“Liberace died as a direct result of having AIDS, the Riverside County coroner said Monday afternoon, contradicting statements by the entertainer’s family and the death certificate signed by his physician.” —Los Angeles Times, Feb. 10, 1987.
Millions of viewers have tuned in to see HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, starring Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, since it premiered in May.
Most peopled watched the film to see the tale of Liberace and his lover, Scott Thorson. But I watched to see if my great uncle Raymond Carrillo—the coroner referenced in the aforementioned Los Angeles Times article—would appear in the film.
Carrillo was the coroner for Riverside County when Władziu Valentino Liberace, known professionally only as Liberace, died at his Palm Springs home on Feb. 4, 1987.
After the entertainer died, his personal physician, Ronald Daniels, determined he died of cardiac arrest, and his body was sent to a Los Angeles funeral home.
With rumors swirling about the true cause of Liberace’s death, Carrillo ordered his already embalmed body to be sent back from Los Angeles for an official autopsy in Riverside County. As a result, the world found out that Liberace’s death was indeed caused by complications resulting from the AIDS virus.
Prior to being elected coroner—Riverside County’s first Latino elected official—my great uncle was in law enforcement for 10 years. He took his position as county coroner seriously.
My paternal grandmother, Josephine Carrillo Flores, was Carrillo’s sister. My father, John Flores, was Carrillo’s nephew. I had not yet been born when all of this occurred, but my father and I recently had a conversation about my uncle after we watched the HBO film.
“After the death of Liberace, (Carrillo) was hounded by Liberace’s loyal fans and misinformed people who accused him of trying to become famous, and were spiteful of Uncle Ray because he spoke the truth,” my dad said. “He was merely doing his job. However, in the eyes of the public, he used his public-administration position to put Liberace’s name to shame.”
On Feb. 10, 1987, my great uncle stood in front of hundreds of cameras and said, “Mr. Liberace did not die of cardiac arrest and cardiac failure due to encephalopathy and anemia as certified by the physician on the death certificate. Somebody was trying to play fast and loose with the Riverside County Coroner’s Office. They probably pulled something they thought they could get away with. In layman’s terms, Mr. Liberace died of an opportunistic disease caused by Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.”
My dad added, “I don’t see my uncle as doing this for his own personal gain. He had to make the announcement; he knew his name would be known around the world, but not in the way it turned out.”
After Liberace’s death, it seemed that the name Raymond Carrillo resonated with hate, disgust, spite, and resentment to many people. People believed that he did the autopsy and media interviews for the fame. However, my family believes my uncle was merely doing his job.
“I think he enjoyed (the attention) in the way that he was going to make an announcement that, at that time, was very important. People weren’t very familiar with the AIDS virus; it wasn’t well known, and people weren’t very educated about it,” my dad said. “He was making this announcement, letting people know that even famous people like Liberace could end up with the disease like anybody else.”
The actor portraying my uncle, Shaun T. Benjamin, appeared on the screen for approximately 30 seconds. And then he disappeared from the screen. But in real life, my uncle lived with the stigma of being the person who revealed Liberace’s true cause of death until his own death in 2012.
Johnny Flores Jr. is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated, a youth media startup in the east Coachella Valley, funded by the Building Healthy Communities Initiative of the California Endowment and operated by New America Media in San Francisco. The purpose is to report on issues in the community that can bring about change. “Coachella Unincorporated” refers to the region youth journalists cover, but also to the unincorporated communities of the Eastern Valley with the idea to “incorporate” the East Valley into the mainstream Coachella Valley mindset. For more information, visit coachellaunincorporated.org.