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Police Pursue Death of Bias as a Homicide : Drug-Related Elements Prompt Criminal Inquiry

From Times Wire Services

Police followed a criminal investigation Friday into the “suspicious death” of basketball star Len Bias, while friends suggested that Bias was enticed to use cocaine in a weak moment at an all-night celebration before he died of heart failure.

As authorities in Prince George’s County in suburban Maryland were conducting their probe, Lt. William White said District of Columbia police had received a rash of calls from citizens who “allege” that the 22-year-old Bias may have been seen before dawn Thursday in an area “known for street-corner drug sales.”

Bias collapsed at the campus athletic dormitory early Thursday morning, fewer than 48 hours after the National Basketball Assn. draft, and his coach at Maryland, Lefty Driesell, said authorities told him that doctors found traces of cocaine in a test while trying to revive the Maryland All-American.

Boston Celtics President Red Auerbach, who selected Bias as the second player in Tuesday’s draft, speculated in an interview with WDVM-TV in Washington that following the post-draft reception in Boston, Bias “came back (to Maryland) and he was so high that he had to celebrate. . . . He didn’t know what to do to celebrate. Somebody might have caught him in a weak moment. This is all supposition.”

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There was little else to go on as former teammates and friends fought to grapple with the reality of the popular athlete’s death.

Ernest Riess, spokesman for the Prince George’s County Police, said: “The death of Len Bias is being treated as a suspicious death, and a homicide investigation is under way. No further comments will be made until an autopsy report is complete (no sooner than a week to 10 days).”

Said Auerbach, after flying in from Boston to give Bias’ parents the No. 30 jersey he was to have worn with the team: “We examined him, two other NBA teams examined him--he was 100% OK.”

Prince George’s police impounded Bias’ car, a silver Datsun, and television broadcasts showed them finding a packet of a white, powdery substance when they inspected the car. WDVM-TV also reported that police found a chunk of white crystal-like material the size of a soap bar beneath the dash.

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The station quoted an unnamed police source as saying that Bias and a friend made a purchase of “crack,” a highly potent form of cocaine, at a well-known drug-dealing intersection of the city.

Interviewed on the ABC-TV show “Good Morning America,” Driesell said: “From what I’d understood from the police, there was a trace of cocaine in his urine. . . . If that’s the case, it’s completely out of character for Leonard Bias. I would be completely shocked.”

WBAL radio in Baltimore quoted Dr. Brian Brown of the University of Maryland as saying that the drug Lidocaine, which is often given to heart attack victims, could have been confused with cocaine during tests.

WRC-TV, also a Washington station, said unidentified police sources had indicated that a “new friend” was with Bias in his dorm room before he died.

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Speedy Jones, Bias’ teammate at Maryland, told the Associated Press that Bias spent much of the night and early morning celebrating with friends at several places on campus. According to Jones, at about 6:15 a.m., Bias awakened teammate Terry Long in the dormitory and talked for a while.

“Terry said Lenny laid back and closed his eyes and started shaking,” Jones said. “Lenny started throwing up. Terry could not revive him. Then Terry called the ambulance.”

Meanwhile, Bias’ agent, Lee Fentress of Washington-based Advantage International, told United Press International that Bias took out a large disability and accidental-death insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London last August. Bias bought the policy after he decided to return to school for his senior year rather than turn pro.

Fentress would not comment on the amount of the policy, although one source estimated that it was valued at more than $1 million.

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Fentress said that Bias took out additional insurance coverage in May after he signed with Advantage.

Insurance experts said that if Bias’ death is ruled drug-related, it would probably not jeopardize the collection of the insurance policy.

Dr. John Rodgers, a deputy medical examiner for the county, and Arthur A. Marshall Jr., the Prince George’s County state’s attorney, said earlier that drugs, possibly cocaine, may have been found in Bias’ system as doctors at Leland Memorial Hospital tried to revive him.

Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a drug abuse expert at Harvard Medical School, speculated that it could have been a combination of an underlying heart-rhythm abnormality, intense excitement and cocaine.

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He noted that when people are highly excited, their bodies naturally release a stimulating hormone called norepinephrine.

“Cocaine and that kind of excitement work in the same direction,” he said. “They are both stimulants.”

If Bias had undetected heart-rhythm problems, Grinspoon said, “he’s got a big load of stimulant on top of a heart that may be vulnerable. And the combination of those three things may have done it.”

Private funeral services were set for Monday morning at the University of Maryland Chapel. A public tribute will follow at 7 p.m. in Cole Field House.

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