Death Wish

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.

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin