Epstein died of complications due to drug use; but an overdose has not been reported. Investigators were told Epstein had been using heroin. Howie was driven to St. Vincent Hospital by his girlfriend, who described him as “under distress.”
Epstein was taking antibiotics for an illness, and he had recently suffered from flu, stomach problems and an abscess on his leg, friends said.
“Apparently he passed out in the bathroom, and (his girlfriend) drove him to the hospital,” Madrid said.
He died on February 23, 2003 at the age of 47. Reportedly, he was extremely despondent over the death of his 16-year-old German Shepherd a few days earlier. In recent interviews, Tom Petty admitted that Epstein’s behavior had become unpredictable: “He was just degenerating on us to the point where we thought keeping Howie in the band was actually doing him more harm than getting rid of him. His personal problems were vast and serious.” He was interred at Second Home Cemetery in Greenfield, Wisconsin.
“We tried everything we could to reach him but it got to the point where his ability to do gigs was diminishing.” Finally, Petty took the decision to recall Ron Blair to the Heartbreakers. He said, “Eventually, we realized that we were just contributing to the problem. When you’re living a life where you really don’t have any responsibilities, it’s easy for evil forces to take over.”
“I’m devastated,” said Carlene Carter, the stepdaughter of country singer Johnny Cash and daughter of June Carter Cash. “I loved him very much. My kids thought of Howie as their father.”
Petty wrote the following in an article for Rolling Stone in response to Howie’s death: “…there’s a great sadness, because Howie was never not a Heartbreaker. He just got to where he couldn’t do it anymore. …It’s like you got a tree dying in the backyard. And you’re kind of used to the idea that it’s dying. But you look out there one day and they cut it down. And you just can’t imagine that beautiful tree isn’t there anymore.”
He is survived by brothers Craig and Bradley Epstein, and nieces Sarah, Samantha, and Hope.