Why Did Seattle's Former Police Chief Say Kurt Cobain's Suicide Case Should Be Reopened?

It's a good time for the conspiracy theorists who think the Nirvana frontman was murdered.

|
Jul 6 2015, 10:00am

Kurt Cobain's driver's license was photographed as evidence after he was found dead in April 1994. All photos via Seattle Police Department.

About a month after the widely acclaimed Montage of Heck premiered on HBO, a second Kurt Cobain film was released to significantly less fanfare. Soaked in Bleach is a docudrama that peddles in conspiracy theory, along with plenty of reenactment—two things that are not typically indicators of tremendous quality.

The acting is more than a little cringeworthy, and there's already a documentary called Kurt and Courtney that covers some of the same territory. But certain corners of the internet have delighted in the conclusion to Soaked in Bleach, when former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper suggests Kurt Cobain may not have died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in April 1994, as most of the world believes.

"If we didn't get it right the first time, we damn well better get it right the second time," Stamper says. "And I would tell you right now, if I were the chief of police I would reopen this investigation."

So why was the department Stamper headed so quick to rule Cobain's death a suicide 21 years ago, and why the bizarre change of heart since?

Although Montage of Heck was authorized by the Cobain family, Soaked in Bleach was put together despite their objections, including a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of Cobain's wife, Courtney Love. That's probably because it focuses on Tom Grant, something of a Jesus figure to the people out there who insist that the Nirvana frontman was murdered.

(Love did not return requests for comment through her attorney or through her management.)

Grant, an ex-cop turned private detective, was hired by Love when Cobain went missing after being released from rehab on April 1, 1994. He didn't do a great job of tracking down his subject. Cops determined that Cobain shot himself in his own home—probably on April 5, according to a coroner's report—and it took an electrician stumbling upon the corpse for it to be discovered three days later.

But Grant claims to have found Love so strange and manipulative after first meeting her that he decided to record their conversations. With its emphasis on Grant, the new documentary essentially serves as an extended airing for the outlandish idea that Love may have murdered Cobain, flanked by re-enactments of those taped phone calls and interviews.

Former Chief Stamper declined an interview with VICE, citing a book deadline. But private investigator and Soaked in Bleach star Tom Grant thinks he knows why Seattle's old top cop has warmed up to the murder theory since the 90s.

Basically, Grant argues, the officers serving below Stamper may have been resentful or incompetent.

"Chief Stamper was hired from the outside," Grant says. "He had only been chief for about three months when Kurt Cobain was killed. In general, subordinates often do not like having a new boss who is hired from the outside rather than promoted from within."

Stamper delivers the movie's coup de grâce when he concludes, "We should in fact have taken steps to study patterns involved in the behavior of key individuals who had a motive to see Kurt Cobain dead. If in fact Kurt Cobain was murdered, as opposed to having committed suicide, and it was possible to learn that, shame on us for not doing that. That was in fact our responsibility. It's about right and wrong. It's about honor. It's about ethics."

That whiff of doubt is music to the ears of Cobain Truthers who have been waiting decades for validation—or at least acknowledgment from someone with a vaguely official-sounding title who doesn't think they're total nut-jobs.

If you haven't been paying attention, while the concept of a sad guy who sings sad songs doing a sad thing seems pretty cut-and-dry, a small army of fringe internet sleuths maintain that Cobain's demise stemmed from foul play. And while it's almost certainly not true that one of the most high-profile celebrity deaths of the past 50 years was misclassified as a suicide, people out there are still insisting that Tupac is alive and well in Cuba. So Cobain's death isn't exactly unique in attracting crackpot conjecture.

Another reason Grant offers for the Seattle PD's alleged desire to wash its hands of the case is simple annoyance. He argues that conspiracy theorists come out of the woodwork almost immediately after high-profile deaths, and investigators generally want to steer clear of them.

"There was one guy in Seattle with his own public-access TV show who claimed Kurt was murdered within 24 hours of hearing the news of Kurt's death," Grant says. "He did everything he could to create attention for himself by constantly annoying the Seattle Police Department and creating publicity stunts to get the media's attention."

Ever since the age of shitty personal websites like Angelfire and Geocities, People With Opinions have dedicated lots of time and energy to probing Cobain's death. Some of these armchair detectives believe that Love wanted to inherit her rockstar-husband's estate, and point to interviews with acquaintances suggesting Cobain was happy before his death. They mull the plausible trajectory of shotgun shells, note that there were no legible fingerprints recovered from the scene, and pore over the singer's supposed suicide note—especially the final lines, which, they say, look as if they were penned by someone else.

One of the main pieces of required reading for Cobain Truthers is a 1998 paper written by a Canadian chemist named Roger Lewis. He makes the argument that Cobain couldn't have possibly shot himself because he had so much heroin in his system that he should have been comatose. Rather than die with a needle in his arm, the singer apparently managed to place his heroin gear back into a box, which was photographed on the scene by police.

Heroin gear recovered from the scene of Cobain's death in 1994

There's also a 2005 book called Love & Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain by Ian Halperin and Max Wallace. They quote Dr. Osvaldo Galletta, who treated Kurt Cobain in March 1994 when he overdosed on the date-rape drug Rohypnol, aka Roofies. Fans often say it was his first suicide attempt, but Truthers argue it was the first time someone attempted to kill him.

"We can usually tell a suicide attempt," the authors pried out of the doctor. "This didn't look like one to me."

Grant, the private detective who's made the Cobain case his life's work, says that the stuff unveiled by hobbyists just wasn't available to the former police chief when cops ruled the death a suicide in '94.

"I'm convinced that Chief Stamper was never completely filled in on all of the details surrounding the death of Kurt," Grant says.

The PI claims in the movie that the name Kurt Cobain goes through his head "300 or 400 times a day at least." He's obviously on the more obsessive end of the spectrum, but there's enough persistent interest in the late singer's death that the Seattle Police Department reportedly gets at least one request per week to reopen the case.

The fanatics making those requests got their hopes up in March of last year when the Seattle police decided to develop four rolls of film from shortly after Cobain's body was found. However, police officials indicated the evidence revealed nothing and that people who thought the case was being reopened were "very, very incorrect."

Some people say Kurt Cobain left a suicide note, while others argue Courtney Love took an existing note about quitting music and added a bit to the bottom.

Holdouts will probably cry "murder" in the Cobain case until the sun explodes, and part of that is complicated by the story's main players—a woman with a bevy of highly publicized personal problems and a notoriously inscrutable prankster who loved fucking with the public.

After Montage of Heck came out, one of Cobain's good friends came forward to say that movie was off base, too. Specifically, he argued the diary entries the filmmakers reconstructed to form some of the most memorable scenes were completely made up.

"People need to understand that ninety percent of Montage of Heck is bullshit," Buzz Osborne of the Melvins told Rolling Stone." That's the one thing no one gets about Cobain—he was a master of jerking your chain."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.