Death Wish

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

But did that give the Final Exit guides any right to become her Johnny-on-the-spot suicide advisors?

Wye Hale-Rowe wavers when asked to compare someone's overwhelming physical suffering to unbearable mental suffering.

"I'm not one to say we should treat mental illness the same as physical, because it's too easy to say and too hard to do," she says. "We're on pretty shaky ground, I think, and we have to be very, very careful in this area. I just went into a risky case, and now I'm stuck with what happened."

Jana Van Voorhis committed suicide inside her central Phoenix home.
Michael Ratcliff
Jana Van Voorhis committed suicide inside her central Phoenix home.
Jana Van Voorhis, pictured in her teens, suffered from chronic mental illness.
courtesy of Jared and Viki Thomas
Jana Van Voorhis, pictured in her teens, suffered from chronic mental illness.

But equating Jana's mental despair with that of a person suffering a terminal physical disease is what Final Exit Network did. That and the failure of the exit guides to speak with Jana's family are what is at issue here.

Many people have known a person akin to Jana Van Voorhis. Though off-kilter much of the time, she nonetheless forged a spot as a beloved member of her family. Jana was a fourth-generation Phoenician, the middle child of Peter and Mary Jane Van Voorhis, and her sister Viki says she always seemed to struggle with life.

"She had talked about suicide since she was 10, though she never did anything about it," Viki says.

Jana was admitted into a psychiatric hospital while attending Camelback High School and underwent mental-health treatment for the rest of her life.

She was attractive and outgoing as a young woman, despite her psychological problems. Sadly, little of her physical beauty remained by the time she was an adult. And over time, because of her persistent troubles, she became a handful, even for those who loved her.

"She always had a hard time keeping friends," Viki Thomas says. "She was giggly and a little girlish, and she had this smothering personality that was difficult for a lot of people. But she also had a very loving side."

That side included a love of heart-shaped rocks, young children, animals, The Beatles, and many other musical artists. Later in life, she doted on her niece and nephew, great-nieces, and her many cousins.

But her physical illnesses, which apparently were far more often perceived by her than real, were the centerpiece to what was a distressed existence.

"She was always complaining about being sick, and it got worse over the years," Viki Thomas says. "She called her doctors constantly with lists of aches and pains. After speaking with her psychiatrist at one point, we learned it wasn't a good idea to drive her to the ER every time she called. I don't know how many times that the fire department went to her house because of an 'emergency.'"

But Jana was blessed to have been born into a family with enough money to meet her needs financially.

"She had someone to take care of almost every aspect of her life," her sister says. "Someone to take care of the books — pay her bills — a gardener, a housekeeper. She had an allowance. And she had family nearby. In that way, she was pretty lucky."

Though she would become more reclusive over time, Jana never was homebound. She drove her car, shopped for food, went to the movies, and had other trappings of a quasi-normal existence.

One of her lifelines was the telephone, because she didn't own a computer and wasn't conversant with the Internet.

She called people constantly, including her many doctors, family members, and politicians such as Governor Janet Napolitano — the latter to complain about how her docs were mistreating and misdiagnosing her.

Unquestionably, Jana's mother was the most important person in her life. Mary Jane Van Voorhis was someone to whom Jana could endlessly rant without reservation, and she did.

But the onset of dementia in the mid-1990s necessitated Mary Jane Van Voorhis' move to an assisted-living facility, and Jana's own downward mental spiral accelerated from then on.

Psychiatrist Michael Fermo wrote of Jana on May 7, 2006, "She reports having depressed mood swings; periods of irritability; difficulty shutting off her mind, especially at night; erratic sleep; low energy; nervous; socially isolative; and an ongoing feeling that bugs are eating her."

Mary Jane Van Voorhis died in July 2006.

The following month, Jana officially joined Unity of Phoenix, a Christian church of about 1,200 parishioners at 16th Street and Greenway Parkway.

Unity senior pastor Richard Maraj tells New Times he never suspected that Jana was suicidal.

"Her death was a shock to me, and then to learn it was suicide was very upsetting," Maraj says.

The pastor may receive quite a windfall as a surprising byproduct of his connection with Jana.

County probate records show that Jana amended her 1999 will last January, leaving almost her entire estate of about $650,000 to Pastor Maraj personally, not his church. She left nothing to her siblings under the new provisions, though they previously had been the sole heirs.

Jana's brother and sister recently filed a challenge against the new will at the county courthouse, claiming she had been mentally incompetent when she'd altered it.

It's unclear where Jana was when she changed her will, or who was present.

Jana's family sought to unearth a connection between Final Exit Network and Pastor Maraj in recent months, to no avail.

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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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