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On April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the grunge band Nirvana, was found dead at his home, located at 171 Lake Washington Boulevard East in Seattle, Washington. Forensic analysis at the time determined he had died by suicide on April 5. The Seattle Police Department incident report states: "Kurt Cobain was found with a shotgun across his body, had a visible head wound and there was a suicide note discovered nearby." The King County Medical Examiner noted puncture wounds on the inside of both the right and left elbow. Prior to his death, Cobain had checked out of a drug rehabilitation facility and had been reported as suicidal by his wife Courtney Love.
Despite the official ruling of suicide, it has been suggested that Cobain did not actually die from suicide. Tom Grant, a private investigator hired by Love to find Cobain after his departure from drug rehabilitation, believes that Cobain was murdered as the result of a conspiracy. Grant's theory has been analyzed and questioned by several books, television shows, films, and the 2015 docudrama Soaked in Bleach. Authors and filmmakers have also attempted to explain what might have happened during Cobain's final days, and what might have led him to suicide.
On April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain was discovered in the living quarters above his garage at his Lake Washington Boulevard East house by VECA Electric employee Gary T. Smith. Smith arrived at the house that morning to install security lighting when he saw a deceased Cobain lying inside. He initially thought Cobain was asleep, until he saw blood oozing from his ear. He also found a suicide note with a pen stuck through it inside a flower pot. A shotgun purchased for Cobain by his friend Dylan Carlson was found resting on Cobain's chest. Cobain's death certificate stated that his death was a result of a "contact perforating shotgun wound to the head" and concluded that his death was a suicide.
On April 10, 1994, a public memorial service was held at Seattle Center, where a recording of Courtney Love reading Cobain's suicide note was played. Near the end of the vigil, Love arrived and distributed some of his clothing to fans who remained. In the following days, Love consoled and mourned with fans who came to her house.
Cobain's body was cremated. Love divided his ashes; she kept some in a teddy bear and some in an urn. She took another portion of his ashes to the Namgyal Buddhist Monastery in Ithaca, New York. There, some of his remains were ceremonially blessed by Buddhist monks and mixed into clay, which were used to make memorial sculptures. A final ceremony was arranged for Cobain by his mother on May 31, 1999, that was attended by both Love and Tracy Marander. A Buddhist monk chanted while his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, scattered his ashes into McLane Creek in Olympia, Washington, the city where he "had found his true artistic muse.":351
Advocates of the verdict of death by self-inflicted gunshot wound have cited Cobain's persistent drug addiction, clinical depression, and handwritten suicide note as conclusive proof. Members of Cobain's family also noticed patterns of depression and instability in Cobain before he achieved fame. Cobain mentioned that the stomach pains from an undiagnosed stomach condition were so severe during Nirvana's 1991 European tour that he became suicidal and stated that taking heroin was "[his] choice"; saying, "This [heroin] is the only thing that's saving me from shooting myself right now." Cobain's cousin Beverly, a nurse, stated that the singer's family had a history of suicide, that Cobain's bipolar disorder and his struggles with drug addiction led him to suicide.
In Charles Cross's biography Heavier Than Heaven, Nirvana band member and bass guitarist Krist Novoselic is quoted on seeing Cobain in the days before his intervention: "He was really quiet. He was just estranged from all of his relationships. He wasn't connecting with anybody.":332 Novoselic's offer to buy a nice dinner for Cobain resulted in unintentionally driving him to score heroin: "His dealer was right there. He wanted to get fucked up into oblivion ... He wanted to die, that's what he wanted to do.":333 In his book Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy, Novoselic alludes to the circumstances of Cobain's death: "Tragically, Cobain picked the wrong way to resign from the position he was thrust into."
In March 2014, the Seattle Police Department developed four rolls of film that had been left in an evidence vault. According to the Seattle police, the 35mm photographs depict the scene of Cobain's corpse more clearly than previous Polaroid images taken by the police. Detective Mike Ciesynski, a cold case investigator, was asked to look at the film because "it is 20 years later and it's a high media case." Ciesynski stated that the official cause of Cobain's death remains suicide and that the images will not be released publicly. According to a spokesperson for the Seattle police, the department receives at least one request weekly, mostly through Twitter, to reopen the investigation. This resulted in the maintenance of the basic incident report on file.
The first to object publicly to the report of suicide was Seattle public access host Richard Lee. A week following Cobain's death, Lee aired the first episode of an ongoing series called Kurt Cobain Was Murdered, claiming there were several discrepancies in the police reports, including several changes in the nature of the shotgun blast. Lee acquired a video that was taped on April 8 from the tree outside Cobain's garage, showing the scene around Cobain's body, which he claimed showed a marked absence of blood for what was reported as a point-blank shotgun blast to the head. Several pathology experts have stated that a shotgun blast inside the mouth often results in less blood, unlike a shotgun blast to the head.:128
The main proponent of foul play surrounding Cobain's death is Tom Grant, a private investigator employed by Love after Cobain's disappearance from rehab. Grant was still under Love's employment when the body was found, and came to believe that Cobain's death was a homicide. There are several components to Grant's theory.
On April 14, 1994, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Cobain was "high on heroin when he pulled the trigger". The paper reported that the toxicological tests determined that the level of morphine in Cobain's bloodstream was 1.52 milligrams per liter and that there was also evidence of valium in his blood. The report contained a quote from Dr. Randall Baselt of the Chemical Toxicological Institute, stating that Cobain's heroin level was at "a high concentration, by any account". He also stated that the strength of that dose would depend on many factors, including how habituated Cobain was to the drug. Grant argues that Cobain could not have injected himself with such a dose and still have been able to pull the trigger.
Grant does not believe that Cobain was killed by the heroin dose. He suggests that the heroin was used to incapacitate Cobain before the final shotgun blast was administered by the perpetrator.:116 Grant, Wallace, and Halperin have used the dosage reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, not the actual autopsy report, and may not have the correct figure. The Seattle police cannot release the information to the media because reports and records of autopsies are confidential and protected under state and federal law.
While working for Love, Grant was given access to Cobain's suicide note and used her fax machine to make a photocopy, which has since been widely distributed. After studying the notes, Grant believed that it was actually a letter written by Cobain announcing his intent to leave Love, Seattle, and the music business. Grant asserts that the lines at the very bottom of the note, separate from the rest, are the only parts implying suicide. While the official report on Cobain's death concluded that Cobain wrote the note, Grant claims that the official report does not distinguish these final lines from the rest of the note and assumes it was entirely written by Cobain.
Despite consulting with many handwriting experts, some disagree with Grant's claims. Document examiner Janis Parker concluded that the note was written by Cobain after spending two weeks examining the original copy. When Dateline NBC sent a copy of the note to four different handwriting experts, one concluded that the entire note was in Cobain's hand, while the other three said the sample was inconclusive. One expert contacted by the television series Unsolved Mysteries expressed the difficulty in drawing a conclusion, given that the note being studied was a photocopy, not the original. But in the very same documentary, two other experts found the writing, especially the last four lines, suspicious.:112
The shotgun, a 20-gauge Remington Model 11, was not checked for fingerprints until May 6, 1994. According to the Fingerprint Analysis Report, four latent prints were lifted, but they were not usable. The Seattle police's follow-up report states that the shotgun was inverted on Cobain's chest with his left hand wrapped around the barrel.
Grant also cites circumstantial evidence from the official report. For example, the report claimed that the doors of the greenhouse could not have been locked from the outside, meaning that Cobain would have had to lock them himself. Grant claims that when he saw the doors for himself, he found that they could be locked and pulled shut. He also questions the lack of fingerprint evidence connecting Cobain to key evidence, including the shotgun. Grant notes that the official report claims that Cobain's fingerprints were also absent from the suicide note as well as the pen that had been shoved through it, and yet Cobain was found without gloves on. None of the circumstantial evidence directly points to murder, but Grant believes it supports the larger case.:121 In the docudrama Soaked in Bleach, Grant actually claims that the "cadaveric spasm" was mentioned in the police reports, whilst many have said that it was clearly not.
On March 3, 1994, Cobain was in a coma in a hospital in Rome. At the time, his management agency, Gold Mountain Records, remarked that Cobain had accidentally taken too many painkillers due to him suffering from influenza and fatigue. After his death, Love claimed that Cobain's overdose in Rome was a suicide attempt, telling Rolling Stone's David Fricke, "He took 50 pills. He probably forgot how many he took. But there was a definite suicidal urge, to be gobbling and gobbling and gobbling."
In studying the Rome incident, journalists Ian Halperin and Max Wallace contacted Dr. Osvaldo Galletta, who treated Cobain after the incident. Galletta contested the claim that the Rome overdose was a suicide attempt, telling Halperin and Wallace, "We can usually tell a suicide attempt. This didn't look like one to me." Galletta also specifically denied Love's claim that 50 Rohypnol pills were removed from Cobain's stomach.:89
However, they also stated:
Grant believes Courtney may have mixed a large number of pills into Kurt's champagne so that when he took a drink, he was actually unknowingly ingesting large amounts of the drug, enough to kill him. But if that's the case, why did she call the police when she found him unconscious on the floor? If she wanted Kurt dead, why didn't she just leave him on the floor until he died?
Galletta also said that Cobain's recovery was aided by the intervention of Love, who called for help.
Grant believes that the claim of the Rome incident being a suicide attempt was not made until after Cobain's death. He claims that people close to Cobain, including Gold Mountain Records, specifically denied the characterization prior to Cobain's death. Grant believes that if Rome had truly been a suicide attempt, Cobain's friends and family would have been told so that they could have watched over him. Others have asserted that the claims by Gold Mountain and others were simply efforts to mask what was happening behind the scenes. Lee Ranaldo, guitarist for Sonic Youth, told Rolling Stone, "Rome was only the latest installment of [those around Cobain] keeping a semblance of normalcy for the outside world."
Grant spoke to Cobain's attorney, Rosemary Carroll, at her office on April 13, 1994. He said she pressed him to investigate Cobain's death, and that Cobain was not suicidal. Carroll also claims that Cobain had asked her to draw up a will excluding Love because he was planning to file for divorce. Grant said this was the motive for Cobain's death.:119 Carroll also provided Grant with a handwriting practice note that she found in Love's backpack that was left at her home. It has been suggested that the handwriting on this practice note is markedly similar to the handwriting found on the last four lines of Cobain's suicide note.
Filmmaker Nick Broomfield, deciding to investigate the theories himself, brought a film crew to visit a number of people associated with both Cobain and Love, including Love's estranged father, Cobain's aunt, and one of the couples' former nannies. Broomfield also spoke to The Mentors' bandleader Eldon "El Duce" Hoke, who claimed that Love had offered him $50,000 to kill Cobain. Though Hoke claimed that he knew who killed Cobain, he did not mention a name and offered no evidence to support his assertion. However, he mentioned speaking to someone called "Allen" (Allen Wrench), before quickly interjecting, "I mean, my friend", then laughing, "I'll let the FBI catch him." Broomfield incidentally captured Hoke's final interview, as he died days later when he was struck by a train in the middle of the night.
Broomfield titled the finished documentary Kurt & Courtney, which was released on February 27, 1998. In the end, Broomfield felt he hadn't uncovered enough evidence to conclude the existence of a conspiracy. In a 1998 interview, he summed up his thoughts: "I think that he committed suicide. I don't think that there's a smoking gun. And I think there's only one way you can explain a lot of things around his death. Not that he was murdered, but that there was just a lack of caring for him. I just think that Courtney had moved on, and he was expendable."
Journalists Halperin and Wallace followed a similar path and attempted to investigate the murder theory themselves. Their initial work, the 1999 book Who Killed Kurt Cobain?, drew a similar conclusion to Broomfield's film: while there wasn't enough evidence to conclusively prove foul play, there was more than enough to demand that the case be reopened. A notable element of the book included their discussions with Grant, who had taped nearly every conversation he had undertaken while he was working for Love. Halperin and Wallace insisted that Grant play the tapes of his conversations with Carroll so that they could confirm his story. Over the next several years, Halperin and Wallace collaborated with Grant to write a second book, 2004's Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain.
Grant counters the claim that he profits from the sale of casebook kits on his website by stating that it offsets some of the costs of his investigation. Grant stated: "I wrestled with that ... but if I go broke, I'll have to give up my pursuit and Courtney wins."
Sergeant Donald Cameron, one of the homicide detectives involved in the case, specifically dismissed Grant's theory, claiming, "[Grant] hasn't shown us a shred of proof that this was anything other than suicide." Cameron, however, has been accused of being a personal friend of Love's. Dylan Carlson told Halperin and Wallace that he also did not believe that the theory was legitimate, and in an interview with Broomfield implied that if he believed that his friend was murdered, he would have dealt with it himself. In Kurt & Courtney, he specifically states that he would kill Love and any others involved if he believed that they had murdered Cobain. He has criticized Grant's investigation.
Many of Cobain's friends and family have supported the suicide verdict. Novoselic has voiced his opinion that Cobain killed himself. Cobain's friend Everett True also shared this opinion, along with Dave Grohl.
Several of Cobain's friends have accepted that it was suicide, but were surprised when it happened. Mark Lanegan, a long-time friend of Cobain's, told Rolling Stone: "I never knew [Cobain] to be suicidal. I just knew he was going through a tough time." In the same article, Carlson stated that he wished Cobain or someone close to him had told him that Rome was a suicide attempt. Danny Goldberg, husband of Carroll and founder of Gold Mountain Records, refers in his book Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit to "the crazy Internet rumors that Kurt Cobain had not committed (sic) suicide but had been murdered," stating that Cobain's suicide "haunts [him] every day".
In August 2005, Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon was asked about Cobain's death in an interview for Uncut Magazine. When asked what she thought to be Cobain's motive in committing suicide, Gordon replied: "I don't even know that he killed himself. There are people close to him who don't think that he did ..." When asked if she thought someone else had killed him, Gordon answered, "I do, yes." In the same interview, Gordon's then-husband and collaborator Thurston Moore stated:
Kurt died in a very harsh way. It wasn't just an OD. He actually killed himself violently. It was so aggressive, and he wasn't an aggressive person, he was a smart person, he had an interesting intellect. So it kind of made sense because it was like: wow, what a fucking gesture. But at the same time it was like: something's wrong with that gesture. It doesn't really lie with what we know.
One day we were working and got a call from Lindy, who informed us that Kurt Cobain had killed himself. The news sucked the air out of the entire house, I didn't feel like I felt when Hillel died; it was more like "The world just suffered a great loss." Kurt's death was unexpected ... It was an emotional blow, and we all felt it. I don't know why everyone on earth felt so close to that guy; he was beloved and endearing and inoffensive in some weird way. For all of his screaming and all of his darkness, he was just lovable.
A musical hero of Cobain's, Greg Sage, said about him in an interview:
Well, I can't really speculate other than what he said to me, which was, he wasn't at all happy about it, success to him seemed like, I think, a brick wall. There was nowhere else to go but down, it was too artificial for him, and he wasn't an artificial person at all. He was actually, two weeks after he died, he was supposed to come here and he wanted to record a bunch of Leadbelly covers. It was kind of in secret, because, I mean, people would definitely not allow him to do that. You also have to wonder, he was a billion-dollar industry at the time, and if the industry had any idea at all of him wishing or wanting to get out, they couldn't have allowed that, you know, in life, because if he was just to get out of the scene, he'd be totally forgotten, but if he was to die, he'd be immortalized.
Cobain's grandfather, Leland Cobain, publicly said that he believes Cobain "was murdered" and not the victim of suicide.