FEBRUARY 27, 1987/MONTROSE VOICE 7
The Coroner Who Took on Hollywood
By Kathleen Neumeyer
INDIO, Calif. (UPI)—When Liberace
died Feb. 4 and the people who worked
for him insisted he had succumbed to
something other than AIDS, they didn't
count on Raymond Carrillo.
Among physicians a debate is under
way over whether a patient is entitled to
keep embarrassing health problems
secret or if the threat to public safety
outweighs individual rights.
But no such question distracted Carrillo when Liberace died and Carrillos's
office was asked to certify by telephone
a death certificate citing heart disease
and a brain disorder as the cause of
What did concern Carrillo, a portly
moon-faced businessman elected in
November after promising to rid the cor-
oner'3 office of corruption, was determining the exact cause of death.
"They were trying to pull a fast one on
the Riverside County coroner's office,"
said the 56-year-old Carrillo. "I think
they were trying to pull something they
thought they could get away with."
Born in Arizona and raised since
infancy in this once-sleepy and now
booming desert town 40 miles from the
more well-heeled resort community of
Palm Springs, Carrillo spent 10 years as
a sheriffs deputy and 14 as a deputy
coroner before running for the top job
His predecessor, William Dykes, was
retiring, and Carrillo's major opponent
was chief deputy coroner Carl B. Smith.
But a grand jury, looking into charges
that unlicensed embalmers had been
working in the coroner's office, indicted
Smith on perjury charges, and by the
time of the June primary, Smith was a
Campaigning on a promise to clean
up corruption in the coroner's office,
Carrillo came in first in the election over
Smith but did not get a majority.
Carrillo asked the courts to declare
him the winner. He lost that battle but
was more successful in the November
runoff, when he handily defeated the
No. 3 vote-getter, Mickey Worthington,
in the June primary.
Because so many celebrities maintain
vacation and retirement homes in the
Palm Springs and adjacent Rancho
Mirage and Palm Desert areas of Riverside County, the post made Carrillo a
kind of new coroner to the stars—a title
once used to describe ex-Los Angeles
County Coroner Thomas T. Noguchi.
Local residents have the feeling that
officials kow-tow to the monied Hollywood crowd, and Carrillo says there
have been times when bodies have been
"spirited out" of Riverside County to
Los Angeles for burial.
Carrillo's first turn in the limelight
came when Liberace died in his opulent
Spanish hacienda Feb. 4.
His physician, Dr. Ron Daniels, of
Whittier, certified that the death was
due to congestive heart failure and encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease often associated with acquired
immune deficiency syndrome. But
Daniels did not list AIDS as a cause of
The I^as Vegas Sun two weeks earlier
reported that the flamboyant pianist
was dying of AIDS. Liberace's attorney,
Joel Strote, responded with a telegram
to the Sun in which he demanded a
retraction and denied that "Mr. Showmanship" was dying or that he had
Liberace, who denied being a homosexual and won a lawsuit in 1959
against the London Mail for making
that insinuation, also denied through
his spokesmen that he had AIDS.
His long-time business manager, Seymour Heller, said Liberace had anemia
brought on by a watermelon diet.
As Liberace lay dying, his New York
publicist, Denise Collier, maintained he
was suffering from pernicious anemia,
emphysema and heart disease.
There were those who didn't believe it,
and when the entertainer died, Carrillo's office came under a torrent of telephone calls from people asking what the
coroner intended to do about it.
His chance came when health officials in Los Angeles asked Carrillo to
certify the death certificate so that they
could issue a burial permit.
Instead, Carrillo ordered Liberace's
body returned to Riverside County from
Forest I_awn Mortuary in Los Angeles.
He also ordered an autopsy, which
proved conclusively what Liberace had
desperately sought to conceal.
"He didn't die of heart disease and
encephalopathy," Carrillo said. "In layman's terms, he had AIDS."
To those who know the coroner, his
conduct was perfectly in character.
"There's a general feeling here of a
local boy making good," says Dave
Michaels, city editor of the Indio Daily
News. "There's a general feeling here
that he took on the Hollywood establishment. ... It's like Ray to be blunt and
come out in the open."
The first Hispanic ever elected to such
office in Riverside County, which has a
large Hispanic population, Carrillo
operates a popular Mexican restaurant.
He is not a physician, and at news
conferences on Liberace's death he
deferred to aides on medical questions.
Carrillo, who bristles at suggestions
he tried to turn the autopsy into a media
circus, was testy when asked repeatedly
why he had called for the investigation
into Liberace's death.
"I would be remiss in my duty if I
didn't," he said, adding that he has an
obligation to investigate deaths that are
not attended by physicians and those
suspected of involving communicable
Daniels, who had paid a house call on
Liberace the day before he died, arrived
at the entertainer's residence shortly
after 2:00 p.m. on Feb. 4 and pronounced
him dead at 2:05 p.m.
There has been speculation Liberace
had been dead for some time before
Daniels arrived because the hearse, sent
from Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, a
good two-hour drive away, pulled up
only a short time later.
After the autopsy, Daniels' attorney
said the physician suspected Libarace
might have suffered from AIDS but had
no proof and deferred to the wishes of
the entertainer and his family in not
listing AIDS as a cause of death.
"Given the highly charged nature of
the acronym of AIDS, one has to be careful with what one does with the living as
well as with the dead in a society that
treats that word as a pariah," said attorney William Ginsburg.
"It is even more irresponsible to list
someone's death as AIDS if you're not
Dr. Arthur Caplan. a medical ethicist
at the Hastings Center at Hastings-on-
Hudson, N.Y.. a research center
involved in questions of medical ethics,
said he found Daniels' self-defense "disingenuous." He said that "all the physician has to do to be sure is to do a blood
Caplan said a debate is under way in
the medical community over the varying weights to give to a patient's right to
die in privacy and to keep his medical
problems to himself, and the greater
harm to society from a communicable
disease such as AIDS.
He noted the "longstanding tradition
that a doctor has a moral obligation to
respect the patient's wishes about who
knows about his disease, and that
includes spouses, lovers, friends and the
Caplan said doctors fear that if
patients believe a doctor cannot be
trusted to keep his medical secrets confidential, "this will discourage others, out
of a fear of stigma, from getting medical
help. They will choose to die at home.
"What it boils down to is that a communicable venereal disease, a sexually
transmitted disease like AIDS, is a
strong enough threat to the public
health to compel disclosure."
While Caplan believes the need to
track an epidemic makes mandatory
reporting of communicable diseases
essential, he questions whether the
media absolutely needs to report causes
"In cases like syphilis, cancer and suicide, we have always tolerated some
obfuscation in obituaries," he said.
"The public hasn't risen up and begged
to be told the truth."
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