In Memoriam: Kurt Cobain & Courtney Love

After 16 years of heated argument, authorities and amateur sleuths are no less divided

At Eastertime, 1994, Kurt Cobain was found in a storage room, a gunshot hole in his head, a heroin hypodermic hole in each arm.

Suicide or murder?

After 16 years of heated argument, authorities and amateur sleuths are no less divided on the question.

Supporters of the Seattle Police Department’s suicide ruling include Cobain biographers, Charles R. Cross and Christopher Sandford, as well as journalists Charles Rawlins, Bradley Spears, and many others. Supporters of a murder conspiracy include biographers Max Wallace and Ian Halperin, as well as Courtney Love’s private detective, Tom Grant, her father, Hank Harrison, journalists Richard Lee, Roger Lewis, and many others.

Let’s look at the major issues between these two camps.

With 1.52 ml of heroin in his system – said to be three times the amount for a fatal overdose — murder proponents insist “dead men do not pull triggers.” But suicide advocates challenge the magnitude of the dose, make a distinction between free and metabolized morphine, and assert that a hardcore addict could indeed maintain consciousness and pull a trigger.

The second bone of evidentiary contention is the note left behind. Suicide supporters claim that it was a suicide note. Murder conspiracy theorists, however, believe it was Cobain’s letter of retirement from Nirvana and an apology to his fans. Furthermore, they say it was forged in part, a claim supported by a prominent handwriting expert (though not by all those consulted).

A third issue: police found no legible fingerprints on the .20 gauge shotgun, or on the pen with the note. The murder camp concludes that they were wiped down by an assassin. Their opponents assert that such “latent” unreadable prints are commonplace and innocuous.

Next, the issue of “Cadaveric Spasm.” Cobain’s hands were reportedly locked around the gun barrel. The Seattle medical examiner called this an unmistakable sign of suicide. Other coroners disagree, suggesting an assassin may have gripped his own hand around Cobain’s and pulled the trigger.

Then, there was Elton Hoke, who claimed that Courtney Love offered him $50,000 to kill her husband. Suicide advocates dismiss the LA punk rocker as an alcoholic bottomfeeder hungry for attention. How was it then, demand conspiracy theorists, that he scored  99% on a polygraph test (which Ms. Love allegedly refused to take), and that, after making his claim, he was run over by a train?

Finally: was Cobain indeed suicidal? He declared that he had “suicide genes,” he posed for photos with guns in his mouth, and he had wanted to call his last album “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die.” But the conspiracy camp quotes the many who insist the star was not at all suicidal: his closest friends, his Rome doctor, his managers, and his attorney, Rosemary Carroll.

Both factions agree Cobain’s marriage was in trouble. Conspiracy theorists claim that Kurt was filing for divorce and writing Courtney out of his will, thus giving her motive for murder. Had he lived, she would have been a disinherited, disgraced divorcee; as a widow, she inherited the entirety of his estate plus future earnings ($20 to $30 million annually) and bolstered her own career. Nonsense, counter suicide supporters: no will-change or divorcee documents exist; besides, Courtney was prospering professionally and financially with her own popular band, Hole.

The irreconcilable opposition of both camps on all these issues seems to derive as much from passion and partisanship, as from reason and hard evidence. Murder supporters tend to love Kurt; suicide supports tend to like Courtney. Furthermore, some in the second group seem to have a hardwired skepticism, if not contempt, for conspiracy theories generally.

In 2002, one prominent murder case with conspiratorial elements was reopened. Defendant Michael Skakel, of the Kennedy family, was found guilty in the bludgeoning death of 15-year-old Martha Moxley in 1975. The Connecticut police had dropped the case for lack of evidence, but public interest was rekindled by two celebrity writer exposés: Dominick Dunne’s "A Season in Purgatory" (1993), and his friend Mark Fuhrman’s "Murder in Greenwich" (1998).

In 2004, Max Halperin and Ian Wallace published a Cobain conspiracy exposé, "Love and Death," but it wasn’t enough to persuade the Seattle Police Department to question its suicide ruling. Nor was it willing to reopen the case due to an alleged conflict of interest involving its two chief investigators.

Detective Tom Grant asserted that the medical examiner, Dr. Nikolas Hartshorne, was Courtney Love’s personal friend. The widow, who had become acquainted with Hartshorne when he had worked as a rock promoter years before, called him, according to Wallace and Halperin, “my rock-and-roll medical examiner.” He, in turn, had described her as a “great girl” but assured them this did not represent a conflict of interest in his investigation. But when Tom Grant asked his client about Dr. Hartshorne, she declared: “As long as Nikolas is the coroner, I’m not afraid.” After a cursory investigation, Hartshorne told reporters that Cobain’s death was an “open-and-shut case of suicide.”

The SPD’s lead detective, Sgt. Don Cameron, also allegedly Courtney’s friend, concurred. She told Grant she got “brownie points” for tipping off his colleague, Narcotics Detective Antonio Terry, about Seattle dealers, some of them her own. In turn, Cameron provided her helpful professional advice. When she showed him Kurt’s Rome “divorce” letter, calling it suicidal, the detective advised her, according to Wallace and Halperin, “This will never do you any good. I’d get rid of this if I were you.”

The authors and Grant assert that she burned the evidence. Then, at her lawyer Seth Lichtenstein’s request, photos of the death scene remained sealed and inaccessible, though tenaciously sought by independent investigators. Moreover, according to investigative journalist, Matthew Richer, her name was redacted from several prior SPD 911 domestic disturbance reports, though Kurt’s was retained. “In the aggregate, the police reports clearly illustrate how Courtney Love successfully manipulated the Seattle police,” he wrote. “By the time the Seattle PD investigated his death on April 8, they were already convinced Cobain committed suicide.

In addition to all this, a fundamental question remains: in impartially examining her history, does Courtney Love — whom Kurt married on February 24, 1992, four days after his birthday — seem like the sort of person who might conspire to murder a spouse?

Her first punk rock husband, James Moreland, declared that, had their marriage lasted, he would likely have "wound up like Kurt, shoving a shotgun down my throat.” According to Wallace and Halperin, Andrew Gumbel, Henrietta Knight and other writers, Moreland also claimed that Courtney “knew a lot about hitmen,” was “dangerous” and “uncontrollably violent.”

Moreland’s predecessors agreed. Julian Cope, of The Teardrop Explodes, ran a full page ad in NME magazine accusing Ms. Love of “sucking out the brains” of great rock groups, and later explained to Select magazine, “She needs shooting and I’ll shoot her.” Her more diplomatic next boyfriend, Theatre of Sheep’s Rozz Rezabek, called her, according to biographer Melissa Rossi (Courtney Love: Queen of Noise) “my cure for happiness” and “The Black Tornado.”

After Cobain’s death, the widow took up with Trent Reznor. “If she died tomorrow I wouldn’t shed a tear,” the Nine Inch Nails star told Rolling Stone magazine following their break-up and the vandalizing of his apartment detailed by Rossi. “She’s a very evil person.”

“I’m pathologically competitive with men,” Ms. Love told Rossi. Now, like her nemesis Madonna, she calls herself a gay man trapped inside a woman’s body.

But her competitiveness seems equal opportunity. In 1995, the LAPD arrested her for punching Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. "I do believe my fist … met her rathead and it was orgasmic,” Playboy’s Neal Karlen (“Love Hurts”) reported her boasting. In 2004, she was arrested for assaulting Kristin King, the girlfriend of her ex, Jim Barber. According to Wallace, Rossi, and Karlen, she threatened to cut off the head of Kurt’s ex-girlfriend, Mary Lou Lord, “and shove it up her ass.” Identifying the frail folk singer as one of the five people she wanted to "murder," Ms Love later chased her down Sunset Boulevard, screaming “I’m gonna kill you!”

Cobain’s widow was no more diplomatic with female journalists. After Lynn Hirschberg portrayed her as a “train wreck personality,” (“Strange Love,” Vanity Fair, Sept. 1992), the Hole diva composed "Bring Me the Head of Lynn Hirschberg." Then there was the widely reported incident at the ’95 Academy Awards when she threatened to adjust the journalist’s attitude with Tarantino’s Pulp  Fiction Oscar. She had also reportedly promised to make Hirschberg’s colleagues, Victoria Clarke and Britt Collins, “wish you’ve never been born,” later hairdragging Collins from an LA bar, and attacking her with a glass.

In the future, Ms. Love avoided future misunderstandings with writers by laying down ground rules. "If you fuck me over," she told Playboy’s Neal Karlen, "I'll hunt you down and kill you." Added Karlen: “I believed her."

In 2002 Nirvana survivors, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, filed a petition to have Ms. Love’s sanity tested. The judge turned them down, declaring that such an evaluation would “serve no purpose other than to contribute to a circuslike atmosphere.”

"If someone thinks I'm insane," Courtney had told Karlen, "I'll just fucking pour a beer on their head. I have guns and I punch. They would still think I was insane, but they would think I was violent and insane."

After court-mandated anger management classes, Ms. Love’s contrite performances for law enforcement officials have been compelling. She seems to enjoy the courtroom as much as the stage. Her biographer, Melissa Rossi, recounts an incident the year after Kurt died, when Courtney, on trial for assaulting two fans, whispered to the prosecutor: “Can I be O.J. and you can play Christopher Darden?”

Days after Kurt was found in the storage room, Hole released "Live Through This," which included his widow’s composition, “Miss World.”

“I am the girl you know — I lie and lie and lie,” she sang. “I’m Miss World — somebody kill me. Now I’ve made my bed I’ll lie in it — I’ve made my bed I’ll die in it.”