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Conclusion: Prince didn’t know he was taking fentanyl; nobody charged in his death

Prince performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI at Dolphin Stadium in Miami in 2007.
Prince performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLI at Dolphin Stadium in Miami in 2007.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

No criminal charges will be filed against the doctor and other associates who gave pain pills to Prince before the music megastar died of an accidental opioid overdose, officials announced Thursday.

The doctor, who maintains his innocence and continues to practice, agreed to pay a $30,000 civil fine as part of settlement with the U.S. attorney of Minnesota.

Prince Rogers Nelson died at his estate in Chanhassen, Minn., on April 21, 2016, after unknowingly taking a counterfeit Vicodin pill that actually contained the far more potent opioid fentanyl, Carver County Atty. Mark Metz said at a televised news conference, marking the end of a two-year investigation into Prince’s death.

“Prince thought he was taking Vicodin and not fentanyl,” Metz said, saying the fentanyl-laced pills Prince took were “an exact imitation” of Vicodin pills. Metz said officials had found no evidence of a “sinister motive” or “intent” to kill Prince.

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“Prince’s death is a tragic example,” Metz said, that opioids “do not discriminate.”

The investigation, which remained cloaked in secrecy until this week, was a striking examination of the life of an acclaimed celebrity who was felled at the age of 57 by an increasingly familiar culprit in the deaths of thousands of Americans.

Paisley Park, Prince's private estate and production complex, is illuminated with purple light at night.
(Michael S. Williamson / Washington Post )

Prince, beloved for his energetic performances since his rise to worldwide stardom in the 1980s, had become addicted to opioids after suffering from chronic pain, Metz said. Notoriously private — Prince didn’t even own a cellphone — he never got a prescription in his own name and instead obtained pain pills illegally through associates.

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Shortly before his death, at least one doctor illegally gave Prince pills, though not the drug that killed the artist, officials said.

On April 7, 2016, at the request of Kirk Johnson, a close Prince associate, Dr. Michael Todd Schulenberg examined Prince at a local clinic after the star complained of vomiting and some numbness and tingling, Metz said.

Schulenberg gave Prince intravenous fluids along with a prescription for Vitamin D and another noncontrolled medication to control nausea — except the doctor agreed to put the prescriptions in Johnson’s name to protect Prince’s privacy, Metz said, a violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Soon after, Johnson asked the doctor to prescribe Prince pain medication when the star apparently hurt his back while lifting equipment, Metz said. The doctor agreed to prescribe 15 Percocet pain pills in Johnson’s name, Metz said.

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Schulenberg has denied intentionally prescribing drugs to Johnson that were actually intended for Prince. Johnson, who was not charged, also has denied “that he had anything to do with the death of his close friend,” his attorney, F. Clayton Tyler, said in a statement.

On April 14, 2016, while flying back to Minnesota from a concert in Atlanta, investigators think Prince suffered an opioid overdose after unwittingly taking a counterfeit Vicodin pill that was laced with fentanyl. He was resuscitated with Narcan at an airport in Illinois, Metz said.

On April 18, Johnson told Schulenberg that he was worried about Prince’s opioid use, and Schulenberg again examined Prince, who asked about opioid withdrawal, Metz said.

Schulenberg gave Prince prescriptions for clonidine, a drug sometimes used to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms, as well as an antihistamine similar to Benadryl, Metz said.

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Schulenberg also referred Prince for opioid dependency treatment, which led Prince’s staff to contact a treatment center, Recovery Without Walls, in Mill Valley, Calif., which sent a staff member — a doctor’s son — to Minnesota to assess Prince for treatment.

On April 21, Schulenberg contacted Johnson to tell the aide that he had test results from examining Prince. But when Schulenberg arrived at Prince’s Paisley Park estate that morning to discuss the results, the star was already dead. Metz said Prince did not die as a result of the Percocet pills Schulenberg prescribed.

The performer’s body was discovered by Johnson, Prince’s assistant Meron Bekure and Andrew Kornfeld, the Recovery Without Walls staffer, who called 911.

“My client, Kirk Johnson, is relieved that no charges have been filed against him by state or federal authorities,” Tyler said Thursday. “Prince’s death was a tragedy that few could experience more deeply than Kirk Johnson. Today’s decision affirms his innocence, and he will continue to mourn and honor his friend every day.”

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In a tribute to Prince, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art decided that the water in the popular Rain Room installation would be turned purple.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times )

Schulenberg’s presence at Paisley Park that morning — and his treatment of the star — was not initially disclosed by investigators and instead was revealed in a sealed search warrant that was accidentally released to the Los Angeles Times.

In the investigation that followed, officials were unable to discover who had given the fentanyl-laced pills to Prince, and investigators think none of his close associates knew the pills contained fentanyl. Investigators found pills scattered around Prince’s estate; 10 of Schulenberg’s Percocet pills were found in one of Prince’s suitcases.

“The pills had to come from some source,” Metz said. He added that while Prince’s associates might come under criticism for their actions, “suspicions and innuendo are categorically insufficient” to file criminal charges for the star’s death.

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Schulenberg agreed to a $30,000 civil settlement announced Thursday by the U.S. attorney’s office, to be paid within 30 days. The agreement — in which Schulenberg did not admit any liability — also came with stricter monitoring requirements for any further prescribing over the next two years.

“Dr. Schulenberg decided to settle with the United States regarding alleged civil claims in order to avoid the expense, delay, and unknown outcome of litigation,” his attorney, Amy Connors, said in a statement.

Connors added: “In his nearly 20 years of practice, Dr. Schulenberg has provided the highest level of care to his many patients and has earned a reputation for being a caring and responsible physician. He has never sought public attention or celebrity, and will continue to make the well being of his family and his patients his first priority.”

Schulenberg remains in good standing as a doctor in Minnesota and has no disciplinary or corrective actions against him, according to Minnesota Board of Medical Practice records reviewed Thursday.

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He works at a New Brighton, Minn., clinic, where a spokeswoman declined to comment to The Times.

“We are pleased the doctor is being held accountable” for illegally prescribing pills, Metz said.

With the investigation closed, investigators are expected to make their files on the case public in the coming days.


UPDATES:

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2:20 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with Times staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 9:15 a.m.


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