By Alan Duke
LOS ANGELES (CNN) — AEG Live co-CEO Paul Gongaware, whose career as a concert promoter started with Elvis Presley’s last tours, testifies Tuesday about Michael Jackson’s final days.
Gongaware, who was one of the top producers of Jackson’s comeback concerts, takes the stand as the Michael Jackson wrongful death trial enters its fifth week in a Los Angeles courtroom.
Jackson’s mother and children are suing AEG Live for liability in the pop icon’s death, accusing the concert promoter of negligently hiring, retaining or supervising Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
AEG lawyers contend that Michael Jackson chose, hired and supervised Murray and that his bad decisions were fueled by a drug addiction their executives had no way of knowing about.
The Elvis connection
Elvis’ name is expected to come up as Jackson’s lawyers question Gongaware about his knowledge of drug use during concert tours. He should have been able to recognize red flags warning about Jackson’s drug use because of his experience with Presley and his time as Jackson’s tour manager in the 1990s, they contend.
When Gongaware was managing Jackson’s 1993 tour he warned the tour doctor “Don’t be a Dr. Nick” — a reference to Elvis Presley’s last physician — the doctor testified in a deposition.
“Dr. Nick was the doctor whose overprescription of drugs to Elvis had led to Elvis’ death,” according to a court filing by lawyers for the Jackson family.
Presley collapsed in the bathroom of his Memphis, Tennessee, mansion — Graceland — on August 16, 1977, at the age of 42. While his death was ruled the result of an irregular heartbeat, the autopsy report was sealed amid accusations that abuse of prescription drugs caused the problem.
“Dr. Nick” — Dr. George Nichopoulos — said later he was treating Presley for insomnia. He was charged with over-prescribing drugs to Presley, but he was acquitted. He later lost his medical license in another case.
Jackson died on June 25, 2009, at the age of 50. The coroner ruled his death was caused by a fatal combination of sedatives and the surgical anesthetic propofol. Murray told investigators he gave Jackson nightly infusions of propofol to treat his insomnia. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, sentenced to four years in prison and stripped of his medical license.
The Jackson lawyers are using Gongaware’s Elvis and “Dr. Nick” reference to argue that “AEG knew Jackson had suffered chronic substance abuse and drug dependency problems for many years.”
“Shortly after he joined the ‘Dangerous’ tour in 1993, Dr. Finkelstein was asked to treat Jackson for pain,” the Jackson filing said, referring to Dr. Stuart Finkelstein, a doctor on the 1993 tour.
“Having observed signs of opiate addiction in Jackson, Dr. Finkelstein nonetheless administered Demerol by injection, and administered morphine intravenously in Jackson’s Bangkok hotel room for 24 hours.”
After that, Finkelstein told Gongaware “he thought Jackson had an opiate dependency problem,” the filing said.
“For three and a half months, the ‘Dangerous’ tour continued,” it said. “Another doctor attended Jackson regularly, on one occasion breaking into Dr. Finkelstein’s bag to get opiates to administer to Jackson. Gongaware was there the whole time, in charge of tour logistics, aware of the various physicians present, and he discussed with Dr. Finkelstein Jackson’s opiate problem.”
When Gongaware warned Dr. Finkelstein, who the brief described as his “close friend,” not to become Jackson’s “Dr. Nick,” he was “warning me, you know, don’t get all infatuated where you start administering meds to a rock star and have the rock star overdose and die on you,” Dr. Finkelstein testified.
The ‘smoking gun’
Gongaware is also a key witness because he wrote what Jackson’s lawyers call the “smoking gun” e-mail which they argue shows AEG Live executives used Murray’s fear of losing his lucrative job as Jackson’s personal physician to pressure him to have Jackson ready for rehearsals despite his fragile health.
Gongaware’s e-mail to show director Kenny Ortega, sent 11 days before Jackson’s death, addressed concerns that Murray had kept Jackson from a rehearsal the day before: “We want to remind (Murray) that it is AEG, not MJ, who is paying his salary. We want to remind him what is expected of him.” Gongaware, in a video deposition played in court on the first day of the trial, said he could not remember writing the e-mail.
“They put Dr. Murray in a position where if he said Michael can’t go or can’t play, if he said I can’t give you those drugs, then he doesn’t get paid,” Jackson lawyer Brian Panish told jurors in his opening statements.
AEG lawyer Marvin Putnam said in his opening statement that Gongaware and other AEG executives had no way of knowing about Jackson’s use of propofol to sleep.
“AEG knew nothing about this decade-long propofol use,” Putnam said. “They were a concert promoter. How could they know?”
Gongaware will also face questions about an e-mail in which he seemed to question Jackson’s commitment to his “This Is It” tour.
“We cannot be forced into stopping this, which MJ will try to do because he is lazy and constantly changes his mind to fit his immediate wants,” he wrote to his boss, AEG Live President Randy Phillips.
Jackson make up artist Karen Faye testified earlier abut an incident in which Gongaware became frustrated because Jackson locked himself in a bathroom at his home, refusing to leave for rehearsals at the Forum. Gongaware was “angry and kind of desperate to get Michael to the Forum,” Faye said.
She overheard Gongaware screaming on the phone at Jackson’s security guard, telling him “to get him out of the bathroom. Do you have a key? Do whatever it takes.”
‘Trouble at the Front’
Jackson lawyers are also expected to ask Gongaware about e-mails he received that raised questions about Jackson’s health in the last weeks of his life.
“This Is It” production director John “Bugzee” Houghdahl wrote to him on June 19, 2009 — six days before Jackson died — “I have watched him deteriorate in front of my eyes over the last 8 weeks. He was able to do multiple 360 spins back in April. He’d fall on his ass if he tried now.”
Houghdahl’s e-mail, titled “trouble at the Front” was written after Ortega sent Jackson home from a rehearsal because of his strange behavior.
“He was a basket case and Kenny was concerned he would embarrass himself on stage, or worse yet — get hurt,” Houghdahl wrote. “The company is rehearsing right now, but the DOUBT is pervasive.”
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