Daniel Smith wasn’t feeling well. It was the day before he was supposed to fly from Los Angeles to the Bahamas to visit his mother, Anna Nicole Smith, and new baby sister, but he had a stomachache, he told family friend Ray Martino. With Daniel feeling poorly, “they weren’t sure if they should put him on a plane,” says David Giancola, director of Smith’s latest movie, Illegal Aliens, who has been in frequent touch with Martino. “But Anna wanted him to be there, and Daniel wanted to go.”
Such was the bond between mother and son. For much of the previous three months, Daniel had been on his own in L.A., taking classes at Los Angeles Valley College. Smith, meanwhile, had just settled into a $1 million property on New Providence. But for most of his life, Daniel, 20, had always been by his mother’s side when she needed him. So at 10:25 p.m. on Sept. 9, he arrived in Nassau on American Eagle flight 5005.
Howard K. Stern, Smith’s lawyer and companion, as well as a father figure to Daniel, picked him up and drove him straight to Doctors Hospital. There, in room 201, Daniel fell on his mother and his 2-day-old sister with hugs and “I love yous.” For the next few hours, the new family bonded, posing for pictures that show Daniel rocking the baby in his arms. The only interruption came at around 1:15 a.m., when Stern—who had made a food run to a 24-hour mini-mart at a nearby Esso station—returned with chips, soft drinks and chicken strips.
Even after everyone finally went to sleep (the room was furnished with two twin beds and a large armchair), Daniel didn’t stop tending to the others, checking on Smith, who was recovering from a C-section, and the baby during the night. At 6:20 a.m. a hospital worker saw Daniel help Smith to the bathroom. He complained to no one in particular that he was tired, reports Alex Goen, CEO of Trimspa, for which Smith is the spokesperson. Finally, at 7:40 a.m., all three adults were seen sleeping.
But that familial peace was shattered at 9:38 a.m., when Smith awoke, prodded her son and discovered he was not breathing. According to Goen, “She screamed, ‘Howard, wake up! I don’t think Daniel is breathing!'” Stern rushed to Daniel’s side, checked his pulse and summoned help. For the next 22 minutes, doctors tried CPR without success. After these attempts stopped, says Michael Scott, Smith’s Nassau lawyer, a frantic Smith tried to resume resuscitation efforts—to no avail.
At 10:05 a.m. doctors pronounced Daniel dead. Initially Smith “was so distraught, she refused to leave Daniel’s side, and it was necessary to sedate her in order to check her out of the hospital,” says Scott. Hours later she suffered memory loss. “She told Howard, ‘I’d like to watch a movie with Daniel,'” says Goen. “Howard had to explain it to her all over again.”
What could possibly—and so suddenly—have taken the life of a seemingly healthy 20-year-old? Even the experts have yet to come up with answers. Police report nothing unusual: No blood or vomit was found on the floors or the bed. Bahamas coroner Linda Virgill oversaw an official autopsy, and Smith hired her own private pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht of Pittsburgh, to perform another. (See box, “A Second Opinion.”) “Wecht was hired because of the confidence that Anna and Howard had that Daniel was a good kid, that he didn’t take illegal substances; they wanted to protect his honor,” Goen says.
The results of tissue tests weren’t available at press time, and a toxicology report won’t be ready for at least a week (and could take months), but Wecht seemed certain on several key points. He ruled out foul play, brain tumors, cancer, infection or blood clots to the heart or lungs. He came to no conclusion about Daniel’s reported stomach pains. Suicide or an intentional overdose also have been eliminated as possible causes.
That last bit of news left Stern particularly “relieved,” Goen says. In August Daniel was hospitalized for depression, and since then had been taking the prescription drug Lexapro, an antidepressant and antianxiety medication. He had also lost about 30 lbs. in the past year and had at least twice complained of a racing heart, on one occasion going to the intensive care unit of an L.A. hospital.
It is not known if Daniel took any Lexapro the day he died, though Wecht, who has been in touch with Daniel’s L.A. doctor, says the boy was being “weaned off” the medication. Wecht adds that no drugs were found “on his person, in his clothing or luggage.” Two pills that were discovered in a container in the room have not been identified as belonging to Daniel.
What options does that leave? Wecht says the young man might have suffered a fatal heart arrhythmia, or abnormal heartbeat. Or he possibly could have suffered an accidental overdose by combining Lexapro with some other drug. On Oct. 23 Virgill will conduct an inquest and bring witnesses before a jury, a normal procedure in the Bahamas in a case in which someone dies unexpectedly.
Friends and family struggling to make sense of Daniel’s loss recall a polite, quiet young man, far from a party animal, who loved video games like Mortal Kombat, Japanese animé cartoons and Ben Stiller movies, particularly Zoolander. “He never missed saying, ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you,'” recalls friend Chelsey Leon, 17, who attended the same private school as Daniel until 10th grade. “He was really intelligent and well-spoken.”
Not to mention devoted to his mother. “He did whatever his mom said, whether it be doing the dishes or laundry,” says a family friend. “Come Friday or Saturday nights, he’d spend them watching movies with his mom and Howard Stern. They were glued together.”
No wonder then that, as Smith prepares to bury her son (Stern has begun arrangements; a service is likely to take place in L.A.), those closest to her worry about how she will move ahead without Daniel beside her. “If she didn’t have that baby right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if she committed suicide to stop the pain she’s in,” says one. “I’m sure she wishes it could have been her and not him who died.”
For the latest news updates on the Anna Nicole Smith tragedy, go to people.com/annanicole