Armed with a search warrant indicating that Michael Jackson's death is being investigated as a manslaughter, a team of Los Angeles Police Department detectives and federal drug agents swooped into the Houston medical clinic operated by the pop star's personal physician Wednesday and seized documents and computer files.
The warrant signed by a Harris County District Court judge and executed on the offices of Dr. Conrad Murray was the strongest indication yet that authorities are considering serious criminal charges in the performer's sudden death June 25.
"The search warrant authorized law enforcement to search for and seize items, including documents, they believed constituted evidence of the offense of manslaughter," said the doctor's lawyer, Edward Chernoff, in a statement.
The search of the office was the fourth warrant served in a monthlong investigation that has included several dozen interviews with witnesses, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
Murray, whose main practice and residence are in Las Vegas, was not present for the 3 1/2 -hour search by officers from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division and the Houston Police Department. DEA spokeswoman Violet Szeleczky said investigators went to the Acres Home Heart and Vascular Institute, a cardiology clinic Murray opened in 2006, in search of records, but she declined to elaborate.
A DEA official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the warrant mentioned the anesthetic propofol. Police removed large quantities of the powerful drug from Jackson's Holmby Hills mansion, and DEA agents have been working with the manufacturer to trace the source of a specific lot number of the drug.
Propofol was not found in Murray's office, a source familiar with the search said. Investigators took Murray's Rolodex, business cards, information about his use of FedEx, e-mails he had received from a former employee, receipts for a storage unit and cellphone and pamphlets advertising a nearby sleep clinic, the source said. Officers took a folder containing a biography of Murray and a photocopy of a picture of him, the source said.
His lawyer said the investigators also made a copy of a business computer hard drive.
Harris County District Court Judge Shawna L. Reagin signed the warrant, but court officials said the records were sealed and referred questions to L.A. authorities. An LAPD supervisor declined to say what investigators had hoped to find in Houston but cautioned against reading too much into the search. The department has never described the probe as criminal, and the cause of death remains unknown.
"It is an ongoing investigation into circumstances surrounding Michael Jackson's death," said LAPD Cmdr. Pat Gannon.
Sources familiar with the investigation said officials could ultimately conclude that Jackson died accidentally or find that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone in connection with his death.
Murray, a 51-year-old cardiologist, opened the Houston clinic three years ago in honor of his father, a physician who had worked in the poor, predominantly black neighborhood for decades.
Murray traveled to Houston twice a month to see patients until May, when he suspended his practice to work full-time for Jackson, according to a biography provided by his lawyer.
Although Murray had been hired to care for Jackson at a monthly salary of $150,000, the performer was also seeing a number of other physicians, and the L.A. County coroner's office has subpoenaed medical records from several physicians.
The spotlight on Murray, however, has been the most intense because he was with Jackson at his home when the singer went into cardiac arrest.
Murray has been questioned twice by LAPD investigators and provided them with medical records related to treatment he provided Jackson in Las Vegas in the three years before his death. Last week, coroner's officials investigating the cause of his death requested their own interview and additional medical records, Murray's lawyer said. No time for the meeting has been set.
Chernoff said that none of the 21 documents seized from the clinic was among those previously requested by the coroner's office or law enforcement.
The search attracted intense attention, with some news websites streaming live footage of the outside of the clinic. U.S. Rep Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), who spoke at Jackson's memorial service and whose district includes the area where Murray's office is located, had a staffer present at the building when the office was searched. The staff member was there, a spokesman said, "as a concerned community representative."
USC law professor Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor, said the reference to manslaughter in the search warrant provides some insight into detectives' interpretation of the evidence but ultimately may be irrelevant.
"You get a search warrant because you are investigating the possible commission of a crime, but all of this is just at the investigatory stage. All the time there are investigations where no one is charged with a crime in the end," she said.
She said that when the deceased is a global icon, "they are not going to leave any stones unturned."
"With the whole world watching they would want every 't' crossed and every 'i' dotted," she said.
Times staff writers Cara Mia DiMassa, Kimi Yoshino, Richard Winton and Scott Glover contributed to this report.