In the days and weeks leading up to Monday, Jan. 4, when the Wilshire police responded to an emergency call at the Los Angeles home of Casey Johnson, the heiress seemed to be doing well: planning a move back to New York, buying a new car and, according to sources, ready to return to rehab.
“Sweet dreams everyone … I’m getting a new car .. Any ideas?” she tweeted around 1 a.m. on Dec. 29, in what would turn out to be her final update. “Cant b a two seater cause we have a daughter … sedan, sports car, suv??”
Two days before that: “Sooo Excited.. Going to c my Beautiful Fiance very soon … It seems Like its been years that I have not sen her! XX [sic]” (She announced her engagement to reality TV star Tila Tequila last month.)
A few months ago, publicist Lizzie Grubman, for whom Ms. Johnson worked as an intern 10 years ago, visited her in Los Angeles, and they caught up over a sushi lunch. “There are all these rumors about drugs and everything, but I think this was in between her stints in rehab and she looked really good,” Ms. Grubman told the Transom. “She looked like she got her shit together. She was showing me pictures of her daughter and she said she was single, and she was actually talking about possibly moving back to New York. At that point, I felt like she was in a better place than I had seen her in a long time.”
But soon after that meeting, amid reports of Ms. Johnson’s increasingly strange behavior, Ms. Johnson’s mother, Sale Johnson, swooped in and took custody of Casey’s 3-year-old daughter, Ava, who was adopted from Kazakhstan in 2007. Johnson mère also reportedly restricted Casey’s access to family money. Casey wanted her daughter back desperately and, according to friends, was ready to give rehab another go.
Alas, on Monday, Jan. 4: “At about 11:51 in the morning, our Wilshire area patrol officers responded to what we call an ambulance death investigation in the 900 block of North Orlando Avenue,” officer Sara Faden told the Transom. “Los Angeles City Fire Department also responded and pronounced Ms. Casey Johnson dead at the scene. The preliminary death investigation reveals that it appears to be a natural death, as there is no evidence of foul play. There was no forced entry or any weapons nearby. There does not appear to be any sort of crime. The coroner’s office is now taking on the investigation and they will conduct their screening, including a toxicology report, to determine if other factors led to her death.”
Ms. Johnson was 30 years old. Homicide investigator Javier Hernandez, who is working the case, told the Transom that the coroner’s office will likely take six to eight weeks to produce a thorough report.
Born Rich documentarian Jamie Johnson, Casey’s uncle, and other family members did not respond to phone calls. “The Johnson family is mourning its tragic loss,” a representative wrote to The Observer in an email, “and asks for privacy during this very difficult time.”
Ms. Johnson started out much like the city’s other heiresses. Her parents were Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV, the great-grandson of the pharmaceutical company founder, who bought the New York Jets in 2000 for $635 million, and former model Nancy Sale Frey. (They are now divorced.) She grew up on Fifth Avenue and 64th Street. “Casey was brought up in the building where we live, so I knew her as a child,” the socialite Susan Gutfreund told the Transom. “Casey was a golden girl, and I’ll miss her terribly. But that’s really all I can say. I’m really upset.”
Ms. Johnson attended Chapin; a former classmate, who asked not to be named, told the Transom that as a schoolgirl, Ms. Johnson was obsessed with Madonna and wanted to emulate her. Mike Heller, the nightclub promoter–turned–marketer, who dated Ms. Johnson for three years when she still lived in New York, said she also used to talk about Marilyn Monroe as her icon.
Casey subsequently attended Marymount and Dwight (with Paris Hilton) for high school and then Brown University, but she dropped out her freshman year. Ms. Johnson took a number of jobs, including teaching singing at Dwight, and the stint for Ms. Grubman.
“She was really a good girl and very misunderstood,” said Ms. Grubman. “She was misdirected. She was always trying to find something for herself. When she worked for me, she wanted to make something of herself, but I don’t think she ever necessarily knew what that was. She just wanted to make her family proud, but she just didn’t know how to do that. Her and her mother were best friends and went everywhere together. They were inseparable.”
But New York socialites are no longer content to be demure, pretty ladies at debutante balls. Ms. Johnson posed in Vanity Fair in 2006 with a cigarette and nothing but a gauzy scarf draped across her front; she took to Page Six to accuse her aunt, Libet, of stealing her boyfriend; she began dating Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel’s daughter, Courtenay (previously linked to Lindsay Lohan), who later allegedly set Ms. Johnson’s hair on fire during a fight; and she was recently charged with grand theft after allegedly breaking into model Jasmine Lennard’s Hollywood home, stealing clothes and jewelry and leaving a used vibrator on the bed. In the end, Ms. Johnson seemed closer in sensibility to her fiancée, Ms. Tequila, than she was to her childhood classmates.
Perhaps that transformation was attributable to that big, bad city of Los Angeles that ingests educated, humble young people and spits out Heidi Montags.
“She was a very giving, kind person when I knew her,” said Mr. Heller, who last saw Ms. Johnson at the Beverly Hills hotel six months ago. “She ran the junior diabetes foundation. She came on a trip with me to Mexico and wanted to visit the hospitals there. I think when she moved to L.A., it really affected her in a bad way. We talked over the phone a couple of weeks ago and she seemed fine. But obviously she was not fine.”