Prince’s half-sister and lawyers representing his family say they are looking to hold parties accountable for the late musician's fatal fentanyl overdose.
In a rare, exclusive interview, Sharon Nelson told ABC News, “We are going to fight until we find them… we hired some lawyers. They’re going to find the evidence.”
Prince died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in his Paisley Park estate on April 21, 2016. Earlier this year, authorities closed a two-year investigation into his death without filing criminal charges.
Carver County Attorney Mark Metz said Prince thought he was taking an opioid pill similar to Vicodin to manage pain but unknowingly took counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl. This particular counterfeit, like many other fake prescription pills, was laced with a lethal amount of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin that carries a much higher overdose risk and is much cheaper to obtain.
“It has created a great loss in our family, and other families have lost their loved ones because of these pills,” Nelson told ABC News.
Nelson said Prince struggled with pain before he died, but she insists he wouldn’t have ingested the pills if he had known they were counterfeit.
“He wouldn’t have taken a pill like that, had he known,” Nelson told ABC News. “But when you’re in pain, you’re going to take something hoping it relieves it. You’re not thinking like a normal person that isn’t in pain.”
Family files lawsuit in hopes of getting answers
In addition to finding the source of the counterfeit pills, Prince’s family seeks to hold accountable those who they believe enabled the musician’s opioid addiction.
Earlier this month, Prince’s family sued Dr. Michael Todd Schulenberg, a Minnesota doctor, his former Minneapolis-area employer North Memorial Health, Walgreens Co. and UnityPoint Health, all of whom they say failed to properly diagnose and treat Prince’s opioid addiction and to prevent his death.
Paul Peterson, Dr. Schulenberg’s attorney, said the new lawsuit is without merit.
“We understand this situation has been difficult on everyone close to Mr. Nelson [Prince] and his fans across the globe,” Peterson said in a statement to ABC News. “Be that as it may, Dr. Schulenberg stands behind the care that Mr. Nelson received.”
Earlier this year, Dr. Schulenberg paid a $30,000 fine without admitting wrongdoing to settle a federal civil violation complaint after authorities alleged that he prescribed Percocet intended for Prince under his bodyguard’s name shortly before the performer’s death.
In its answer to the lawsuit, North Memorial Health Care “denies that its care was in any way negligent”, that its “care of Prince ... met the standards of care” and that “Prince’s death was the result of medical complication, and/or underlying and preexisting disease process of Prince, or was a result of the conduct of others over whom North Memorial had no control nor right to control”
Two Walgreens pharmacies are cited in the lawsuit as having provided Prince with prescription medications. The company told ABC News that it bears no responsibility for Prince’s death.
“The cause of death was determined to be fentanyl toxicity,” Walgreens Co. said in a statement. “The investigation was closed when authorities could not identify the party responsible for providing Prince Nelson the drugs that contributed to his death. Walgreen Co. never dispensed fentanyl to Prince Nelson.”
But John Goetz, an attorney representing Prince’s family, says that another reason the family is suing is to depose people under oath to find out if they know how Prince may have gotten the deadly counterfeit pills.
“We will use the lawsuit to prove the case against the parties we’ve sued,” said Goetz. “And also use the lawsuit to take depositions that might lead to identifying other culpable or responsible parties regarding the source of the pills.”
Overdose crisis in Moline
Prince’s addiction to pain medications was publicly revealed after a harrowing overnight flight the week before his death. In the early morning hours of April 15, 2016, his private jet diverted from its course after departing from a show in Atlanta.
In one interview after Prince’s death, his close companion Judith Hill described to authorities how the singer suddenly fell unconscious on the plane.
“He looked dead and I was freaking,” Hill is heard telling investigators. “He looks like, lifeless. Lifeless. I went straight to the cockpit and, ‘we’re, we got to like, land, we have to land.”
The plane made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois, where Prince was met by an ambulance. Paramedic Justin Frederikson told investigators that Prince was administered naloxene (Narcan), a drug used to reverse the effect of an opioid overdose.
“We gave him two milligrams of narcan which was pretty ineffective,” the paramedic said to detectives. “Heavier (opiate) users, two milligrams wakes them up, it seems like. We gave him another two milligrams of narcan and that woke him up.”
Prince was taken to Trinity Medical Center in Moline, where he told Dr. Nicole Mancha that he had taken two Percocet painkiller pills after the Atlanta concert. However, Dr. Mancha pushed back, unconvinced Percocet would cause such a severe overdose.
“That is not all you took,” Dr. Mancha recalled telling Prince in an interview with detectives. “I have been doing this for a while and you don’t get four milligrams of Narcan and become unresponsive for taking two [Percocet].”
Prince refused to take a blood test to determine what caused the overdose. However, he instructed his bodyguard to turn over a Bayer aspirin bottle that contained pills bearing the stamp “Watson 853” -- the mark for a prescription opioid similar to Vicodin. Shortly thereafter, Prince left the hospital and returned to Paisley Park.
In the lawsuit, Prince’s family alleges that UnityPoint Health, which owns Trinity Medical Center, “failed to timely and appropriately investigate the cause of [Prince’s] overdose” and “failed to take appropriate and reasonable steps to prevent the foreseeably fatal result of that addiction.”
UnityPoint Health declined to comment on the pending litigation.
After Prince’s death, authorities found numerous counterfeit pills bearing the same "Watson 853" stamp in pill bottles throughout Paisley Park.
“He had a Bayer bottle next to his nightstand, and they had close to 100 pills in those with the Watson 853 stamped on it. Some of those tested positive for fentanyl,” Carver County Attorney Mark Metz told ABC News. “They looked the same as a regular pill.”
Prince’s history of opioid addiction
Prince’s former personal chef Crystal Blanchette said she knew about his addiction years prior to his death. Speaking publicly on the matter for the first time, Blanchette elaborated on what she told authorities during the investigation in an exclusive interview with ABC News.
Blanchette said Prince’s addiction was the result of opioids he was prescribed after he had hip replacement surgery in 2010.
“There was a change in his moods,” said Blanchette. “I just saw someone that I didn’t recognize. I saw someone I just knew I couldn’t have in my life anymore. I did share, you know, with other people what was happening.”
Blanchette left her job at Paisley Park in 2012, although she continued to work in different capacities on occasion for Prince afterward until the year before his death. She told authorities that she received a call from someone on Prince’s team the day before Prince died.
Blanchette said she told the caller she would help find a treatment facility and warned that Prince should be removed from Paisley Park.
Blanchette was proved correct after Prince died of an overdose at Paisley Park the next day. Investigators found evidence of his addiction to painkillers throughout the estate.
“He had 64 and a half pills in one of the bottles,” said Metz, “He had one loose pill in his bed. He had pills in his dressing room. So he had a lot of pills that were scattered around.”
However, Metz said he is convinced that Prince was unaware the pills he took were counterfeit and that this particular sequence of events could happen to others.
“What somebody on the black market is doing is that they're stamping it with the Watson 853 to imitate that it's a real pill. It looks identical,” said Metz. “And that's what's so dangerous about this, is that Prince and others – they don't know what they're taking when they take this pill. They think they're taking a Vicodin, but they're actually taking a death pill.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from attorneys for North Memorial Health Care filed on Sept. 27, 2018, which ABC News obtained on Sept 28,2018.