Jeff Grosso autopsy reveals fentanyl played role in legendary skateboarder’s death

Jeff Grosso, legendary skateboarder.
Costa Mesa’s Jeff Grosso, a legendary skateboarder, died in March at age 51 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach.
(YouTube / Vans)

Former professional skateboarder Jeff Grosso’s death in March was caused by “acute polydrug intoxication” from the combined effects of fentanyl and phenobarbital, according to an autopsy report by the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department.

Grosso, who lived in Costa Mesa, was an Arcadia native who rose to fame as a professional skateboarder in the late 1980s and later became a beloved ambassador for the sport through his YouTube show, his mentorship of younger pro skaters and his public reflections on battles with drug addiction. He died at the age of 51 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach.

Severe cardiomegaly (enlargement of the heart) with dilatation, a clinical history of hypertension and anxiety, and obesity were listed as other conditions in the autopsy report obtained by The Times through a public records request. The manner of his death was ruled an accident.

Grosso’s mother, Rae Williams, declined to comment on the findings.

Phenobarbital is a barbiturate often used to treat seizures and anxiety. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent. Fentanyl is more likely even than prescription opioids to suppress breathing and cause death when taken in uncontrolled concentrations by unsuspecting users or by users whose opioid tolerance has not been heightened by long-term use.

Fentanyl, which is often present in counterfeit pills, is becoming an increasingly common factor in Los Angeles-area drug-caused deaths, according to Drug Enforcement Administration statistics. About 33% of such deaths in L.A. County in 2019 featured fentanyl — a more than tenfold increase from six years prior. Of the more than 1,200 drug-caused deaths confirmed in the county this year, 47.4% have involved fentanyl.

A toxicological examination performed by the Orange County Crime Lab showed that Grosso had 0.0459 milligrams per liter of fentanyl in his system, an amount well beyond the typical minimum fatal concentration.

The skateboarding world was sent into shock this spring at the news on March 31 of Grosso’s death, the cause of which was unknown at the time. A lifelong skateboarder who was drawn to the expressive freedoms and rebellious spirit of the sport, he became a top amateur as a teenager before turning pro in 1986.

Jeff Grosso’s Lovetters videos with Vans.

Of the same generation as legendary skaters Tony Hawk and Christian Hosoi, Grosso became one of skateboarding’s most popular figures at the height of the “big air” vertical skating era defined by halfpipes and aerial tricks.

His competitive career was short-lived, ending when street skating, where skateboarders perform tricks off urban obstacles such as staircases and handrails, began to dominate the sport in the early ’90s.

Grosso’s legend and stature within skateboarding culture, however, only grew with time. He spoke openly about his years-long struggles with drug addiction and battle to get clean, which he said he achieved in 2005. He became a mentor to many young skaters over the last decade. And he earned a sparkling reputation as a father to his 8-year-old son.

Jeff Grosso, who made a name for himself in the 1980s, died Tuesday at Hoag Hospital. The Orange County coroner’s office said the cause of Grosso’s death has not been determined.

Grosso was sponsored by Vans throughout his career and in 2011 began hosting the popular “Loveletters to Skateboarding” show on its YouTube feed, in which he discussed the sport’s history and culture through interviews with some of its biggest stars.

“His presence and his devotion to skating’s integrity is really what carried through all these years and why a whole new generation knows who Jeff is,” Hawk said in an interview this summer. “He was the gatekeeper to why skateboarding was cool.”

Jack Harris is a staff writer with the Los Angeles Times.

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