In the early afternoon of April 18, 2012, Michael Cormier, an autopsy technician at the Los Angeles coroner’s office, drove himself to Kaiser Permanente Hospital complaining of heart and stomach pain and diarrhea. The doctors suspected a heart issue or an ulcer and recommended he follow up with his regular physician. Two days later, Cormier asked his wife to call 911. An ambulance took him Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, where he died several hours later from massive organ failure.
While he was at Providence St. Joseph, an unidentified family member called and recommended that the hospital check Cormier for poison. A screen test found a significant amount of arsenic in Cormier’s system, and the hospital contacted the Los Angeles Police Department. In the early stages of the investigation into Cormier’s death, the police wouldn’t rule out an accident, suicide, or something more nefarious, and the coroner deferred the cause of death pending further toxicology results.
In all, it was not a remarkable set of circumstances, but Cormier’s death made national news when numerous right-wing blogs linked it to the death of Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media juggernaut and Tea Party hero who had died on March 1 at the age of 43.
“According to early reports, Michael Cormier was ‘seemingly healthy,’ yet ‘suddenly stricken’ with a fatal condition—just like Andrew Breitbart,” read a post on Infowars.com.
The blogs were already speculating that Breitbart—who had announced shortly before his death that he had acquired deeply damaging video footage of President Obama—had been assassinated by the president or his supporters. When Cormier died on the day the coroner’s office announced Breitbart’s cause of death as a heart attack, the right-wing conspiracy theories became more heated. Infowars asked, “Was Cormier targeted because he knew something” about Breitbart’s death which contradicted the official findings?
Those theories were quickly debunked by both the L.A. police and Deputy Chief Coroner Ed Winter, who told The Daily Beast at the time that Cormier had nothing to do with Breitbart’s autopsy.
In life, the scruffy, bespectacled lab tech was dedicated and hardworking, according to former co-workers at the coroner’s office, where Cormier worked for nearly two decades as a photographer and coroner's assistant. He also took classes in criminology and starred in a DVD extra for the 2005 horror flick Chaos, as well as in a short film, “Inside the Coroner’s Office: A Tour of the L.A. Coroner’s Crypt.”
But in death, Cormier became more famous than he had ever been in life, forever linked to a famous and controversial man he never met.
Last Monday, the coroner’s office released its findings on Cormier’s official cause of death: he was indeed killed by “extremely high amounts of arsenic in his system,” said Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter. “He had a history of heart problems, but it was the arsenic that killed him.”
Still, neither the coroner nor the police can figure out how so much arsenic got into Cormier in the first place. “We don’t know if it was given to him or self-ingested,” Winter said. “We can’t prove he took it himself, or we can’t prove someone gave it to him.” His autopsy report is scheduled to be released in the next few weeks.
Police investigated large manufacturing companies that used arsenic to see if they had sold the product to Cormier or anyone he knew, but came up empty.
“Back in the day they sold straight arsenic to kill insects,” said LAPD detective Steve Castro, who is investigating the case. “Now it is monitored so closely you can’t basically get it. … The puzzling thing is where the arsenic came from.” Castro said the arsenic that killed Cormier could have come from an old product now off the market.
Investigators are left with two questions: If someone killed Cormier, who was it? If he killed himself, why did he choose such a painful way to go?
Arsenic has been used as a poisoning agent since the Middle Ages. During the 19th-century cholera epidemic in Great Britain, murderers used it regularly to bump people off because the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were similar to those of cholera.
The poison has also made high-profile appearances in popular culture over the years. In 1857, Emma Bovary famously used it to off herself in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. In 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace, Cary Grant played a drama critic whose two elderly aunts had the “very bad habit” of ending the suffering of lonely old bachelors by giving them elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine, and cyanide.
Investigators are more intrigued by arsenic’s use in suicide, because it is a particularly painful way to die.
“There are much easier ways to do that,” said Joe Landolph, an associate professor of molecular microbiology, immunology, and pathology at the University of Southern California. “It is a pretty grisly way to go. All your cells are being poisoned and your organs are crying out for energy. Vomiting and diarrhea are reactions. But, if you are suicidally intended, you are just going to do it. If you have ingested a serious amount you won’t come back from that.”
In the early stages of the investigation into Cormier’s death, police detectives and hazardous-materials officers searched the one-bedroom home in North Hollywood where Cormier lived with his wife, Sharon. They found no traces of poison or a suicide note. “There was no indication he was going to kill himself,” Winter said, but added that Cormier and Sharon “had a volatile relationship.”
Detectives interviewed Sharon several times following Cormier’s death. “She said she didn’t do it,” Castro said. “She was cooperative. She didn’t admit to doing anything. She was stunned to find out he had arsenic poisoning in his system.”
The couple has an adult daughter. Neither the daughter nor Sharon Cormier could be reached for comment, and Castro would not confirm which family member called the hospital about the poison.
Adding to the mystery is that Cormier digested the poison within 24 to 48 hours of his death. “With that amount you can’t poison someone without them knowing it,” Castro said.
“It is a real head-scratcher,” he said.