Jamie–who seemed to feel that marriage to Simon Monjack was the beginning of the end for Murphy–was dubious about the final results in the medical examination. She sought an answer from somewhere, even if it was a psychic, a medium.
And there were suspicions, some whispers, that Brittany’s husband had not only been a negative influence on her but may have been in some way involved with her death. No evidence of that has ever surfaced.
In pursuit of a reason for Brittany’s death her father, Angelo Bertolotti, had asked for testing of her system (the private lab results Dr. Wecht had referred to). It supposedly came back positive for “heavy metals”– to him it suggested “a third party perpetrator.”
Bertolotti, not to put to fine a point on it, was both estranged from his family and his life’s resume reads, essentially, “gangster.” But even someone’s who’s path was not traditional could be following good instincts. His subculture may not believe in coincidence, they may assume foul play because they initiate so much of it, but…his conclusions or suspicions ought not to be tossed aside automatically.
Something about Brittany in her last months looked very wrong, it’s more than believable that her body chemistry was all screwed up. Was it all a self-inflected health collapse, or were there environmental factors that set a trap for her?
Were the psyches of those two–Brittany and Simon–intermingled in unhealthy ways, deeply twisted as in some mutual Munchuasen Syndrome by Proxy? Or did they simply make all the wrong moves with their health, and have rotten luck besides?
We’re unlikely to ever find a precisely parallel case to compare it to, so we have to figure the odds, figure the lives of Murphy and Monjack, as the special story that they were.
GOSSIP, PAPARAZZI, AND TRUTH
There are even more controversies surrounding this mystery. Brittany meant Hollywood and Hollywood means gossip, or gossip-y journalists and publications, and all that implies.
Still, a summary from the E! News folks nails down a number of facts and perspectives well–so here a lengthy except:
Brittany’s father obtained a court order to get testing done on Brittany’s hair samples, which found “abnormally high levels” of 10 potentially toxic heavy metals, among them barium, which is used in rat poison.
After securing the release of Murphy’s hair samples, Bertolotti tests the samples and a lab report concludes that:
Ten (10) of the heavy metals evaluated were detected at levels higher that the WHO [The World Health Organization] high levels. Testing the hair strand sample identified as” back of the head” we have detected ten (10) heavy metals at levels above the WHO high levels recommendation. If we were to eliminate the possibility of a simultaneous accidental heavy metals exposure to the sample donor then the only logical explanation would be an exposure to these metals (toxins) administered by a third party perpetrator with likely criminal intent. The Examiner claims that both Murphy and Monjack displayed symptoms that would result from this type of poisoning.
E! News reached out to L.A. County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter, who says he is aware of the independent lab test, adding, the only thing they found was heavy metals present, but I guess either our folks or doctor explained to them it was due to Brittany coloring her hair…It was determined it was from color. She wasn’t poisoned, and we stand by the cause of death. The day she died, Murphy also ingested an anti-depressant, an anti-seizure medication, an inflammatory drug, one of Monjack’s beta blockers, and Vicoprofen for period pain.
Wecht, however, calls the independent lab test “reputable” and says, “If the coroner wanted to dispute or reject those lab results, their duty and responsibility is to investigate and those authorities look into that,” adding, “The autopsy makes no mention of heavy metals and, as I recall, the toxicology performed by the L.A. office didn’t show any high metals either.”
The coroner does reveal that a shocking number of prescription pill bottles were found in the home. “We took almost 90 empty pill bottles out of bedroom,” Winter says. “They were in Simon’s name and aliases. It was like, Who has that many pill boxes? He popped pills. When we went back when Simon died, there were a bunch of prescriptions again.”
2. Simon Eerily Died Just Five Months After Brittany: Wecht says that though it is not “impossible” for two people to die of pneumonia while living in the same house within such a brief period, “It is pretty darned rare.”
After his lab tests’ findings, Brittany’s father, who had been long estranged from Brittany and his ex-wife, was quoted as saying, “I have a feeling that there was definitely a murder situation here.”
Calling his claims “madness,” Brittany’s mother, Sharon Murphy, promptly wrote a letter to The Hollywood Reporter in late 2013 that asserted, “His claims are based on the most flimsy of evidence and are more of an insult than an insight into what really happened.”
3. Simon’s Shady Reputation Casts a Dark Cloud: Almost from the moment Brittanyand Simon Monjack became a couple in 2007, there were questions about the 8-years-elder Monjack’s intentions and influence on her. George Hickenlooper, director of the movie Factory Girl has called Monjack a “con man and a bad guy.” In a post on a Hollywood movie blog shortly after her death, Hickenlooper wrote, “I only hope that this creep wasn’t instrumental in her sad demise.”
4. An Environmental Review of Brittany’s House Was Never Made Public: After Simon and Brittany’s deaths, Sharon filed a lawsuit in which she alleged she hadn’t been informed about the possibility of toxic mold being present in her daughter’s mansion, where Sharon resided with the couple. Although no evidence of the effects of a mold infection was found in Brittany’s body by the coroner, the results of any environmental reviews of the 10,000-square-foot property have never been made public.
Further, the LAPD won’t confirm or deny whether her father’s claims of possible “rat poisoning” due to the presence of barium in Brittany’s system have been investigated. And since the LAPD never treated the house as a crime scene, there is no verifiable accounting of any other chemicals or other agents present in the house at the time of Brittany’s death.
5. The Coroner Has Not Reopened the Death Investigation: The coroner’s final report called Brittany’s death “accidental but preventable.” As Assistant Coroner Ed Winter stated at the time, “She had been sick for at least two weeks. Had they taken her to a doctor or a hospital, it would have been treatable.”
Of course, there is a big difference between her loved ones exercising poor judgment and not getting Brittany to a doctor as she struggled to breathe in her final hours and actual criminal behavior. But, according to E! News’ investigation, the LAPD never investigated her death as anything but accidental.
elonline.com, March 24th, 2016
So, to recap:
The Los Angeles County coroner stated that Murphy’s cause of death was pneumonia, anemia, and “multiple drug intoxication,” from both prescription and over-the-counter medications, Coroner Asst. Chief Ed Winter told People in 2009. However, no illegal drugs were found in her system. In a 2011 Hollywood Reporter article, Murphy’s family friend, Alex Ben Block, wrote about the strangeness of Murphy’s final months. When Block interviewed Simon Monjack shortly after Murphy’s death, Monjack stated that he was convinced his wife had perished from a broken heart.
Murphy’s career was on the downswing due to rumored drug use and lateness, which hindered her ability to land work. Tabloids spread gossip about a possible struggle with anorexia. But according to Monjack, those were baseless rumors.. The actress supposedly had a heart murmur, which could have been seriously aggravated if drugs entered her system.
The day she died, Murphy also ingested an anti-depressant, an anti-seizure medication, an inflammatory drug, one of Monjack’s beta blockers, and Vicoprofen for period pain.”
Did mold play any part in the couple’s death? Months before her death, all the occupants in the home seemed to develop flu-like symptoms. Many said Murphy and Monjack’s Beverly Hills mansion was full of clutter, going so far to call the couple hoarders. Murphy’s mother suspected mold might be to cause, despite a coroner’s report denying that fact. Others wondered whether the excessive amounts of clothing found in their home and the general mess inside could’ve contributed to pathogens negatively affecting their health.
In March of 2016, L.A. County Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter was asked what it would take to reopen the death investigation.
“We would have to have direct evidence. In all honesty, it would take something like a confession,” he said. “Something connecting somebody with it.”
Winter explained they would exhume the body “if law enforcement contacted us. Or we can reopen the case if there is substantial evidence.”
After more than two years after these reports, there are still no further developments on the case and we are left with this sad and mysterious dilemma. Was it a third party interference, mold, drugs, or just a series of unfortunate events? Would an earlier appointment to the doctors have saved Brittney as the coroner claimed. Why, if it were mold, didn’t Brittney’s mom succumb? Was it all a plan by the un-seemly husband?
We at Mind over Mystery would like your take on the story. Tell us what you think.
MEMORIES OF BRITTANY
Forgive us, Simon, we’re sure you were a neater guy than some give you credit for. After all, Brittany saw something in you, and she could have had her pick of Hollywood’s finest, best-looking, wealthiest and most talented guys.
But forgive us, Simon, you made a splash in one life, Brittany’s, but she enchanted millions, for a time. So this page will be a lot less about you and a lot more about her.
So, to our readers:
If you have memories of Brittany’s special gifts, and impact, share them here.
If you have knowledge of the intricacies of her case, the mysteries of her home environment, share them here.
If you have medical knowledge that can help us understand what happened, share it here.
With sadness and respect, we dedicate this page to Brittany Murphy.