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Cause of Death, AIDS at Issue : Liberace Autopsy Ordered by Coroner in Riverside County

February 07, 1987|LOUIS SAHAGUN and HARRY NELSON | Times Staff Writers

Riverside County officials have rejected Liberace's death certificate and ordered his body returned from Los Angeles for an autopsy to determine whether he died of AIDS.

The action overshadowed Friday's memorial service attended by several hundred mourners at Our Lady of Solitude Roman Catholic Church near Liberace's home in Palm Springs. Among them were actor Kirk Douglas and Mrs. Bob Hope.

During the service, Father William Erstad read a telegram from President and Mrs. Reagan in which they hailed Liberace as "the ultimate entertainer."

Liberace, 67, died on Wednesday, amid reports that he was suffering from AIDS. But Liberace's agent, Seymour Heller, vehemently denied those reports.

Afterward, Liberace's personal physician, Dr. Ronald Daniels, gave as the cause of death heart failure brought on by subacute encephalopathy, a general term for degenerative brain disease. Daniels could not be reached Friday.

A private burial, now indefinitely delayed, was to have been held this weekend at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills.

Dick Fisher, a cemetery spokesman, said Liberace's body was placed in a van and returned to Riverside at 10 a.m. The body, he said, had already been embalmed, although that would not prevent AIDS testing because tissues may still be tested.

"It is so sad this happened," Denise Collier, Liberace's publicist, said from New York when she learned of the unexpected development.

The controversy began when Forest Lawn officials took Liberace's death certificate to the Glendale office of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services in order to obtain a routine burial permit, according Marc Strassburg, the department's assistant chief of data collection.

There, a department employee, following procedure, telephoned the office of Riverside County Coroner Raymond Carrillo in order to verify the certificate.

At that point, Carrillo balked, demanding to know the underlying cause of the encephalopathy. He then ordered the return of Liberace's body.

In California, a coroner must be notified if a physician is not in attendance at the time of death or if the patient's own physician has not seen the patient within 20 days. Deaths due to communicable diseases, including AIDS, also must be reported to the coroner.

In all such cases, according to a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner-medical examiner, a coroner is authorized to decide the extent of any inquiry, from taking no action to ordering an autopsy.

"This is a case that should have been reported to the coroner's office," Carrillo said.

According to physicians, AIDS victims may have a variety of illnesses that can be listed as the cause of death, including pneumonia, encephalopathy, heart failure and blood diseases such as anemia.

Sabas Rosas, a Riverside coroner's supervisor, told The Times on Friday that a test done on a sample of Liberace's blood at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage before Liberace died "came back positive"--meaning that Liberace had been exposed to the virus, though that in itself does not necessarily mean that he had actually developed the deadly acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Carrillo initially requested Liberace's medical records from the Eisenhower Medical Center, but he was turned down. "Then we served a subpoena on the hospital administrator, who produced the records," Carrillo said. At a press conference late Friday, he declined to reveal what those records showed.

Carrillo said an autopsy was begun Friday night and that results would probably be released on Monday.

The Reagans' telegram said, in part: "Lee was a gifted musician, a man who truly earned the title 'superstar' and a caring individual who time and again responded generously when called upon to benefit those in need. . . . He will be remembered in many ways, but most importantly as a kind man who lived his life with great joy. We are grateful that he has left us such a rich legacy of memories, and they will be our joy."

Another public memorial service is set for Thursday at St. Anne's Roman Catholic Church in Las Vegas.

Louis Sahagun reported from Riverside and Harry Nelson from Los Angeles.

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