Death Wish

The Final Exit volunteers call it assisted suicide. Prosecutors may call it manslaughter

Last spring, family and friends gathered at a service for Jana Van Voorhis, a 58-year-old Phoenix woman who recently had died at her home.

The memorial took place outside at the Greenwood Memory Lawn and Mortuary on West Van Buren, where Jana's mother, Mary Jane, had been laid to rest eight months earlier.

At the conclusion, Jana's family released helium-filled blue balloons into the air, something she had requested years earlier during what often had been a tortured existence marred by chronic mental illness.

Colby Katz
Landon Armstrong

Never married, Jana was well-loved by her family, including her two siblings, Viki Thomas of Phoenix and Wes Van Voorhis, a Seattle-area physician and University of Washington professor.

On the afternoon of April 15, Viki and her husband, Jared, found Jana's body in bed at a townhouse on East Hazelwood Street, south of Camelback Road.

They immediately suspected her death had been caused by a drug overdose, intentional or not. Those close to Jana knew she had a veritable apothecary of prescribed painkillers, sleep inducers, and mood stabilizers on hand.

But the couple noted that there wasn't a pill bottle in sight, which seemed odd to them. Also, Jana's body had been neatly tucked under the covers, her hands by her side atop the sheets, dark hair carefully fanned out on a pillow.

"It looked staged," Viki Thomas says.

A few months later, after the circumstances of what actually had been Jana Van Voorhis' assisted suicide emerged, the image of the balloons at the service struck Jared Thomas (whom everyone calls Tom).

"When those balloons were floating off, we didn't have a clue that helium had killed Jana," he says. "To think of her breathing in helium from a tank while two strangers just stood by and watched; it's just too much."

Maricopa County prosecutors are contemplating whether to file manslaughter charges against two senior citizens who have admitted to guiding Jana Van Voorhis through her suicide on April 12.

Arizona law makes it a crime to intentionally aid another person in committing suicide. But the prosecution would be a first in the state of Arizona, in part because the word "aid" is fraught with legal uncertainties in such circumstances.

Convictions would be anything but a slam dunk, but the facts in this case are extremely disturbing.

Jana's death became a murder investigation only because of blunders made by the two murder suspects that led Phoenix police to them.

Primary sources for this story include extensive police reports about the case, and New Times' interviews with Jana's family and with one of the two so-called exit guides from a national assisted-suicide group who were present when Jana died.

That "senior" guide was Wye Hale-Rowe, 79, a retired family therapist and great-grandmother from Aurora, Colorado. The title refers to her experience in the field, not her age. The second guide was Frank Langsner, a retired college professor who lives in Scottsdale.

They are volunteers for the nonprofit Final Exit Network, an offshoot of the now-defunct Hemlock Society, which was founded in 1980 by author Derek Humphrey. The Hemlock Society moved into the American consciousness in the late 1980s, some years before Dr. Jack Kevorkian's high-profile run of assisting in more than 100 suicides became headline news.

Humphrey's bestselling book, Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, was published in 1991 and still sells well. One of its pitches: "Follow my instructions for a perfect death, with no mess, no autopsy, no postmortem."

Based in Marietta, Georgia, Final Exit Network is considered among the most radical of the assisted-suicide associations, in that it also embraces "members" who suffer from serious mental illnesses, not just physical.

According to a recent Final Exit newsletter, 1,041 new members joined in 2006. It costs $50 to become a member, and $500 for a lifetime membership. (The use of the word "lifetime" in this context carries a certain irony.)

In its literature, Final Exit calls itself "the only organization in the United States willing to help individuals who are not 'terminally ill'— six months or less to live — hasten their deaths. No other organization in the U.S. has the courage to make this commitment."

That bold statement is what may have attracted Jana Van Voorhis.

Records suggest she first contacted Final Exit last year, paid the $50 to join, and sought its help in dying sooner than later.

Helping meant teaching Jana the creepy how-to of inhaling helium after placing a hood tightly over her face.

Though she did have physical issues, Jana (according to family members and medical records) wasn't suffering from any illness about to kill her anytime soon.

What Jana was suffering from, and had been for decades, was serious mental illness.

Since her teenage years, Jana's problems had required intensive psychiatric care. Her troubles increased over time, especially after her mother became incapacitated with Alzheimer's disease and died in July 2006.

By mid-2006, according to notes made by Jana's final psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Fermo, she "had been increasingly becoming psychotic, claiming the roof rats have been overtaking her home, sneaking into her house, and attacking her."

According to Final Exit Network's written criteria, each applicant "must be mentally competent" before exit guides get the go-ahead to assist with a suicide (they call it aid-in-dying, hastening death, or another term that doesn't invoke the inflammatory "S" word).

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Judith Haney
Judith Haney

I was friends with Jana from the late 1980's to the early 90's. I am shocked, as I have just read the story of her death. On the afternoon of April 12, 2007, I parked in front of her house and debated surprising her, as we haven't had contact for 15+ years.I had heard through a mutual friend that Jana asked about me everytime she heard from her.I decided not to ring her bell because I was not in a very good mood due to my marital problems. I did plan to visit the next time I was in town though, which was about six weeks later. My friend that knew Jana told me she saw her obituary but didn't know what had happened to her. I am sooo sorry I procrastinated visiting her. After reading this article, I can't help but wonder if it would have made a difference if I rang her bell. I send my deepest regards to Jana's family. I think the "exit people" robbed them of a chance to say goodbye, or any other final wishes/thoughts. Jana could be a handful at times, but I don't believe she ever had any ill intent. The years I hung around with Jana, she wasn't happy, but I never heard her mention suicide. I remember her wanting to get married and she wanted a baby. She even talked about adopting a Romanian orphan baby.She had a rather turbulent and abusive relationship with a haridresser for a couple of years. Marriage and family just weren't in her stars. I wish her well in her new life and hope all the suffering and torment have ended. Goodbye Jana�

colleen valdivia
colleen valdivia

wow. excellent job, new times. thank you for taking pains to do so much research. one point that may give your readers more insight on this topic:the hemlock society is not defunct. here is a quote from the organization's website: in 2005 Compassion in Dying and End-of-Life Choices unify to become Compassion & Choices. The new organization maintains headquarters in both Denver and Portland, and is the largest organization in the United States advocating for patients� rights at the end of life.

Joe Bethancourt
Joe Bethancourt

I knew Jana when we were much younger. The story was quite a shock to read ...

Derek Humphry
Derek Humphry

1. Paul Rubin might have checked up how I spell my name. It isHumphry, without an E.

2. It was poor journalistic ethics to invent a quote where he wrote:One of it's pitches: "Follow my instructions for a perfect death, with no mess, no autopsy, no postmortem." If Mr Rubin wants to describe my book, he should read it and do so in his own words, not create a harsh quote which is not in any of my books.

3. 'Final Exit' is a gentle, careful, considerate book which some people find useful when they are considering whether to die. Why else would it sell for 16 years over one million copies in English and eleven translations into other languages?

Jamie Gerston
Jamie Gerston

Hi--I was looking up something on assisted suicide when I found this incredible story. I read every word of both stories, and it read like a movie. Thanks to you and your paper for allowing such an in-depth story to be printed.

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