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Questions swirl around doctor in Jackson's death

Sunday, June 28, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

LOS ANGELES — Elvis had one. So did Anna Nicole Smith and Marilyn Monroe. They are the doctors who cater to celebrities, dispensing powerful painkillers and sedatives to some of Hollywood's best-known entertainers.

Now, as police investigate Michael Jackson's sudden death, questions are swirling around the King of Pop's personal cardiologist and his actions in the superstar's final days.

Dr. Conrad Murray reportedly was with Jackson when he stopped breathing Thursday and performed CPR until paramedics arrived. An ambulance crew worked on Jackson at his home for 42 minutes before rushing him to UCLA Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

The cardiologist has hired a Houston-based law firm and on Saturday, an attorney there said he was cooperating.

"Dr. Murray has never left L.A. since Mr. Jackson's death, and he remains there. Investigators have indicated Dr. Murray is considered a witness and is not in any way a target of any kind," William M. Stradley told The Associated Press. He said his colleague was meeting with investigators on Saturday.

Also on Saturday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the singer's family wants a private autopsy because of unanswered questions about how he died and about Murray.

The suspicions of Jackson's friends and family fit into a long-standing pattern of celebrity doctors becoming entangled in death investigations involving prescription drugs.

Doctors can find it hard to refuse potent painkillers for their clients because of their wealth and power.

"It's a big issue with people who are used to getting what they want. And if someone says no, they can pay someone else to get what they want," said Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who is writing a book on social problems and celebrity culture.

"The physician is not immune to that heady feeling of being in a celebrity's inner circle."

In other instances, the doctors themselves may have questionable pasts or significant debts, and caring for a celebrity allows them to make large amounts of money, said Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.

"Some of these people might not be the most successful doctors, so the money will also buy their complicity in fueling a drug habit," said Albright, who was speaking generally and not specifically about Murray.

Records reveal years of financial troubles for Murray, a 1989 graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville who practices medicine in California, Nevada and Texas.

Over the last 18 months, Murray's Nevada medical practice, Global Cardiovascular Associates, has been slapped with more than $400,000 in court judgments: $228,000 to Citicorp Vendor Finance Inc., $71,000 to an education loan company and $135,000 to a leasing company. Murray faces at least two other pending cases.

Court records show Murray was hit last December with a nearly $3,700 judgment for failure to pay child support in San Diego and had his wages garnished the same month for almost $1,500 by a credit card company. Another credit card claim, filed in April for more than $1,100, remains open.

He also owes $940 in fines and penalties for driving with an expired license plate and for not having proof of insurance in 2000.

Best-selling author Deepak Chopra, a longtime friend of Michael Jackson and a licensed medical doctor, said he first became concerned about the pop star's prescription drug use in 2005, when Jackson visited him shortly after his trial on sex abuse allegations.

Chopra said Jackson asked him to prescribe painkillers and already had a bottle of Oxycontin.

"I was kind of a bit alarmed. I said, 'Why are you taking that. You don't need that,' and then I started to probe a little further, and after I grilled him a little bit, he admitted he was getting them from a bunch of doctors," Chopra said.

Chopra said he refused to prescribe the medicine, but over the next four years the nanny of Jackson's children would periodically call to say that a parade of doctors was coming to his homes in Santa Barbara County, Los Angeles, Miami and New York City.

She told Chopra she felt they were overmedicating him, and one time she even tried to stage an intervention with Chopra's help, he said.

Each time, Jackson would discover the nanny's calls and then shut himself off from Chopra to avoid discussing the issue, he said.

Chopra, a spiritual adviser, said he last talked to Jackson directly about his drug use about six months ago and spoke with him on the phone about two weeks before his death.

But they did not discuss drug use on that call, and Chopra said in his final months, Jackson seemed much healthier and excited about his upcoming concerts in London.

"This is a strange addiction. You cannot get these pills or injections unless a physician prescribes them, and he had this bunch of enabling doctors who were in a sense criminals. And they get away with it half the time — and I hope they don't this time," he said.

"It's become a culture with celebrity doctors who in one sense get a sense of importance by hanging around with celebrities."

Marilyn Monroe died at 36 from an overdose of sleeping pills in August 1962. She had been under a doctor's care at the time.

Elvis Presley, who died in 1977 at 42, was known to travel with George Nichopoulos, a former physician who overprescribed drugs to clients. Nichopoulos lost his medical license but was acquitted of criminal charges related to Elvis' death.

More recently, Los Angeles County prosecutors charged a psychiatrist and a doctor with conspiring to provide Anna Nicole Smith with thousands of prescription pills.

Smith died Feb. 8, 2007, in Florida after collapsing at a hotel; medical authorities later ruled her death an overdose.

Megastars may be given more leeway than ordinary patients because of their wealth — and because of expectations that the famous often have eccentric habits, said Albright, the sociologist.

"It's almost expected in some ways if it's a rock star or a big actor. You almost expect them to have a larger-than-life lifestyle," she said. "People are drawn to celebrity like a moth to a flame, including these doctors who want to be around that lightness and brightness."

Associated Press writers Sophia Tareen in Chicago, Juan A. Lozano in Houston, and Beth Harris and Michael Blood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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