Last week I received a telephone call from a photo agent in London who I had met in 1999 while investigating the death of Princess Di for Talk magazine. Then, he had helped me chase down rumors of photos snapped immediately after the accident in the Pont Alma tunnel. In the spring of ’99, surrounded by tight security in a clandestine location, I was shown low-resolution images of a dying Diana still trapped in the crumpled Mercedes. Those pictures were offered to me for $2 million. I passed. Some of the less graphic ones were finally aired in 2004 by CBS’s 48 Hours. CBS was widely condemned for showing the pictures, from Diana's brother who said he was "sickened" to Prime Minister Tony Blair who called the broadcast of the grainy black-and-white images "distasteful."
But the call from London was not this time about Di. It was about Michael Jackson, and an equally distasteful photo, one supposedly snapped at Jackson’s autopsy.
“There are rumors that a photo is being flashed around Los Angeles,” he told me. “Supposedly was given to someone from who was at the autopsy.”
One executive who saw the alleged photo told The Daily Beast that he was certain it was “not a cellphone picture. The quality was far too good.”
If what he told me was true, it would constitute a remarkable breach of security for the Los Angeles investigators on the Jackson death probe, as well as the coroner’s office where the autopsy was conducted. Since that call, The Daily Beast followed a trail through dozens of people in the U.S. and Europe and tracked down a prominent Los Angeles restaurant owner who has a high-resolution copy of what is evidently a photo from the Jackson autopsy. That person has shown it to friends on his BlackBerry, including several California-based television executives. The restaurant owner told at least one of those TV execs that the photo had been given to him by a “high-ranking police friend.”
• Jacob Bernstein: Behind Sony’s Campaign to Quell Negative ‘This Is It’ Rumor • Gerald Posner: Did Jackson Drug Himself? Two of those who saw it described it to me independently, one of them saying it was “shocking.” It is of Jackson, his eyes wide open, lying on his back on a metal autopsy table. The picture is of Jackson’s head only, and taken from the corpse’s left side, from someone who was standing, and at about a 30-degree angle toward the body. The front of the pop star’s skull is shaved. His ashen face is stripped of any makeup. The lips are flat and wide, but without lipstick. A scar, which he had hidden under makeup whenever he went out, is visible on his left cheek. His tattooed eyebrows are the only other visible mark on his face.
One executive who saw it, although not a professional photographer, told The Daily Beast that he was certain it was “not a cellphone picture. The quality was far too good.”
I traded email and text messages with the restaurant owner. “Who gave u my contact infor?” he first replied to me. He refused a personal visit when I offered to fly to Los Angeles to see him. “Thanks for ur interest, good luck to u and ur continued success,” he said, trying to end any further contact.
When I continued pushing, he only replied, “Thnk u, but at this time I’m not interested.” When asked whether he still had the photo, he didn’t answer.
Though there’s no evidence the restaurant owner has offered the photo for sale, somehow word of what he has had spread across the pond to London. The photo editors from likely British tabloids buyers of such a picture—The Sun, News of the World, or The Daily Mail—refused to say whether they had heard about a Jackson autopsy photo for sale. However, one editor told me off the record that such a photo would fetch easily over $1 million for worldwide rights.
But no one with the photo better plan their retirement soon. If the picture is real, then the Los Angeles coroner and police might have something to say about that.
Chief Coroner Ed Winter told me that officially his office had no comment on any aspect of the Jackson autopsy, including even disclosing the number of people present at the postmortem examination, much less their names.
“I know who was there and I know what pictures were taken,” he told me. If he saw a copy of the photo being flashed in Los Angeles, he could determine, he said, whether it was authentic—the left cheek scar was potentially important, as even if it was faked, there would be few people outside of Jackson’s entourage who knew about that private, identifying mark.
If the picture is real, “we would conduct an internal investigation here, and one would be done in all likelihood by the police department and the district attorney.”
Winter said he had heard rumors of an autopsy photo that circulated, but could never find anyone who had a copy. But he also stressed that until he saw it personally, he couldn’t dismiss the chance that it was a fake worthy of a Hollywood studio’s special-effects department. Not long ago, he told me that The Sun and News of the World had shown him a purported copy of a Jackson autopsy report. “If you paid for that,” Winter told them, “you got taken.” The Associated Press claimed to have obtained access to a copy of Jackson’s autopsy last week. “When I asked them if I could see what they had,” Winter told me, “they couldn’t produce anything.”
Los Angeles prosecutors and police have shown a recent tendency to pursue criminal investigations when it comes to leaked information about high-profile cases. Just during the past two weeks, news has broken that TMZ’s chief, Harvey Levin, had his phone records seized by a secret warrant, as part of an official probe into how the Web site obtained details of the drunk-driving arrest and anti-Semitic outburst of Mel Gibson in 2006.
If Los Angeles prosecutors are upset about who broke the law by leaking word of Gibson’s drunk driving, they are likely to be steamed at the possibility that someone may have shared an autopsy photo of the dead pop star.
Winter understands that while any potential investigation into the restaurant owner’s phone records might well reveal who in the Los Angeles coroner’s office or police department was the leaker, it might also force others who have copies of the picture “to go underground for the time being.” That happened with the Princess Di photos. After my 1999 report that they were for sale, none ran for five years.
“No one here would ever want to see that type of picture published,” Winter told The Daily Beast. “And the people that have it, if it’s real, they should ask themselves how they would feel if someone printed a picture of one of their loved ones from an autopsy.”
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch From the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.