CNN mystery: Who took out a hit on the Godfather of Soul?

Twelve years ago, the death of James Brown was attributed to natural causes, heart failure complicated by fluid in the lungs. Now, however, CNN reporter Thomas Lake says that the Godfather of Soul may have been murdered — and so might his third wife. New information from a woman who also claims that Brown raped her has uncovered a murky tale, full of “twists and turns,” that might uncover a complicated conspiracy surrounding the recording artist’s death.

At least, that’s one possibility:

If Jacque Hollander’s story is true, it carries some extraordinary demands. It requires the authorities to open at least two death investigations. It asks them to pull James Brown’s body from the crypt and subject it to an autopsy. It forces us all to reconsider Brown’s legacy: to see him not just as a pioneering entertainer but as a man whose last two decades were suffused with horrible secrets.

Of the thousands of people I’ve interviewed in my 18-year career, Jacque Hollander stands apart. Her stories may ramble, one interrupting another and another after that, but she renders each scene with remarkable detail. They have the force of lived experience, of fear and sadness and hard-earned outrage. As for documentation, she is practically a hoarder. She has more than a dozen boxes of papers, photographs, audiotapes, videotapes and other relevant artifacts. One time she played me a VHS tape from 1988 that showed a police officer writing her a note at a charity function — and then she handed me the note, worn and faded but still intact. …

But at least three trained fact-finders have closely examined her claims and reached the opposite conclusion. Larry Largent and Mark Polkosnik, two professional counselors who happen to be former police officers, both told me they had spent many hours counseling Jacque for her mental and emotional trauma and had determined she was neither crazy nor lying — not about James Brown, and not about anything else.

Danny Porter, the district attorney of Gwinnett County, Georgia, since 1992, said Jacque had given him solid information that helped solve a murder case unrelated to James Brown. He said he considers her a reliable source.

“Knowing Jacque and what she tells me about the James Brown organization, I can’t say it’s not true,” Porter told me. “Because so much of what she says has turned out to be true over the years.”

If it sounds like this might be a crank with an axe to grind, well … that may be true. However, Lake has dug up a lot of information on his own, plus a number of other people who don’t buy the natural-causes explanation of Brown’s death. The attending physician, for one, doesn’t buy it:

A black sedan pulled up, and Marvin Crawford got out. He was the pastor here at First Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. He was also the doctor who signed Brown’s death certificate.

Crawford led us to the sanctuary. There, he told me something that contradicted the official narrative of James Brown’s death: He never believed that Brown died of natural causes.

“He changed too fast,” Crawford said. “He was a patient I would never have predicted would have coded. … But he died that night, and I did raise that question: What went wrong in that room?” …

In a hospital suite, Crawford examined his patient. Brown thought he had pneumonia, and this misinformation would be widely reported after his death, but Crawford says Brown did not have pneumonia. He says he found symptoms of early congestive heart failure and signs of a mild heart attack. Brown’s urine tested positive for cocaine. These were treatable problems. Crawford gave him oxygen, IV diuretics, and ACE inhibitors to relax his blood vessels.

“And he improved fast,” Crawford told me. “Boom, boom, boom. … By 5 o’clock on the 24th, I mean, he probably could have walked out of the hospital if he had wanted. But we wouldn’t let him go. We wouldn’t tell him to go yet.”

This is just one of fifteen questions that Lake argues remains open about Brown’s death. Chief among them are questions about Brown’s body, which was never autopsied and now may not be where it’s supposed to be. One of his daughters wants an autopsy and is convinced that Brown was murdered; the other refuses and won’t discuss the matter publicly, not even in the book she wrote about her father.

By the time you reach the end of Lake’s tale, you’re sure something’s wrong. But is it Brown’s death, or is it just part of the wreckage that Brown left in his wake? Lost in all of this is the cui bono: who benefited from killing Brown, rather than just allow him to do the job himself? The one point that comes through clearly is Brown’s self-destructive impulses, and it almost seems miraculous that he lived as long as he did without overdosing or dying of exhaustion. What did someone gain from rushing the process, if that’s in fact what happened?

It’s quite a mystery, and Lake gives us an expert tour through two suspicious deaths and a lot of other suspicious activity. The end, though, will disappoint Agatha Christie fans. Lake raises a lot of good questions, but we don’t get too many answers — and the prospects for changing that don’t look very good at the moment. CNN’s high-profile report might put pressure on some of the players to cooperate, especially in getting an autopsy — assuming that the body can be found. Until then, though, we’re left wondering what really happened to the Godfather of Soul, and what Brown did to others.