Authorities are eager to question Howard K. Stern about the death of the 20-year-old

By Siobhan Morrissey
Updated March 23, 2007 04:45 PM

With Anna Nicole Smith’s autopsy report due to be released on Monday, the official inquest into the cause of her son Daniel’s death is set to move forward in the Bahamas the same day.

Smith’s companion and longtime lawyer, Howard K. Stern, will be the star witness when the inquest convenes to review Daniel’s death in September in a room where Smith and Stern were present, say officials familiar with the case.

Visiting his mother three days after she gave birth to a baby girl, Daniel, 20, was found dead in her hospital room on Sept. 10, just 11 hours after his arrival in the Bahamas. An autopsy identified the cause of death as respiratory depression brought on by a lethal combination of drugs – including enough methadone to kill someone eight times over.

One question sure to be on observers’ minds is whether Daniel s death parallels that of Smith, who died suddenly on Feb. 8 during a trip with Stern to South Florida. Doctors in the Bahamas have acknowledged that Smith used methadone, even during her pregnancy.

Speaking of Stern, Chief Magistrate Roger Gomez, who plans to preside over the inquest, tells PEOPLE: “He’s the only one who’s still alive now of the three people who were in the room [where Daniel died]. He’s the only one left who can help us with our investigation.”

Says Michael Von Zamft, an assistant state attorney in Miami familiar with the investigations into Daniel’s and Smith’s deaths: “There is a lot here that is questionable. The son dies; she dies. … And Stern was around at both times.”

Stern has denied supplying Daniel with methadone, and his sister Bonnie has rejected allegations from Smith’s family that Stern made drugs too easily available to Smith. “Howard only wanted the best for Daniel and Anna,” she says. “He did not provide drugs or have anything to do with it. Anna did what she wanted to do.”

The inquest could last three weeks and will determine whether any criminal acts contributed to Daniel’s death. Among the key questions that are likely to pursued: When and how did methadone end up in his system?

Gaither Ben Thompson, who knew Daniel and was one of the last to see him alive the night before he died, says Daniel was in great spirits after seeing his newborn sister for the first time. “I don’t think Daniel took his own life,” says Thompson, rejecting one theory in the case.

Thompson, who dated Smith in 2005 and spent time with her, Stern and Daniel in the private room of Nassau’s Doctors Hospital on the evening of Sept. 9, adds: “If someone else gave him drugs – either before he left California or after he arrived – I don’t think it was intentionally to hurt him at all.”

Police records show that the morning Daniel died, a nurse found a partially dissolved and scored methadone tablet in the bed Stern had slept in. According to the reports, Stern said Daniel had also slept in that bed, but nurses who entered Room 201 recalled no one but Stern in that bed.

The records also show that Stern left the room a few hours before Daniel died. A nurse places him out of the room at 4 a.m. Nurse Odumade Adenike noted that sometime after 2 a.m. Stern went to the nursing station and asked what restaurants were open – despite having already purchased soda, sandwiches and chicken strips at a 24-hour mini-mart an hour earlier.

“He left and returned back about 4:00 a.m., but he had nothing in his hand and went straight to the room,” Adenike told police.

The inquest may also seek to understand what happened to the jeans Daniel wore when he died.

Police collected the other items Daniel had been wearing: a brown t-shirt, white undershirt and blue underwear. Thompson’s son-in-law, Ford Shelley, told police that the day Daniel died, he went to Stern’s home in the Bahamas and saw Stern pick up two white tablets that had fallen from Daniel’s jeans pocket and take them into a bathroom. Ford then heard the toilet flush.

(Ron Rale, one of Smith’s attorneys and a former law partner of Stern’s, says all of Shelley’s assertions are false. “We deny everything,” says Rale. “It’s ridiculous.”)

Photos also surfaced last month showing bottles of liquid methadone that were allegedly found a few weeks ago in a small refrigerator in Smith’s bedroom; Stern has claimed the photos were staged.

Rumors that Daniel suffered from a heart condition are put to rest by his medical records. His California doctors found Daniel had a “regular rhythm” and “no murmur [or] gallop.”

Instead, says Bruce Goldberger, director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, “The potent drugs attacked his central nervous system and led to a shutdown of his respiratory system – essentially he fell asleep and died.”