I had no idea when I was sent for an overnight trip to cover the death of Anna Nicole Smith that the story would have lasted more than three weeks and taken me from Florida to the Bahamas to Florida and back again to the Bahamas.
Minutes after the news broke that Anna Nicole Smith had collapsed at the Hard Rock Hotel in Florida, I called her attorney, Ron Rale, asking him about her condition. I will never forget how stunned both he and I were when he told me in a phone conversation off-air that he had just learned after checking in with the hospital and friends about Anna’s status that "she was deceased." At this point, everyone thought she was sick and had passed out and would be better soon. I could hear in Rale’s voice how surprised he was himself when the hospital told him how tragic this was. Rale collected himself and then came on air with me to break the news.
Tour of the autopsy room
After speaking to close friends of Anna Nicole Smith for many hours on the air that day, I rushed home to pack for an early morning flight down to Ft. Lauderdale. The next day, down in Florida, it was a mob scene of cameras surrounding a normally quiet medical examiner’s office with reporters anxious to hear the first comments about the case from the chief medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper. We were lucky that he was a very patient and accommodating medical examiner; not all are as accessible as Dr. Perper. He even gave me a tour of the actual autopsy room where they had just completed working on Anna Nicole Smith’s body. It was incredible to see the extreme measures that were undertaken to make sure her body was secure. Dr. Perper told me he was worried about someone taking or damaging the body and he placed it under lock and key as well as heavy guard the whole time the body was in his building in Florida.
Meanwhile, at the Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., the employees would not speak to the press publicly. But as I walked through the busy casino, many employees discreetly pass along messages to me, trying to avoid catching the attention of the many security cameras on the casino floor. Many employees were worried they'd be fired if they spoke to reporters.
Smith, Stern build a life in the Bahamas
The story then shifted to the Bahamas, as Howard K. Stern was holed up there with little 5-month-old Dannielynn. We talked to many people who knew both Anna Nicole Smith and Howard K. Stern and knew about their life on this beautiful Caribbean island. Two very different images were painted of Howard K. Stern and whether or not he was the real father of Dannielynn. Some people we talked to were scared of Howard, telling us they often saw prescription drugs in heavy doses visible in some of the private rooms in the house he shared with Anna Nicole Smith. But we also got another impression from the Gibsons, a very well-known and well-respected family in the Bahamas, who were in a unique position. The father, Eric Gibson, befriended Anna and Howard and used to take them sailing. His longtime companion was the first person to find Anna Nicole Smith’s lifeless body in the Florida hotel room. His former wife, Mrs. Gibson, still babysits for Dannielynn and has been taking care of the little girl since October. All of these people seemed very genuine and heartfelt when they described Howard’s relationship with Anna and with the baby. From everything they saw, Howard K. Stern was acting like a good father and they believed Anna Nicole called the Bahamas her home.
Colorful court battle in Florida
Back in Florida, the court battle that I saw on and off camera was brutal and intensely emotional for all sides. I spoke to people close to all three sides in this fight -- Howard K. Stern, Larry Birkhead and Anna Nicole Smith’s mother Virgie Arthur. I saw plenty of tears from all sides well before the cameras were rolling and a sense of helplessness from Larry Birkhead and Virgie Arthur, wishing Anna Nicole would have listened to their pleas to stop her alleged drug use. The cameras and reporters consumed the outside of the Florida courthouse as the colorful judge inside provided ample entertainment.
Back in the Bahamas...again
For Anna Nicole's funeral, my producer Steve Forrest and I were rushed back again to the Bahamas, where cameras outside the main downtown courthouse were plenty, but security and order were scant. At one point when I was interviewing Virgie Arthur in a pack of reporters and cameras, it was so crowded and chaotic that my feet were not even touching the ground. We were packed in like sardines just to get a few words from one of the key players. Anna Nicole’s mother looked terrified by the mob scene, which not only included reporters, but at one point there were spectators climbing on top of her limousine just to take a quick picture. The fevered pitch of this story was just incredible.
The Bahamian people themselves could not have been more gracious, and were concerned about becoming "another Aruba," a reference to the Natalee Holloway case that is still unsolved. Many Bahamian reporters were asking me how I thought the government had handled the Anna Nicole Smith case, and how it could affect tourism on this idyllic island.
Attending the funeral
Anna Nicole’s funeral in the Bahamas was the most high-profile service the island had ever seen. My producer and I were fortunate enough to be invited among the approximately 100
guests to attend the unique service. We learned later that Richard Millstein, the guardian ad litem, and Howard K. Stern’s attorneys had tried to get my name removed from the list, only to be overridden by the other parties who felt that the funeral should not be closed off to some selected members of the press.
True to form, this story had twists and turns up until the very last moment. When we learned that attorneys for Virgie Arthur were at the Bahamian courthouse trying to stop the burial from taking place in the Bahamas, we were unsure the funeral would even happen. As we waited for Virgie Arthur to appear at the church, I spoke to Howard K. Stern, his attorneys, and even the funeral director, as everyone tried to figure out what was happening across town and if the service would go on as planned. Once Virgie Arthur arrived, there was visible tension between her and Howard K. Stern, and even more so after Stern’s eulogy where he referred to "so- called family members" and claimed that he knew the truth because he "lived it."
Despite the hoopla and red carpet outside, there were some very beautiful and tender moments inside Anna Nicole Smith’s funeral, where all three parties talked about their love for the 39-year-old starlet. As the casket -- adorned with a pink cloth and Anna Nicole’s classic signature -- was carried down the aisle, all three parties wept, some touching the casket as if to say goodbye for one last time. I sat just a few feet away from each of them and looked into their eyes throughout the service wondering if this moment of peace was short-lived as they were already gearing up for the next fight over who will ultimately have custody of baby Dannielynn?