High Profile Twice Cost ‘Coroner to the Stars’ His Job

Times Staff Writer

For 15 tumultuous years, Dr. Thomas T. Noguchi encountered the best and the worst of Los Angeles -- movie stars and gangsters, politicians and millionaires, victims of serial killers.

But by the time “the coroner to the stars” met them, they were on his autopsy table.

When Noguchi began as a deputy medical examiner for Los Angeles County in 1961, the job was lackluster and low profile.

By the time he finished his tenure as chief coroner in 1982, he had almost single-handedly given coroners high visibility, a starring role in courtroom theatricals, even a prime-time television drama, “Quincy, M.E.”


But high visibility also helped force him out of office -- twice.

Noguchi, now 78 and retired, was one of the most recognized public officials in L.A., and he loved the limelight. In a recent interview, he said he used his visibility to educate the public about the pitfalls of drugs and drink. “I had a message to deliver and I delivered it,” he said.

So Noguchi had no problem telling the world that such stars as William Holden and Natalie Wood were drunk when they died. (Holden fell and hit his head in November 1981; Wood slipped off a boat near Catalina Island and drowned two weeks after Holden.)

Noguchi told the world that Marilyn Monroe was depressed when she took an overdose of sleeping pills.

And he revealed that Janis Joplin and John Belushi died of accidental drug overdoses.

The Screen Actors Guild and Frank Sinatra, a friend of Wood, complained about Noguchi’s disclosures in letters to Los Angeles County supervisors, which helped prompt his demotion. But Noguchi says he never regretted talking about his work, or writing about it. Of his three books, one -- “Coroner” -- was a 1983 bestseller.

“Noguchi is one of the greats of modern forensic pathology, a highly respected scientist,” said Barry A.J. Fisher, director of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s crime lab. “Medical examiners from around the world would call with a difficult case, and more often than not, Noguchi helped them solve their mystery.”

In August 1962, when Monroe’s body was wheeled into the Hall of Justice basement, Noguchi had just a year’s experience as a deputy medical examiner. But he was the one who performed the autopsy.


Noguchi ordered a probe of the star’s background as part of his inquiry. Posthumous psychological profiles had been done before, but never on someone as famous as Monroe. Based on Noguchi’s findings, his boss, coroner Theodore Curphey, ruled her death a “probable suicide.”

Five years later, Curphey retired and the county board appointed Noguchi chief coroner. His charisma, outspokenness and flair for publicity would make him a magnet for controversy.

The next year, in 1968, Sirhan Sirhan emptied his eight-shot .22-caliber handgun in the Ambassador Hotel pantry, killing Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and wounding five others. Eyewitnesses put Sirhan no closer than 18 inches from Kennedy, but Noguchi testified that when the fatal wound was inflicted the gun was 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches from Kennedy’s ear. His testimony fed conspiracy theories that Sirhan had not acted alone.

Noguchi never had trouble making a body talk. In 1976, a turn-of-the-century mummy was discovered at the Nu-Pike Long Beach amusement park -- billed as a wax dummy and hanging from gallows -- when a member of a movie crew accidentally pulled off the arm, revealing a bone. The autopsy found carnival ticket stubs in the throat, apparently stuffed there by spectators, and the copper jacket of the bullet that killed the man.

Once the story got out, Noguchi received documents and photographs from Oklahoma Territorial Museum officials, who believed the corpse was that of Oklahoma badman Elmer McCurdy, a bank robber killed in 1911. His body had been embalmed with arsenic and sold to a traveling carnival show.

Noguchi set out to prove they were right by using what he called “medical superimposition,” comparing X-rays of the head with 1911 photographs taken by the mortuary.

He also matched a tiny scar on the right wrist. McCurdy’s body was eventually transported back to Guthrie, Okla., for burial

It was Noguchi’s high visibility and the high level of criticism that prompted the county board to force him from office in 1969 and 1982. In both cases he fought back, regaining his post the first time but losing it the second, despite a five-year battle that he took all the way to the state Supreme Court.

He was accused of mismanagement, using the office to promote his personal projects and, of course, indiscretion for his public disclosures about the deaths of Holden and Wood.

The “fighting coroner,” as he had come to be known, was banished to County-USC Medical Center as a pathologist and teacher.

He retired in 1999 but not from medical life. He continues to teach at USC. He is also researching the history of the L.A. County coroner’s office.

History has always been one of Noguchi’s hobbies.

In the late 1980s, he was part of an eight-person team of pathologists who reinvestigated the Jack the Ripper slayings of at least five prostitutes in London in the late 1800s.

Noguchi believed that criminal profiling might help. The group decided that the killer probably had been a butcher by trade.

Noguchi had researched historic cases, including the death of Napoleon, on his own too.

History books say the deposed French emperor died of stomach cancer. Many amateur Bonaparte fanciers say he was killed by arsenic-tainted wine or even the copper-arsenic pigment in his room’s wallpaper.

In 1994, before Noguchi finished his research, an FBI lab report found no poisonous levels of arsenic in a lock of hair purported to be Napoleon’s.

The former coroner says he hopes to serve his profession to the end. “When I die, I would like to have an autopsy,” he said. “Of course, I wouldn’t benefit from knowing [the result], but it would demystify any rumors.”