Death Wish

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

Some experts contend that anyone desiring to commit suicide, especially a person not suffering from a fatal illness, may be considered mentally incompetent.

Precisely defining incompetence, however, is dicey.

For starters, mental health diagnoses and legal definitions often do not jibe. Even if it seems obvious to shrinks and the public that someone is "crazy," he or she still may not qualify legally as incompetent.

Wye Hale-Rowe is one of the nation’s most  experienced assisted-suicide guides.
Wye Hale-Rowe is one of the nation’s most experienced assisted-suicide guides.
Final Exit president Ted Goodwin with an unidentified woman.
Final Exit president Ted Goodwin with an unidentified woman.

Final Exit Network's protocol also demands that someone who desires to commit suicide "must attest that all relevant family members or caregivers will not interfere with your wishes." The network also claims it will not assist in a suicide "when family, friends or caregivers know about the patient's plans and are strongly opposed."

The network doesn't address what happens when a member is estranged from his or her family and doesn't want it involved in the so-called death event.

In this instance, no one from the network ever contacted Jana's family to get their position on her apparent death wish. Instead, her exit guides abided by Jana's alleged wishes and kept the suicide plan hush-hush to the end.

Jana's closest family members insist they would have done anything to stop her from killing herself — had they known what was up.

Wye Hale-Rowe, who long has been prominent in the assisted-suicide movement, tells New Times she doesn't believe that Jana was seriously mentally ill.

"Jana was in the throes of what we call existential suffering," says Hale-Rowe. "Even though their physical pain may be managed, just being alive is a burden. They're not able to function much with reference to other people.

"Jana knew what it was like to have had a very functional, active life, and that was part of her angst, that she had lost it and there was no way she could get any of it back."

But Wye Hale-Rowe seems truly tormented by this case, especially for having granted Jana's request not to inform family about the impending suicide.

"Working with families is one of my skills, and that didn't happen here," she says. "It's not a spot I like to defend, though not because I didn't understand her wish to die."

For the record, neither of the exit guides knew Jana Van Voorhis before she contacted the organization and pleaded for its assistance in doing herself in. The sum of Wye Hale-Rowe's "relationship" with Jana was a suicide practice session on the day Jana died and then a few minutes of dialogue before Jana killed herself.

Hale-Rowe's colleague, Frank Langsner, did spend time with Jana in the weeks before the April "death event" (as Final Exit Network calls it), starting at a February "intake interview."

In a June 6 taped interview with a Phoenix homicide detective, Langsner focused on Jana's physical ailments rather than her deep-seated mental issues. He claimed she'd been long-suffering from lung and back pain, possible breast cancer, an alleged lesion on her liver, and other problems.

Langsner apparently took Jana at her word because her medical records don't reveal a terminal illness or anything that serious physically.

"She had no relationship with her family," Langsner told the detectives. "She had nothing to do with her sister and she had a brother in Seattle. She was all alone. She didn't even bother with her neighbors . . . This was a person who wanted to die."

To help Jana succeed, Frank Langsner said, "You help get them in a frame of mind that they want to do it."

If the lead detective on the case got that quote right, it may well prove legally damning to Langsner. (The quote comes directly from a police report. New Times did not hear the actual interview, and the cops won't discuss the ongoing investigation.)

In stark contrast to Langsner, Wye Hale-Rowe says, "You never, ever encourage someone to hasten their own deaths. It's entirely their choice. You're only there because they've expressed this wish. Many people back off at the last minute, which is absolutely no problem for me."

Hale-Rowe is being represented by Phoenix attorney Mike Kimerer. Final Exit Network is footing the bills for Kimerer and for Frank Langsner's lawyer, Antonio Bustamante, also from Phoenix.

Bustamante strongly denies that Langsner ever uttered the "frame of mind" statement, though he, too, says he hasn't heard the police tape.

"I believe my client," he says.

Langsner's allegation that Jana's family had "no relationship" with her is ludicrous to Viki Thomas. Viki, who lives about three miles from Jana's townhouse, says she spoke with her sister almost daily, including on the day of the suicide.

Viki's increasingly worried calls to Jana before she and her husband found Jana's decaying body were preserved on an answering-machine message now in police custody.

"My sister had problems from early on, but her family loved her, and she knew it," Viki Thomas says. "For anyone to say otherwise is just wrong. I can't imagine how Jana felt in her head. But we think that if these people [Final Exit Network] hadn't come into her life, she wouldn't have done what she did."

That said, if Jana had lived, her increasingly severe delusions and paranoia may have led to an involuntary commitment in a psychiatric hospital, a lousy fate.

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5 comments
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.

-cjwww.aloeaz.org

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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