Driving north from Miami on Florida's Turnpike, just before you approach exit 53, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino rises like a mirage. At almost 500 rooms, it's one of the largest hotels in the greater Fort Lauderdale area. It's owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Its address? One Seminole Way on the tribe's Hollywood reservation.
A security guard who didn't want his name used says it's an interesting place to work and that he's seen his share of celebrities come through the doors.
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"It's so big I guess they feel like they can be anonymous," he tells me.
Many come and go unnoticed.
One month earlier
It's Jan. 6, 2007, and former Playboy Playmate, reality TV star and widow of a billionaire, Anna Nicole Smith is spotted walking through the crowd at the Hard Rock Live inside the Seminole Hard Rock complex. She is with companion and attorney Howard K. Stern. They are attending the James Toney versus Samuel Peter boxing match. She's wearing faded jeans. She looks slim considering she's only given birth four months previously to her daughter, Dannielynn, who was born Sept. 7, 2006.
She's wearing a sleeveless, black sparkling low cut top and dark, designer sunglasses. She holds Stern's hand on the left and her bodyguard's Maurice "Mo" Brighthaupt's hand on the right. She's not the only celebrity in the crowd at Toney versus Peter. Actor Mickey Rourke is there and so is Hulk Hogan. But the cameras and the announcers want to talk about Anna.
"That's Anna Nicole Smith," booms the announcer's voice. Then, he says, "You would have to be in a vacuum not to realize what this poor woman has gone through in recent months having a daughter and losing a son," he says, referencing her son, Daniel, dying Sept. 10, 2006 at Doctors Hospital in Nassau after coming from California to visit his new sister.
The announcer also references Stern.
"Her lawyer, Howard Stern with her there. Anna Nicole venturing off of Nassau and coming over to the Hard Rock. Of course, the crowd loves to see her."
It was 12 years ago that Anna Nicole Smith was found unconscious in room 607 of South Florida's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. So what happened then? And how did Anna Nicole Smith become part of The Florida Files.
Refuge at the Seminole Hard Rock
The Seminole Hard Rock is an island unto itself at 100 acres. There's no reason to leave once you are inside its doors. They don't want you to. There's more than enough to do -- lounge by the 4.5-acre lagoon-style heated pool, gamble at the poker and blackjack tables, or play the slots, or eat at a fancy steakhouse. The hotel and casino is not even that close to a beach, and it's 45 minutes away from the glamorous nightlife of South Beach, where celebrity sightings are frequent.
But for Anna Nicole Smith, it is a perfect getaway and a quick jaunt from Nassau, Bahamas, where she is living after being granted permanent residency in 2006. (We'll get into that more in depth in a future episode of The Florida Files.)
In Nassau, the celebrity model can seek refuge and privacy to escape paparazzi cameras, yet still puddle jump back to the States for promotional and modeling gigs.
At the time with a paternity suit pending, lawyers for Larry Birkhead, who was in a court battle with Smith over who was the father of her newborn, said Smith's move to the Bahamas was a way for her to make it more difficult for the U.S. courts demand a paternity test -- a claim that lawyers on Smith and Stern's side say was unfounded. But inside the Broward County courthouse on Feb. 23, 2007, and despite Anna's death, Birkhead's lawyers didn't mince words.
"This is about Anna Nicole Smith running from Larry Birkhead," lawyer Susan Brown said. "Because Larry Birkhead is the father of this child and we should be permitted to prove it either in California, here or the Bahamas, somewhere immediately."
Anna Nicole Smith had been introduced to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino when she was hired to be the spokesperson for the weight loss supplement TrimSpa.
In July 2005, photographers snap photo after photo of Anna at Passions, one of the nightclubs in the complex, where she is making an appearance for the company.
Little does she know then that only a few years later, her last days will be spent at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. On Feb. 5, 2007, she checks in to the Hard Rock with Stern under the names Fred and Wilma Flintstone, a pseudonym she would use frequently. Stern later tells the court during a hearing that "at hotels, she went by Mrs. Flintstone." It elicits laughs in the courtroom.
Picking up 'Cracker'
The Hard Rock is a comfortable home away from home. At the Hard Rock, she is treated like a celebrity, and, well, she is. Anna Nicole Smith is famous. And, she's famous for just being famous. She's given one of the hotel's two bedroom suites reserved for high rollers. She's certainly given the Hard Rock enough publicity, so it is nothing for them to comp her room. This time, she's arrived in South Florida with Howard K. Stern, and her entourage, to pick up a boat that a yacht broker says had been paid for a month before.
Mark Dekema, a licensed yacht broker in the state of Florida, was contacted by a gentleman named King Eric.
"He is the captain for Anna Nicole Smith, or Vickie Lynn Marshall. He was the one who originally called," Dekema says. "He said he had a client that was looking for a boat and had X amount of dollars to spend. I set up three different showings. The last boat we looked at was something he thought would be interesting to her."
Dekema says the boat was nothing extravagant -- a 39-foot, 1995 Carver.
"So how much does a boat like that go for?" I ask.
"When you think of Anna Nicole Smith, a big name, you think of an expensive boat, but it wasn't," Dekema says. "It was about $115,000. There were a couple of things she wanted on the boat. She wanted pink carpet and a big-screen television."
She had already named the boat "Cracker."
"I don't know if it had something to do with her Texas roots."
Dekama says on Feb. 8, 2007, Stern had come to the Dania Beach marina, just five miles from the Hard Rock, to take delivery of Cracker. Cracker was ready to make the maiden voyage back to the Bahamas, the yacht broker says. Then, he remembers Stern getting a call on his cell phone.
"That's where we were when the call came in," Dekema says. "We were pulling the boat out of the working marina where she was going to pick it up. And that's when, I guess, Howard found out that Anna had been taken to the hospital."
Krista Barth, the Palm Beach Gardens attorney who represented Stern in Broward County court over where Anna's body should be buried, says their plans were to pick up the boat and leave.
"They were here to pick up a boat and bring it back to the Bahamas," Barth says. "That's why they were here. They were here for a very short trip. She ended up passing away on that trip."
'Please respond to the Hard Rock'
On Feb. 8, 2007, almost exactly a month to the day after she was spotted at that boxing match, a 911 call is placed from the Seminole tribal police to Hollywood Fire Rescue at 1:40 p.m.
Police: Hi, this is Seminole police. If you could please respond to the Hard Rock? Room 607.
Hollywood Fire Rescue: OK.
Police: It's gonna be in reference to a white female who is, um, she's not breathing and she's not responsive. She's actually Anna Nicole Smith.
Hollywood Fire Rescue: Uh-huh.
Police: If you guys can…
Hollywood Fire Rescue: Oh, OK.
"Anna Nicole Smith was discovered unconscious in her room at the Hard Rock around 2 o'clock this afternoon," former Local 10 News reporter Roger Lohse reports. "Witnesses saw her boyfriend, Howard K. Stern, and her bodyguard racing through the lobby. Five minutes later, paramedics arrived, they say, and rushed the celebrity model downstairs to the ambulance. Witnesses say rescue workers were desperately performing CPR as they lifted her in the ambulance."
Three hours later, the Seminole Police Department calls a press conference. Seminole Police Chief Charlie Tiger issues a statement and reports the timeline.
"At approximately 1:35 p.m. today, the Seminole Police Department responded to the Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel in reference to a person needing medical assistance. The person, later identified as Anna Nicole Smith, was treated by paramedics and transported to Hollywood Memorial (Regional) Hospital. At 2:49 this afternoon, we were advised by hospital personnel that Anna Nicole Smith had died. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family. The cause of death will be determined by the Broward County medical examiner and the Seminole Police Department continues its investigation into this matter."
Local 10 News anchor and reporter Neki Mohan, who was one of the first at the scene for the station, tells The Florida Files that the story was big from the get go and it only got bigger. Adding to the multiple layers, Anna Nicole's death happens on Seminole property.
The casino, is, for all intents and purposes, an island unto itself. The Seminole Police Department, and not the Broward Sheriff's Office or Hollywood Police Department, would investigate the death because the casino is on tribal land. Because the Seminoles are a sovereign Indian nation, they are not subject to state open government laws.
"Anna Nicole Smith died on Indian property," Mohan says. "The Seminole Hard Rock (Hotel) & Casino is a protected federal land run by the Seminole Indians. And what that means is, they block it off. They shut it down immediately. And that access affects our ability to cover the story because they have their own police department. They have their own security. They pretty much control everything and it was very hard to access the scene, which would not be the case if it was something that happened out on a public street. We always say every story has a South Florida connection. This one was. We were the center of it. You don't know what a day is going to hold as a reporter here in South Florida, but you have to be prepared for anything, and this was about as big as it gets when you say to be prepared. You always know when it's a big story, meaning with a lot of attention on it, when you arrive to a scene and all of a sudden you can't get close to it, you can't get near to it. We knew in no time that this was a big celebrity. We knew in no time that it was Anan Nicole Smith and we were immediately running around South Florida trying to work this story from every angle."
News travels fast
In 2007, social media is in its infancy and news traveling fast isn't happening yet through Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. But, in no time, the word is out about what happened at the Hard Rock.
Here's the breaking news report about Anna Nicole's death from ABC News in Los Angeles.
"Thirty-nine-year-old Anna Nicole Smith reportedly collapsed in her hotel room here at the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida," Carla Wohl of ABC News reports. "Officials says she was unresponsive. Emergency crews performed CPR, put a tube down her throat to help her breathe and rushed her to nearby Memorial Regional Hospital, but she was dead on arrival. … It has been a stressful time for the former model. She was ordered by a judge to have her baby undergo paternity testing. A former boyfriend claims he's the father. She claimed the father was her longtime attorney, Howard K. Stern. Smith gave birth to Dannielynn Sept. 7 in the Bahamas. A few days later, her 21-year-old son, Daniel, died in her hospital room from a lethal combination of drugs."
Mohan says she would spend what seemed like endless days camped out at the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office, where Anna Nicole's body would stay for nine days before being embalmed, caught up in legal wrangling and a switch of morticians over tight security measures.
"South Florida reporters set up shop, set up camp, where we got most of our information, and that was in front of the medical examiner's office," Mohan says. "And that's where we got most of our information from the early moments of finding out that Anna Nicole had passed away."
Mohan reports the day after Anna Nicole's death from the Broward County courthouse and the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office.
"It's now a battle for Anna Nicole Smiths body and baby. … Late this evening in Broward County court, this attorney representing Smith's former beau, Larry Birkhead, filed this petition so that Smith's body would stay preserved in the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office until Birkhead's paternity case on Feb. 20. Also expected to file suit for custody and control of Anna's corpse, her mother, Virgie Arthur, then Smith's companion, Howard K. Stern. The ME, Dr. Joshua Perper, says he'll do whatever the court order him to do."
Meanwhile, Perper has the job of figuring out what exactly it was that caused Anna Nicole's death. In the days since she arrived and before her death, Anna Nicole was battling a flu.
In the timeline included in the chief medical examiner's forensic investigation report, an 84-page report dated March 2007 and obtained by The Florida Files, Perper says initial information received was that she had been suffering from a possible stomach flu and fever for a few days.
At a press conference, Perper says he's not ruling anything out.
"One is that the death is due solely to natural causes," Perper says. "The other possibility is that the death might be due to some medication, and the third it is the combination of natural causes and medication. This is clearly a sudden unexpected and unexplained death."
Sister thought death was a 'stunt'
Anna Nicole's half-sister, Donna Hogan -- they share the same father, Donald Hogan, who was married to Anna Nicole's mother, Virgie Arthur -- tells me she thought the news of the death was another one of her sister's stunts.
"At first I was just like, 'Oh, no, it's just some kind of stunt or something. She just did that fake wedding. She did all this crazy fun stuff in the media and I thought, 'No, no, this can't be real.' I just lost it. I was like, 'Wow.' So, I turned on the television and it was actually on. It was horrible."
Hogan says she regrets not getting her sister help. She had been distanced from her sister for what she says were "a couple of years."
"Actually, I tried to communicate with her with the people around her," Hogan says. "I was trying to get her help. You could see from the television performances that she was needing help. And since no one around her was trying to save her, some of us family members were trying to help her. I felt huge amount of guilt for ever and ever always. I think that's why I try to help others."
Hogan is a partner in the nonprofit business Bounce Back Women. The group was founded to help women "bounce back from adversities in life."
"I failed at helping my sister," she says, as she fights back tears.
"Do you really feel like you failed?" I ask.
"Of course I do, or else she would be alive," she says. "If I was the person then that I am today, I wouldn't have taken no for an answer."
"What do you think Anna's path to destruction was?" I ask.
"She just forgot who she really was. And then you have other people who let her dwindle down," Hogan says. "Everything kept beating her down. I mean, even the good things in her life couldn't make things right. Like, she finally had a baby girl. She wanted a baby girl for how long? Then she lost her baby boy, so that was another beat down. I told everyone when that happened that she won't live. Someone needs to watch her. I told them she won't last for a few months and, sure enough, she didn't."
The day after Anna Nicole's death, Virgie Arthur talks to ABC News and says she knew her daughter was in trouble with drugs.
There was the infamous appearance at the 2004 American Music Awards when she stumbled her way through her introduction of Kanye West. Ten years later, Birkhead would tell talk show host Wendy Williams she had suffered two seizures the night before the show and took something to stay awake that her doctor had prescribed in order to present the award after staying up all night.
"She was nervous around those kinds of things," Birkhead told Williams about her making appearances at awards shows.
Arthur says she believed drugs were the cause of Anna Nicole's death and blamed Howard K. Stern for not helping her daughter.
"He didn't get her help this time," Arthur says. "Before, when she would overdose, he would get her to the hospital, so what happened this time?"
But what caused her death is only the tip of the iceberg of what the next month will bring -- legal wrangling over where her body will be buried and who will be proven, by DNA testing, to be the father of her baby, Dannielynn.
If ever there was a case of he said/she said, or he said/he said, or the media said, and this one said this about this one, it is that of Anna Nicole Smith.
Depending on who you listen to or who you talk to, everyone who somehow or another got involved in the death of Anna Nicole Smith had or has a finger pointed at someone else. It's a complicated story, as complicated as Vickie Lynn Hogan Smith Marshall's life.
Her death would make an indelible mark on South Florida and set off a media frenzy that made B-list Hollywood, Florida mirror its A-list cousin in California.
Up next on The Florida Files, hear from the private pathologist hired by Smith to find out what killed her son, and the long road for the model's body to get to the Bahamas begins.
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