Probe Into Tony Hsieh’s Death Reveals Details

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Rosemary Feitelberg
·14 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

After an investigation into the house fire that later led to the death of former Zappos chief executive officer Tony Hsieh, the New London Fire Department and the New London Police Department have concluded “no criminal violations” occurred.

The 46-year-old, self-made billionaire died on Nov. 27 from complications from smoke inhalation sustained in a Nov. 18 house fire in New London, Conn. In releasing the news, New London authorities described the investigation as thorough and diligent. They also offered their condolences to Hsieh’s family and friends.

More from WWD

During a Zoom call with media this afternoon, New London authorities presented four potential scenarios for the cause of the fire: carelessly discarded smoking material (cigarettes and a marijuana pipe), a propane heater, candles in the area that could have led to a careless act or an intentional one by Hsieh.

The state’s chief medical examiner’s official autopsy report has not yet been released. Authorities said they were not aware of any civil liability investigations at this time. The investigation would only be reopened if there was any information that would eliminate three of the potential sources of the fire, or add information to point to the cause of the fire.

Authorities said Hsieh locked the shed from inside at approximately 3:14 a.m. People on the scene tried unsuccessfully to open the door with a touchpad code and to physically pry open the door. There was also a latch lock. The touchpad lock automatically locks out the code for 20 seconds after two failed attempts, the authorities said. “All of that played into why the lock assembly was not operational,” an official said.

Earlier in the night, Hsieh had started a fire with a small Ziploc bag with a few Post-it notes. He extinguished that himself. Officials noted how interviews with witnesses indicated, “Tony does enjoy candles. It reminds him of a different time in his life.”

Officials could not say whether Hsieh was intoxicated without a toxicology report. There was evidence of marijuana use, four bottles of vodka and nitrous containers within the space. Having been in Puerto Rico before arriving in New London, Hsieh and his entourage were going to Maui “to get away,” according to testimonials provided to local officials. Police and fire representatives also speculated that had there been a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm in the pool shed, the people in the house may been aware of the situation sooner.

As a tech renegade, his leadership and ethos came down to “Create fun and a little weirdness.” However spirited Hsieh was as an entrepreneur, the circumstances of his death have called into question his personal struggles despite achieving immense wealth. In addition to building up the online retailer Zappos and reinventing ho-hum corporate life, Hsieh was committed to revitalizing downtown Las Vegas through DTP Companies. That privately funded, for-profit enterprise is designed to support people and projects that foster creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Police reports and the other information released by the officials today offered a few minor conflicting accounts by witnesses. Hsieh and the owner of 500 Pequot Avenue, who is believed to be Rachael Brown, argued that day and night over the messiness and conditions of the home, according to witness accounts. She allegedly wanted Hsieh to leave the property after midnight but his personal assistant and his brother helped work out a compromise, with Hsieh staying in the pool shed, according to one account. The police reports detailed various witness accounts, including statements that Hsieh was periodically checked in on at varying intervals — some by sight, some logged in by Post-it notes and most times by knocking. During that time, Hsieh requested water, protein shakes, pizza, cigarettes, whip its and whip-it canisters. There was also said to be a mention of fire safety. After a 20-minute gap in check-ins, Hsieh asked that the check-ins be at five-minute intervals.

After smoke emitted from the pool shed and its door was locked from the inside, attempts were made to extinguish the fire by breaking an interior window and Sheetrock. A few witnesses described Hsieh’s brother, Andy, yelling for help and one described him looking for a tool to force open the door to the pool shed. There were also attempts to break down the door. Due to the cool mid-November temperature, Hsieh was using two propane tanks, one of which was damaged by the fire. In response to the 3:32 a.m. 911 call, emergency personnel rescued Hsieh, who was first transported to Lawrence & Memorial Hospital before being taken by Life Star to Bridgeport Hospital, home to the Connecticut Burn Center burn unit. Hsieh suffered smoke inhalation and a 1 percent burn on his right shoulder. An iPhone and a white blanket that Hsieh had been using that night were later recovered.

The majority of the 10 people on the property at the time of the fire were employed by Hsieh and provided out-of-state addresses to officials. One indicated that the group was planning to fly by private plane to Maui from the nearby Groton airport for a break from business. One witness told police that Hsieh had recently retired due to mental health concerns and he was having a midlife crisis. The witness stated that he did not believe that Hsieh would intentionally hurt himself.

A traveling nurse, who said she had been employed by Hsieh for a short time, said Hsieh was depressed about the recent death of his dog. After leaving the Groton, Conn., hotel that she had been staying in at 3 a.m., she reported three commercial vehicles were parked in front of the property to take the group to the airport.

The five-bedroom, four-bathroom waterfront house where the fire took place was sold by Donka Abel to Brown, a longtime Zappos executive, for $1.3 million in July 31. She was known to be Hsieh’s girlfriend. The area was familiar to Brown, who left southeastern Connecticut in 2003 and joined Zappos the following year. Former owner Abel declined to comment about whether he knew Brown or anything else, explaining, “I’m not going to get involved with any of this.”

The initial report of the Nov. 18 fire did not identify the victim. It was only after Hsieh died that the local authorities named him, with New London fire chief Thomas Curcio explaining his identity was not revealed out of respect for his family.

Despite the late hour of the emergency call — 3:30 a.m. on a Wednesday — lights were said to be on in the house and a nicely dressed group of out-of-staters was there. A multipassenger Mercedes SUV was parked in front and was routinely parked at the property, two sources said. Video footage released by New London authorities depicted smoke coming from the pool storage area that is attached to the rear of the house and mask-wearing firefighters on the scene. Emergency responders had to breach the storage area to rescue Hsieh.

In late November, his death was ruled accidental and due to smoke inhalation, according to a spokeswoman for Connecticut’s office of the chief medical examiner. In the weeks that followed, details about Hsieh’s hard-charging lifestyle and predilections for pyrotechnics, ingesting nitrous oxide and an elimination dieting (used to identify food intolerances) emerged after his death in numerous news reports. It was also learned that two days before the Nov. 18 fire, firefighters were called to the home two times within an hour. Although a male did not want an investigation, after being called to the home a second time, firefighters reportedly insisted on entering the house and found a slight smoke condition, melted plastic items on the stovetop, cardboard that was hot to the touch and an unattended candle burning in an unsafe location, which was extinguished.

The puzzling circumstances of the Nov. 18 fire, the lack of initial details and later any definitive explanation immediately after Hsieh’s death triggered extensive speculation and unsubstantiated theories. Having exited Zappos in August after 21 years and building the company from the ground up, Hsieh’s self-destructive behavior was said to be worsening. The idea that an individual, who had achieved so much, could still be searching and struggling personally seemed to fuel interest in the story. A few sources noted that the full story will probably never be known.

In early December, the musician Jewel went public about writing a letter to warn Hsieh that he was taking too many drugs, after she performed for him at a private event in August in Park City, Utah. Before retreating to New London, Hsieh had spent much of the summer in Park City. After his death, there were reports that he was spiraling out of control. Through Pickled Investments, a company he started, Hsieh purchased 11 parcels of land and properties between late March and early August — a reported tally of $70 million. Ten of those 11 purchases have subsequently switched owners, according to a search of Summit County records. Hsieh relocated to the East Coast to try to straighten out his life, one source said.

Perhaps the anonymity that an industrial city like New London offered was part of the appeal. While there was some discussion about the Pequot Avenue house last summer among the locals and Hsieh’s connection to it, New London Mayor Michael Passero said, “The people here just sort of take it in stride,” adding that people can live in the city “un-blustered.”

Located between Boston and New York, New London participates in the cultural life of both cities. Home to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Electric Boat’s design lab, which has an estimated $40 billion in U.S. government contracts for the next generation of nuclear submarines, the city is experiencing a revitalization and attracting new talent, the mayor said. The housing market is very tight due to an influx of people moving to New London from larger cities, and that is especially true among high-end residential residential properties, he said.

New London has “been a haven to the influential, rich or famous people — actors and stuff — for a long time,” Passero said. He said they are generally able to keep a low profile.

After a few weeks of round-the-clock security at 500 Pequot Avenue, it appears that someone continues to live there, according to a source, who noted a Christmas tree has been up for the holidays.

A former firefighter with 31 years of experience, the mayor declined to discuss the specifics of the Hsieh situation, and said he was not involved with the investigation in any way. “No, no, no, I stay in my lane. Plus firefighting wasn’t really my career path. I went to law school and I became a lawyer,” he said.

The legal fight for Hsieh’s estate started in December, after it became known he had not left behind a will. As appointed administrators for the billionaire’s estate, his father and his brother Andrew have their work cut out for them trying to make sense of all his business ventures. Hsieh reportedly left behind thousands of Post-it notes that he had scrawled information on. Zappos was not Hsieh’s only breakout success story. He sold his first company, LinkExchange, to Microsoft in 1998 for $265 million.

However complicated Hsieh’s death is, his life was dedicated to “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits,” as indicated by the title of the book he published in 2010. In addition to highlighting his entrepreneurial spirit, the Zappos CEO had a reputation for cultivating a spirited corporate culture that strode to make employees content and shoppers good-humoredly engaged.

One source, who was with Hsieh on the July 2009 night that he learned the Zappos sale to Amazon was official, described a “charming and adorable” person. One of four people at the low-key dinner at a downtown Manhattan hotel, she recalled that he kept checking his phone, awaiting the news. “Confident, but no way near arrogant,” Hsieh spoke most passionately about his corporate quest to make people happy, she said.

Thrilled as he was when the official word of the sale arrived, Hsieh appeared almost matter-of-fact, the source said. “I remember thinking, ‘Boy, that was pretty casual.’ And that was before I knew the price — [$1.2 billion],” she said.

Nevertheless, Champagne was ordered and a toast was made to the casually dressed, newly minted billionaire. Jenn Lim, who was his girlfriend at the time and was at the dinner, is now busy working on a second book. She and Hsieh collaborated on “Delivering Happiness.” She is CEO and chief happiness officer of Delivering Happiness, a company she and Hsieh founded to inspire science-based happiness, passion and purpose at work, home and everyday life. Lim postponed an interview request until later this year, acknowledging the rawness of the situation.

Her book “Make People (Love) Work” is slated to be released on Sept. 14 by Grand Central Publishing. Executives there declined to say how involved Hsieh was in the process and deferred comment until closer to the publication date.

New York-based publicist Kelly Cutrone recalled an all-day shoot at Zappos headquarters tied to “America’s Next Top Model” several years ago. “I had never seen a fashion company like that. Ever. He had a ton of energy. Every time he walked by all the people, who worked there, it seemed like more of a church, like they were in awe.”

She added, “It was huge. It was like a tech park. I couldn’t believe how messy everybody’s office was. It was a free-for-all: ribbons, posters, tie-dye, tulle — stuff everywhere — bean bag chairs. It was like a frat gone crazy.”

Former pro skateboarder Tony Hawk spoke highly of Hsieh’s accessibility to others and recalled attending the launch event for “Delivering Happiness” in Las Vegas. The pair met through tech and Silicon Valley investor Chris Sacca, who brought Hsieh to one of Hawk’s charity events. Hawk said, “I just really appreciated his approach to business, networking and being available to people. He was incredibly successful but also very approachable for young entrepreneurs or anyone, who wanted feedback, he was ready to give it.

”I can only project that there was this sense of loneliness that he had, and he was trying to surround himself with people constantly. It seemed like there was something that he needed to deal with more internally, as opposed to just being distracted by people all the time,” he said. “That almost seems unfair to say from my outsider perspective. I only know what I saw of him. What I saw of him was an incredibly generous person and someone who did not take his position for granted.”

Not in regular contact, they connected from time to time when their schedules aligned. A few years ago, Hsieh gave Hawk a tour of DTP, a $350 million effort to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. Hawk said, “Walking around the project with Tony was like walking around the king of the land. We would walk into places and everyone would light up. They were so excited to see him. He was hosting me and showing me around. It was like I had the key to the city.”

As for how the ultra successful, like pro athletes, who decide to no longer compete, deal with living in a different gear, Hawk said, “There definitely comes a time with great success, where you have to look more inward at what is it that feeds you, [and] that gives you contentment. That can be extremely hard to find, when you’ve had a lot of success in a short time.”

Asked how Hsieh would like to be remembered, Hawk said, “As someone who gave happiness. That was his ultimate goal — to make people happy. From a business owner’s perspective, Tony was the one who made it something fun, and something that didn’t have to be combative or a compromise all the time. It was something to be more joyous and welcomed. I took a lot of inspiration from that alone.”

In doing that, Hsieh helped spawn a network of companies that tried to relay a more human approach. “That should be his legacy. They use the word ‘disruptor’ a lot in the new world, the internet world. But he truly disrupted an entire industry and for the better,” Hawk said. “I hope he is remembered for his contributions and not his ultimate excess or demise.”

Best of WWD

Sign up for WWD's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.