Chances are you’d like to know how Sonny Liston died. I don’t. I addressed the issue in my biography of Liston because I had to, no because I had any great desire to uncover that particular truth. After all, aside from satisfying someone’s morbid curiosity, what’s to be gained by it? That being said, for those who haven’t read my book, let me give you a condensed version of what I’ve learned over the years.
Sonny’s wife, Geraldine, and their son, Danny, flew from Las to St. Louis on December 24, 1970. Geraldine’s father was not well and she decided to spend the holidays back home with her family. The relationship between Gerry and Sonny had reached a low point, due mostly to the fact that the former champ’s life was spiraling out of the control.
Knowing that his fighting days were coming to an end. Sonny was exploring other money-making opportunities, some legal and some not. In the days after Christmas, he worked on his 1971 appointment calendar with his close friend Davey Pearl. He also drove to Los Angeles for a dinner meeting with his booking agent to discuss possible guest appearances on several television programs.
In the early morning hours of December 29, Liston called his old Teamster pal, Barney Baker, in Chicago. “He was gonna come in to see me,” Baker told me. “He said, ‘Barney, be at the airport because from there I got to go someplace. I got 20 big ones for you.” Baker said Liston felt he owed him something from their days in St. Louis. Barney went to the airport but Sonny didn’t show up.
Sonny also called his sparring partner Gary Bates and told him that Geraldine was away for the holidays and invited him over. Bates went to the Liston home with a cocktail waitress from Circus Circus. He knocked on the door a couple of times, but nobody answered.
In 2007, Bates was at a construction site when the security guard noticed some boxing equipment in the front seat of his pickup. When Gary said he had sparred with Sonny Liston in his younger days, the small, elderly black man told him Sonny had asked him to score some heroin for the two white junkie hookers who were at his house on the day he died.
Mildred Stevenson was the housekeeper for both the Liston’s and sports handicapper Lem Baker. On December 31, she went to clean Sonny’s home and used her key to gain entrance. Mildred found Sonny dead in his bedroom, called Lem to give him the news, then locked the door and left.
Trainer Johnny Tocco threw a New Year’s party at his gym for fighters and other boxing people, and Sonny told him he’d be there. When Sonny didn’t show, Tocco said he called his house at midnight and again at 2 a.m. He knew Geraldine was out of town and was concerned when Sonny didn’t answer the phone.
On January 1, Geraldine called Tocco. She hadn’t heard from her husband in three days and was worried. A few years before he died, Tocco told his good friend,Tony Devi, that he went to Sonny’s house and found the door locked and his car in the driveway. Tocco called the police, and they broke in the house. Tocco said that the living room furniture was in disarray but the house did not yet smell of death. He said they found Sonny lying on his bed with a needle sticking out of his arm. Johnny left the house before the police did. “Johnny wasn’t a braggart,” Davi told me. “He told me in the strictest confidence, but it was like he wanted to get it off his chest.”
If Tocco’s story were true, it would mean that the Las Vegas police and the Clark County Sheriff’s Department put Liston’s house back in order after Tocco left. Why they would have done it is anybody’s guess.
A lot of officers knew Sonny was dead before Geraldine returned home on January 5, but they chose to let him rot. Gerry found her husband’s badly decomposed body and called his attorney and his doctor. She notified the police two to three hours later.
Sergeant Dennis Caputo of the Clark County Sheriff’s Department was one of the first officers on the scene. “It was colder than shit outside and the smell in the house was horrendous,” he told me. The milk bottles and newspapers by the front door indicated that Sonny that Sonny had been dead about a week. Caputo found a quarter-ounce of heroin in the kitchen and a small bag of marijuana, but no syringes or needles. “It was common knowledge that Sonny was a heroin addict,” said Caputo. “The whole department knew about it.” A few freshly dug holes in the backyard flower beds caused several officers to think that somebody must have been looking for something.
Caputo believes Sonny died of natural causes. “He was in a peaceful position and there were no signs of a struggle.” He said the house was immaculate and there was absolutely nothing that would indicate foul play. Caputo has always been saddened by the public’s preoccupation with Liston’s death. After his appearance in an HBO special on Liston in 2000. Dennis got so many calls from people wanting to interview him that he stopped returning their calls.
The decomposition of Sonny’s body was so advanced that the coroner had quite a problem getting his corpse into a body bag, down the stairs, and out of the house. His body came close to splitting when they moved it.
Geraldine insisted on an autopsy. The Coroner found traces of heroin byproducts in Liston’s system, but not in amounts large enough to have caused his death. The toxicology report said his body was to decomposed for the tests to be conclusive. Officially, Sonny died of natural causes.
The police never investigated Liston’s death as a homicide. “What pisses me off is that nobody seemed to care,” said publicist Harold Conrad. He had talked to someone in the sheriff’s department who told him Sonny was a bad nigger who got what was coming to him.