Things Found In John Denver's Autopsy Report

The following article contains graphic descriptions of death.

Over the course of his long career, folk legend John Denver became famous for his anthemic and radio-friendly brand of country songwriting, as seen in songs like "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Leaving on a Jet Plane," and "Rocky Mountain High." He was also known for campaigning for several causes close to his heart, including the environment and world peace — particularly in the context of the Cold War, which was escalating during the high period of his fame in the 1970s. But by the 1990s the Denver had another string to his bow. Over the years, the wealthy musician had decided to indulge his lifelong love of flight (his father was in the U.S. Air Force), undertaking years of aviation training to become a fully-fledged pilot. 

By 1997, he was a highly passionate collector of biplanes, with around 2,750 flight hours to his name, and he was considered a capable and experienced pilot who was safe piloting solo. Tragically, on October 12 that year, the singer died in a horrific crash shortly after taking off from a Pacific Grove airfield in California. His plane, an experimental Long-EZ aircraft, had been built by an amateur named Adrian Davis. According to the findings of a crash investigation published in 1998, Davis' alterations to the original plans for the model played a part in Denver's untimely death (per the Los Angeles Times). Many questions were raised about the accident and whether he was at fault for crashing the plane into Monterey Bay. His autopsy put several lines of speculation to rest — while also shining a spotlight on the horrifying details of how the crash proved so fatal.

Gruesome injuries

While commercial aircraft crashes often kill all those onboard as a result of high impact, some passengers in light aircraft miraculously survive crash landings. Sadly, John Denver's crash into Monterey Bay was reportedly high impact, with witnesses claiming they saw the plane enter steep decline shortly before it hit the water.

He had bought the plane just two weeks earlier, and despite his vast flying experience, he was unfamiliar with its design. In addition, builder Adrian Davis made alterations that impaired Denver's ability to fly it. According to findings of the inquest into the musician's death, the fuel selector handle, which allows a pilot to switch to another fuel tank in the event of the first one running dry, was positioned behind Denver's shoulder. This means he would have to unbuckle himself to access it — an issue he had raised with a technician shortly before takeoff.

It was also discovered that Denver had used a good deal of fuel executing practice take-offs and landings before heading off over Monterey Bay, where it is believed he would have run into trouble trying to change engines. Horrifyingly, Denver's autopsy report describes how the singer's dismembered body was recovered from the wreckage in separate parts, with several pieces of his anatomy missing, including a large portion of his head (via The Celebrity Archive). His death certificate states that his remains were found around 150 yards from the shore (via Autopsy Files).

A clean toxicology report

In the investigation that took place following John Denver's fatal plane crash into the Pacific Ocean, the singer's history of drug and alcohol use became a subject of great interest. Denver was open about his use of such substances. In his autobiography, he recounts his use of drugs like marijuana, LSD, and cocaine, and he was also twice arrested for drunk driving, per Deseret News. Even an FBI file on Denver — which they had begun compiling as a result of his anti-war protests — made note of his use of cocaine. At the time of his death, he was arguably better known for his run-ins with the law than his humanitarianism.

However, the toxicology report published alongside Denver's autopsy found no evidence that the acclaimed songwriter had any alcohol or drugs in his system at the time of the crash, and his past substance use is not believed to have been a factor in his death. Still, the Los Angeles Times reported that seven months before the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board denied Denver an aviation medical certificate due to his prior DUI citations. Because of this, his pilot's license was actually invalid, and it was technically illegal for him to have taken to the air on the day of his death.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).