August 10, 2009 12:00 PM

His family and friends had no illusions about Michael Jackson’s long battles with drug dependency—specifically his addiction to prescription painkillers. Or so they thought. But as Jackson family members went through the mansion on Sunset Boulevard in the wake of the singer’s June 25 death, says one source close to his parents, they were stunned by what they found. There they came across an alarming array of medical paraphernalia, including needles and IV equipment and oxygen tanks. “It was a major surprise to the family. They didn’t know he was into drugs that heavy,” says the source. “They were absolutely devastated.”

The L.A. coroner’s toxicology report, due to be released soon, should provide some clues to what killed Jackson. But it has become clear that the police already have their working suspicions—and they could entail charges of manslaughter, according to a warrant seen by the AP. On July 22 authorities raided the Houston offices of Dr. Conrad Murray, the physician on the scene when the singer went into cardiac arrest at home. A law enforcement source told the AP that the night before Jackson died, Murray gave Jackson an injection of the powerful and potentially dangerous anesthetic Propofol (box). In an interview with PEOPLE, Murray’s lawyer Edward Chernoff declined to say what medicines his client had prescribed for Jackson, only that “any medications prescribed by Dr. Murray were appropriate for Michael’s condition or his complaints.”

Even if Murray—who was being paid $150,000 a month by the company sponsoring Jackson’s comeback concerts in London to treat the singer exclusively—simply provided Jackson with whatever the singer asked for, that could be a criminal act. If prosecutors can show that the doctor gave Jackson a drug that reasonably could be seen to pose a risk of death, and that the drug did in fact kill him, Murray—whose Las Vegas home and office were also searched—could be charged with manslaughter.

Whatever the outcome of the police investigation, Jackson’s death has cast a harsh light on the subculture of prescription-drug abuse that exists in Hollywood. To be sure, celebrities are not the only ones who look for illicit ways to get their hands on painkillers such as OxyContin or Vicodin. In recent years the abuse of prescription drugs has mushroomed, far surpassing addiction to so-called street drugs such as cocaine and heroin. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the number of people abusing prescription drugs has shot up 80 percent in the past six years to nearly 7 million. And experts say celebrities have unique leverage when it comes to wheedling prescriptions. “A stockbroker could use money as a tool to persuade doctors to give them pills,” says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who has treated dozens of celebrities addicted to painkillers, “but celebrities have the added benefit that sometimes doctors become starstruck.”

Hollywood insiders say that the demand for prescription drugs is as much a feature of the local scene as the obsession with the weekend box office. Dr. Deepak Chopra, who was close friends with Jackson and once refused the singer’s request for a prescription, recalls going to parties where, he says, “A-list Hollywood people would ask me out of the blue if I could write them a prescription for a narcotic or something.” Chopra refused to play the game. But he says other doctors were not so scrupulous, especially some of the “concierge doctors” attached to fancy hotels. “You can ask for the doctor who associates with the hotel,” says Chopra, “and a number of them are these enabling doctors who, for a fee, will give you anything you want under any fictitious name.”

It appears, for instance, that Jackson had several aliases he used for prescriptions, including Omar Arnold. What’s more, some stars go so far as to have medical procedures, such as plastic surgery, mainly as a means to get painkillers. “I have patients who do that all the time,” says Dr. Drew Pinsky, the host of Celebrity Rehab. “They actually seek out the surgeries to get the meds.”

It is an open question whether Jackson had his multiple plastic surgeries for that purpose. There have been press reports that Jackson, who may have gotten hooked on painkillers after he was badly burned filming a Pepsi commercial in 1984, was a longtime abuser of Demerol, a powerful painkiller normally given only in hospitals, and OxyContin. Attorney Chernoff says flatly that Murray never prescribed either of those medicines for Jackson. And certainly Murray, a cardiologist who has practices in Houston and Las Vegas, doesn’t fit the profile of a concierge doctor. Indeed, patients in Las Vegas speak highly of him. “He was truly concerned about his patients’ condition,” says Donna Digiacomo, who two months ago had a stent implanted by Murray. “He sat and explained everything. He didn’t just look at your chart and run.”

Apparently, those who expressed their concerns to Jackson were summarily banished. In April, says Cherilyn Lee, a nutritionist and nurse Jackson had been consulting, the singer begged her to help him get Diprivan, the trade name for Propofol, to help him sleep. She refused, and when she wouldn’t give in, he let her drift from his orbit. “I said to him, ‘Michael, you say you need a good night’s sleep,'” recalls Lee, “‘but I’m afraid if you take this, that you’ll never wake up.'”

In the months before his death Jackson kept his family—who had attempted at least one intervention with him—at arm’s length, according to the source close to them. “Michael hid from his family because of the drugs,” says the source. “It’s sad when you have a network that prevents you from getting help. The reality is that you couldn’t have gotten to Michael unless you kidnapped him. It was impossible to help him.”

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