The mysterious circumstances around the Clueless star's death will once again be explored in an upcoming HBO Max documentary.
When a troubled Hollywood star suddenly dies, apparently with a grab bag of pills in her system, there doesn't seem to be much of a mystery.
And that's exactly how it was treated in the press when Clueless and 8 Mile star Brittany Murphy passed away in December of 2009. While the Los Angeles County coroner initially declined to declare drug use as the cause of death, that seemed like the kind of formal omission that might have been made at the behest of loved ones and publicists.
It was taken as a foregone conclusion that Murphy, long characterized in the media as a strung out and malnourished "space cadet," had simply gotten reckless with her recreational chemicals.
There was nothing surprising about it. Professional gossip Perez Hilton had even predicted her death the month before.
Just another tragic overdose, reminding us of the film industry's broken and dangerous culture. It lures ambitious and beautiful young people into its trap, then it chews them up and spits them out.
But while the broad strokes may be true — no doubt Murphy was subject to many of the industry's pitfalls and indignities — they don't seem to have had much of anything to do with her death. Those who continued paying attention to the story past initial rumors were soon disabused of that initial assumption, and left with some disturbing fragments of a story that's much less clear cut.
A Deadly Infection?
After she collapsed in the bathroom on the morning of December 20th, paramedics arrived at the scene and transported Murphy to Cedars-Sinai. Shortly after her arrival, she went into cardiac arrest and died.
Toxicology revealed a blend of over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, which may have been reckless to combine, but which all made sense as treatment for the flu-like symptoms that Murphy had reportedly been experiencing in the weeks leading up to her death. So, while a layperson could be forgiven for confusing the presence of "L-Methamphetamine" for a confirmation of every nasty rumor about Murphy, the truth is, that's just a nasal decongestant.
In reality, the primary indications for the cause of Murphy's death were the fluid in her lungs and severe anemia which led to a heart attack. Narcotics of any kind do not seem to have been directly implicated.
Brittany Murphy: An ID Mystery www.youtube.com
So if it wasn't drugs, then how did a 32-year-old seemingly die out of nowhere? The further you dig into that question, the stranger and more confusing the whole situation becomes.
Around a month before her death, Murphy had been replaced in her starring role in the independent horror film The Caller, which had been filming in Puerto Rico. Rumors suggested that she had been fired for being difficult and unreliable on set, and because her husband — little-known English writer and filmmaker Simon Monjack — had been interfering with production, and getting in fights.
It's incredibly rare for a lead actor to be fired after production begins, and Murphy denied those reports, citing "creative differences" and claiming that her separation from the production was mutual. It could also be the case that some of Murphy's issues stemmed from an illness which she may have already contracted.
Murphy's symptoms reportedly started when the couple were in Puerto Rico, and continued after she returned to LA, only becoming deadly weeks after the fact. Was she late to set and struggling to do her job in part because she was already ill? Had she contracted a staph infection that took its time in killing her?
Some have claimed that her husband can be blamed for everything. They have called him a conman based on his money troubles, and said he was controlling Murphy or enabling her adictions. Did he avoid taking her to the doctor to pre-empt further tabloid rumors about a breakdown? Maybe if she had gotten medical attention sooner she would have survived.
In the weeks after her death, Murphy's mother pointed to a congenital heart murmur for taking her daughter's life. If whatever illness was affecting her was allowed to get bad enough that it put a strain on her weakened heart, that could explain almost everything...
But what about the fact that her husband died of nearly identical symptoms around five months later?
Toxic Mold and a Broken Heart
At the time of his death, Simon Monjack, 40, had reportedly stopped taking care of himself after Murphy's death. He put on a substantial amount weight over a short period of time, and was not in the best of health to begin with.
In fact, Monjack had reportedly been suffering seizures, and had a minor heart attack shortly before Murphy's death. After she passed, he reportedly put off necessary heart surgery.
In his final interview before his death, he spoke of his tremendous grief about having lost Murphy, telling a reporter at Radar Online, "I don't think you understand how much my wife and I loved each other. I can only wish you that closeness with another human being."
When he died — just days later in the home he had shared with Murphy — his mother, Linda Monjack, said he had died of a broken heart. But the doctors said it was pneumonia and severe anemia...
One prominent theory that arose even before Monjack's death was that a toxic mold in the couple's home may have been the culprit. While the LA County Department of Health reportedly raised this possibility, the coroner claimed to have found no indications that mold was involved. But Sharon Murphy, who shared the 8,000 square foot house with her daughter and son-in-law, later became convinced that mold was involved.
The house, purchased from Britney Spears — who once shared it with Justin Timberlake — had apparently been riddled with issues, leading to a lawsuit in which the builders settled for $600,000 in 2011. What the law firm involved apparently failed to mention was that this settlement effectively waived the possibility of a wrongful death suit as a result of toxic mold — leading to a further lawsuit alleging legal malpractice.
A Government Conspiracy?
So maybe two people with week hearts just happened to share their home with a dangerous mold. But how did the coroner miss the signs? If you believe Murphy's father, Angelo Bertolotti, the signs weren't there because mold wasn't involved at all. Rather, the couple were poisoned by the U.S. government.
To explain why the government — specifically the Department of Homeland Security — would possibly have a grudge against the Girl Interrupted actor, we must first introduce Murphy's friend, Julia Davis. Davis was a Homeland Security agent who claims to have reported her superiors to the FBI when they failed to act on an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist threat at the Mexico border in 2004.
Julia Davis DHS Whistleblower Case Featured Brittany Murphy www.youtube.com
Documents from Osama Bin Laden's compound reportedly confirm plans for an attack on July 4th of that year, but — according to Davis — her report to the FBI was seen as an embarrassment to the DHS, and kicked off an elaborate sequence of retaliations.
They launched investigations against Davis, allegedly raiding her home in 2005. But the 25-year-old neighbor who filmed the raid was found dead in his home soon after.
They also interviewed Brittany Murphy about Davis, and claimed that she had offered testimony supporting their case against Davis. Murphy allegedly refuted that claim in a written statement. Then, in 2007 — shortly before the couple married — Simon Monjack was arrested over visa issues, and threatened with deportation back to the UK.
Linda Monjack's mother reported that he had told her he was "followed and beaten up and ... detained for nine days," adding, "Brittany got him out eventually, but from then on they felt there was a deep conspiracy."
The couple maintained an elaborate security system at their home, including over 50 cameras and a device for scrambling phone calls. And, according to Angelo Bertolotti, they were right to be paranoid: "They were, in fact, under surveillance, including helicopters..." he said. "Their telephones were wiretapped, Brittany was afraid to go home, because of the sneak-and-peek incursions into their residence and other terror tactics she suffered after speaking out in support of Julia Davis."
Bertolotti was so convinced that foul play was involved in his daughter's death that he ordered an independent analysis of her hair, which found high levels of toxic heavy metals consistent with rat poison. Is this proof that Murphy and Monjack were poisoned as part of an elaborate retaliation against a government whistle blower? Well...no.
It could all be just a wild conspiracy theory. Bertolotti, who died in 2019, would later accuse his ex-wife Sharon Murphy of doing the poisoning — which is at least as plausible as blaming the government, but the evidence in either direction is scant. And while hair toxicology can be an effective way to detect chemicals in a person's system, it can also detect chemicals that are only found on the hair itself — like, for instance, hair dye, which is often responsible for the presence of heavy metals.
Were the Tabloids Right All Along?
So what really happened? Months after the fact, the LA County coroner amended the initial report to include "multiple drug intoxication" in the cause of death. While that still does not include any illegal substances, it's certainly possible that Murphy's use of so many medications to treat her illness contributed to her death.
It's also possible that the couple's paranoia was justified, and they were poisoned in retaliation for embarrassing the DHS. According to Linda Monjack — who said her son was "too fearful" to ever be a drug user — before his death Simon Monjack was "having hallucinations that things were crawling out of his skin."
Or maybe that belief that her son was too fearful to take drugs is just a mother's impulse to view her son as innocent. Maybe those hallucinations and the paranoia were all the result of the rumored substance abuse.
Maybe it had damaged their systems so much that it didn't take much to kill them. Could that have made them so susceptible that they were taken out by a staph infection, the wrong mix of medicines, or a little house mold? Maybe it was all of the above.
More than a decade later, there are still far more questions than answers. And we may never know the truth.
The Daily Beast on Brittany Murphy www.youtube.com
We like to think that there is an order to the world. That when tragic things happen, we can at least understand them. But even that meager comfort is far from certain.
In the chaos and complexity of life, a person with so many advantages — young, famous, talented, wealthy — can just die a strange, sudden death. She can even be followed by her husband, and we still might never understand what happened.
The fame that might be expected to spur on an investigation can instead obscure the issue with vicious rumors. By the time it's clear that things aren't so simple, it's too late — most of the world has written her off and moved on.
Blumhouse Television and Pyramid Productions have just been greenlit for a two-part HBO Max documentary on Brittany Murphy's life and death. And maybe they will take the mystery seriously.
Maybe with an HBO budget, they might be able to find some answers that aren't available to the rest of us. But I won't be holding my breath.
Sometimes the world is just a dangerous and confusing place. Sometimes people can just die — and we never find out why.