The uneasy death of Florence Griffith Joyner

When the superstar former athlete died suddenly in her bedroom, a Pandora's box of dark rumors and murky explanations was let loose.

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Celebrity deaths always switch on the media floodlights, but in recent years few have drawn as much scrutiny as the mysterious demise of former Olympic track star Florence Griffith Joyner on Sept. 21. Autopsy records reveal that the Orange County (Calif.) Coroner's Office, which conducted a month-long investigation into Joyner's untimely death in the glare of international public interest, sorted through theories blaming the Olympian's passing on steroid use, dairy allergies, pesticides, Lyme disease and even murder.

Orange County Sheriff's deputies began a homicide investigation into Joyner's death the day she died, the autopsy records reveal, because of preliminary evidence she may have been strangled. That investigation apparently ended when further tests showed Joyner, 38, died of asphyxiation as the result of an epileptic seizure, not strangulation.

Other dark speculation may be harder to put to rest. While Joyner's supporters claimed that the autopsy cleared her of long-standing but never-proven allegations that she used performance-enhancing drugs, the autopsy records show only that she didn't die from the use of such drugs. The coroner's office was never able to test Joyner's body for drugs, steroids or growth hormones after her death.

"She passed the final, ultimate drug test," her husband and coach, Al Joyner, insisted after the autopsy results were announced Oct. 22. But a coroner's spokesman denied that the autopsy proved Joyner had never used such drugs or banned substances. "It was our job to determine the cause of death, and that's what we did," said Sheriff-Coroner spokesman Lt. Hector Rivera.

Chief Deputy Coroner Jacque Berndt requested that Joyner's body specifically be tested for steroids, but was informed that there was not enough urine in her bladder and that the test could not accurately be performed on other biological samples.

Joyner's autopsy records, obtained by Salon under the California Public Records Act, reveal the inner workings of an anxious sheriff-coroner's office under scrutiny in a high-profile and puzzling celebrity death. The flamboyant track star known to the world as "Flo-Jo" set all-time records in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. She captivated track fans with her long nails, outrageous costumes and her marriage to Al Joyner -- who is the brother of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the asthmatic, up-from-poverty Olympic heptathlon champion who also married her coach, Bob Kersee. The Griffith-Joyner-Kersee family became a track and field dynasty.

But Florence Griffith Joyner was shadowed by rumors that she had used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs during her career. She was accused of drug use by track competitors, but she consistently denied the rumors, and she never failed a drug test.

Immediately upon her death, however, some sportswriters and steroid experts began suggesting that the demise of an apparently healthy 38-year-old former athlete could be due to the strain that chronic steroid use imposes on the body, especially the heart. The inside story of the coroner's investigation into Joyner's death is not likely to settle the argument for either side.

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The Orange County Sheriff-Coroner's office began its investigation into Joyner's death after a 911 call by her husband just after 7 a.m. on Sept. 21. Investigators' notes describe the scene at the Joyners' two-story house on Bluejay Street in Mission Viejo as "very cluttered and unkept [sic]." Joyner was "in upstairs bedroom supine on carpeted floor next to bed. Bed is unmade and area where [Joyner's] face was when she was disc[overed] by husband is wet. ([Joyner] was originally [found] face down into pillow in bed ... Arms are bent at elbows w/hands up near shoulders. Eyes are open. Hands are not clenched [emphasis in original]. Mouth is open slightly. [No] trauma obs[erved]." One of her trademark fingernails, on her left ring finger, had been broken; another broke during fingerprinting of the body.

Deputy Coroner Leslie Meader began her investigation at 8:45 a.m. During the first interview, the deceased's husband, Al Joyner, said he had last seen his wife alive at 2 a.m., when she went to bed. He then watched television for a while and went to bed himself, and found her apparently dead some time after 6:30. He attempted to resuscitate her, then called 911, and resumed efforts to revive his wife. Joyner was pronounced dead on the scene, and Meader said the likely time of her death was 4 a.m.

Autopsy surgeon Richard Fukumoto started his work just before noon. He began his initial report with a description, oddly poignant, of the flamboyant track star's famous nails: "The hands show long false fingernails, painted in various colors from red to blue, with the long nail on the left side having designs and the one on the left middle finger having the initials FGJ. The toenails are likewise painted with purplish polish."

Within a half hour, Fukumoto came to the findings that would lead him to call homicide investigators: petechial hemorrhages in the chest, neck, eyes, cheeks and breasts, and Tardieu's spots on the chest wall. Both petechial hemorrhages and Tardieu's spots can be evidence of strangulation. Fukumoto immediately stopped the autopsy, waiting for the arrival of personnel from the sheriff's crime lab and homicide investigators. The autopsy then proceeded with homicide detectives present, and at its conclusion Fukumoto was unable to determine a cause of death. The investigation continued, with Joyner's death officially labeled "questioned."

That evening sheriff's deputies reinterviewed Al Joyner, who changed his original story slightly. Instead of watching television and going to bed after seeing his wife alive at 2 a.m., he actually went to his office, he told them, which "was not unusual," according to case notes. "He would often go to his office at night because he could get more work done without the phone ringing," Joyner told the deputies. He revealed he had found his wife face down with her own hands under her neck, which could account for the hemorraging discovered there.

Al Joyner declined to speak with Salon about this story. His attorney, Paul Meyer, refused to comment on the discrepancies between Joyner's first and second versions of his whereabouts on the night his wife died. "We don't have any comment. We're not going to rehash or relive that difficult process. Grieving is a long process and Mr. Joyner appreciates the privacy he's been afforded so he can work this through," Meyer told Salon.

Joyner also told the deputies about his wife's history of seizures and "zoning out," though at that point there is no mention in the notes that she suffered from epilepsy. Four days later, on Sept. 25, homicide investigators learned from "a family attorney" that Joyner had a grand mal seizure in 1990. Follow-up investigation at several hospitals revealed she had been treated for seizures in 1990, 1993 and 1994.

In the following weeks, tests continued to try to determine a cause of death. Examinations of Joyner's heart, lungs, brain and other organs revealed a few abnormalities, but nothing consistent with Fukumoto's original suspicion of strangulation. No fractures to bones or cartilage in the neck were discovered.

Speculation continued in the media about Joyner's use of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, and how they might have contributed to her death. But drugs and foul play were not the only possible suspects. According to coroner's office case notes, advocates for other causes saw their own pet issues in the track star's sudden demise. A representative of the Chemical Injury Network called the coroner to suggest Joyner had died as a result of insecticide poisoning. A doctor who heads the AntiDairy Coalition also phoned to say a dairy allergy might have caused Joyner's death. There was another call from a woman suggesting Joyner had died of Lyme disease.

Finally, on Oct. 22, a month and a day after Joyner died, the sheriff-coroner's office released an amended cause of death. Changing the original document, which listed "pending investigation" under "immediate cause," the new document listed three causes:

1) positional asphyxia 2) epileptiform seizure 3) cavernous angioma, left orbital frontal cerebrum

The third "cause" referred to a brain abnormality discovered during the autopsy that made Joyner subject to seizures. In lay person's terms, the coroner found Joyner had suffocated in her pillow during a severe epileptic seizure.

Experts on epilepsy immediately insisted the finding of death was extremely unlikely. "This is a distinctly unusual complication of an epileptic seizure," Dr. Michael Risinger of the Stanford Comprehensive Epilepsy Center told the Los Angeles Times. Interviewed by Salon, Risinger amplified his remarks. "It's true persons can asphyxiate during epileptic seizures. But it's very rare." Risinger wanted to reassure others suffering from epilepsy that Joyner's death was a highly unlikely result of a seizure, he said.

Given the continuing mystery, Salon shared Joyner's autopsy records with pathologists and one of the leading experts on steroid use, who reviewed the coroner's investigation and came to their own conclusions.

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The question of whether Joyner used performance-enhancing drugs could never be answered definitively during her lifetime, and may not be after her death. Rumors dogged her, especially after she made vast improvements to her performance in between the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Games. It was in Seoul that Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson had to forfeit his gold medal in the 100-meter race because he violated drug rules. Joyner's shocking retirement immediately after the 1988 Olympics, to begin a clothing design and children's book business at the height of her athletic achievement, only encouraged the rumors.

In 1989, another sprinter, Darrell Robinson, told the German magazine Stern that Joyner had paid him to get her some human growth hormone a year earlier. Joyner then appeared on the "Today" show with Robinson and blasted him as a "compulsive, crazy, lying lunatic." Robinson attempted suicide in 1996, at least partly in despair over continued criticism of his allegations against Joyner.

The Orange County Coroner's Office could not determine whether Joyner had ever used steroids or other drugs, says Chief Deputy Coroner Berndt, although tissue and organ tests revealed none of the changes associated with recent steroid use. "She had no microscopic changes in organs or pathological information to prove" recent use of steroids, Berndt said. Whether she used steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs during her track career, "We couldn't say," Berndt told Salon.

Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale, author of numerous books on anabolic steroids and athletic performance, said certain changes in Joyner's heart could indicate the use of steroids or other banned substances. The autopsy report showed that Joyner suffered from "mild cardiac hypertrophy" and "occasional interstitial fibrosis" of the heart muscle, which "could be from the use of one or more of testosterone, anabolic steroids" or growth hormones, Di Pasquale told Salon. "Although both can be caused by other factors, these findings help strengthen the sense that Flo-Jo used these compounds when she was competing and more recently." But without access to toxicology reports and other documents, no firm conclusion can be drawn, he added.

The results of toxicology and certain other tests were not included in the documents released to Salon. A letter from Berndt indicated that some records were exempt from release, including "law enforcement investigatory records" and "all records prepared solely for presentation to the Orange County Grand Jury, which are exempt from public disclosure."

The involvement of the grand jury would indicate a high level of concern about Joyner's death and suggest that the homicide investigation had once seemed serious enough to yield criminal charges. When asked if the grand jury had investigated Joyner's death, responses from the coroner's office were conflicting. Berndt explained that investigations into high-profile deaths are routinely reviewed by grand jury members. Because the sheriff's department and coroner's office are combined in Orange County, many investigations involve grand jury review to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, Berndt said. "We present to the grand jury a complete review of high-profile cases," she added.

But sheriff-coroner's office spokesman Rivera denied the grand jury had been asked to review the investigation. "There was a coroner's review. The grand jury was not impaneled. Members of the grand jury are invited to attend coroner's reviews." Homicide investigators were brought into the case, Rivera confirmed, when pathologist Fukumoto found possible evidence of strangulation. Fukumoto was "following protocol" by asking for the investigators, Rivera said, but subsequent investigation eliminated the possibility "that she had died at the hands of another."

Rivera could not explain why the coroner's office referred to a "presentation to the Orange County Grand Jury" in refusing to release some autopsy documents. And in a follow-up letter to Salon, Rivera said, "The Sheriff-Coroner did not request or impanel the Grand Jury or District Attorney for purposes of presenting a criminal matter to them seeking an indictment in the Florence Joyner case." He concluded: "The investigation is 100 percent closed."

The Joyner family's attorney, Paul Meyer, said he's satisfied with the coroner's investigation. "There is no ongoing grand jury investigation, and there never was a grand jury investigation. Any contact the sheriff-coroner's office had with the grand jury was a matter of protocol. We're satisfied the investigation was as thorough as possible.

"The family cooperated fully and completely and we know that was appreciated by the sheriff-coroner's office. And we know they did an exceptionally thorough job of the investigation. That's one reason it took such a long time."

Pathologists asked by Salon to review autopsy records saw no evidence Joyner died of other than natural causes. Although the petechial hemorrhaging observed in the autopsy is rare in asphyxiation, the lack of visible trauma, broken neck cartilage or signs of struggle make it difficult to suspect strangulation, according to Dr. Paul Hermann at the Institute of Forensic Sciences in Oakland, Calif. Although Hermann thought it was "uncommon" to call in homicide investigators, he saw no evidence of foul play. He concluded, "Based on the condition of the body, its position and the medical history, I'm not suspicious of this being anything other than a natural death."

Without access to the complete records of Joyner's autopsy, it's impossible to be certain exactly how and why Joyner died. Even with the complete records, controversy will likely be Joyner's sad legacy as family, friends and admirers defend her record of achievement and skeptics continue to wonder whether they were chemically enhanced. The rumors that tracked her in life continue to chase her in death.

By Kristina Rebelo Anderson

Kristina Rebelo Anderson is a longtime investigative reporter who has covered drugs in sports and particularly drugs in track and field for more than 14 years.

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