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Special Feature October 9th, 2008

Law Sometimes Leaves Little Room for Compassion

Los Angeles Times, by columnist Steve Lopez, 9-28-2008

When an 84-year-old man tries to lie down and die with his wife -- who has severe Alzheimer's and doesn't recognize her loved ones -- he's treated like a common criminal, charged with attempted murder.

Jimmy Wheeler, 84, is out on bail. The charge? Attempting to kill his wife.

I stopped by his daughter's house in Carpenteria and he greeted me at the front door, ready to talk about what he intended as an act of mercy. Wheeler shook my hand and led me to the dining room table. A pleasant smile was fixed on his tanned, lined face, but he was dabbing at his eyes. And then he lost it on the first question.

I asked how he met his wife, Betty, whom he calls Beckie. He sobbed, his chest heaved and then he began his story. They were students at UCLA, he said, his memories still fresh. He never saw her on campus, though. The first time he laid eyes on her was at the beach in Santa Monica. She was with friends, but they were invisible to Jimmy.

"She was cute, she was smart, she was happy," he said. "And she had a nice shape."

Wheeler drove a Model A station wagon painted UCLA blue and gold, and Beckie agreed to ride back to campus with this lanky young poli-sci major. He looked a little like Jimmy Stewart, with piercing blue eyes. They were married two years later, at the height of World War II. Soon he was off to fly bombing missions over Europe. After the war, he finished school at Oregon State and got a graduate degree from Stanford. Jimmy then found work as a petroleum engineer, and he and Beckie raised a son and daughter in Carpenteria.

This is a love story, of course. The attempted murder notwithstanding.

It's a story many of us find familiar in one way or another, particularly we boomers with ailing parents. I couldn't stop thinking about -- and talking about -- my own parents as Mr. Wheeler and I chatted. A hundred times in the last year, my siblings and I have wondered whether we're intruding too much, or not enough, into our parents' lives. Is it time to insist on home care? Should we insist it's time to surrender driver's licenses?

We're much better at the questions than the answers.

Wheeler and his wife have been married 64 years, and they've enjoyed what he called "a wonderful life." But Beckie, 85, has Alzheimer's. Jimmy Wheeler took good care of his wife, stealing all that he could from what was left of normal. They kept traveling, one of their great joys, until her illness made that impossible. Until quite recently, he and Beckie could be seen walking down the street to the beach, holding hands like young lovers. But Beckie was fading into solitude, the world around her a growing mystery, and then finally Jimmy was a stranger to her.

"She wakes up in the morning and doesn't know who the guy in bed with her is," Wheeler told me with wet eyes, capturing perfectly the horror of watching a loved one disappear into a fog.

In a way it's crueler than death itself, because there's no moving on for the survivor. There is only this ghost, a constant reflection of love and loss.

"Are you OK?" Jimmy's son-in-law, Stan Scrivner, asked him one morning when he came to the door in obvious distress.

"No," Wheeler said. "Beckie's gone."

Scrivner asked what he meant.

"She's gone," Wheeler repeated. "She doesn't recognize me anymore."

Wheeler couldn't bear to see her like that, and eventually he came up with a plan.

"She said she wanted to be with Jesus," he said. "I just wanted to be with her."

Although he has pleaded not guilty, the basic details of what happened next aren't in dispute.

One night earlier this month, he turned on the gas burners in the house, according to authorities.

"It was Romeo and Juliet," Scrivner said.

Except that it didn't work. Plan B, authorities said, was to run a hose through a window and into the house from the exhaust pipe on Wheeler's '99 Olds.

Wheeler wrote a suicide note and included instructions for cremation of the bodies. He left a check to cover the cost. He advised loved ones on how to handle his estate, says his attorney Steve Balash, cautioning them to be careful about probate lawyers who charge too much. The exhaust might have done the trick, but a neighbor saw what was up and called police. Jimmy Wheeler ended up behind bars, charged with attempted murder and elder abuse. He slept on a mattress on the floor of the overcrowded Santa Barbara County Jail.

A county prosecutor called Wheeler a threat to himself, his wife and the neighborhood. Superior Court Judge George Eskin listened to that argument but at a recent bail hearing he said the case called for "compassion and understanding."

"I am aware of the tragedy of Alzheimer's," Eskin told me by phone. He noted that unlike other countries and the state of Oregon, California has not embraced legalized options -- including assisted suicide -- for people nearing the end. Eskin allowed Wheeler's release on $100,000 bail pending a preliminary hearing Oct. 8, and ordered him to be supervised and undergo grief counseling.

"He's not going to do her in," Eskin reasoned, so the judge's emphasis was on making sure Wheeler gets help to see if "he can find the strength to go on."

Even if California had passed a death with dignity bill (the bill has failed three times, with strong opposition from doctors and organized religion), the Wheeler scenario wouldn't have come into play. The proposed bill, patterned after the one in Oregon, would have required a terminally ill patient to be of sound mind and to self-administer the lethal drug. Alzheimer's is not considered a terminal illness, and Beckie was in no shape to make the decision to end her life.

"Somehow they have to figure out how to create a new area of law that's about compassion and mercy," said Jeff Wheeler, Jimmy and Beckie's son.

With good reason, he finds it incomprehensible that his father is being treated like a common criminal, prosecuted the same way as, say, a spurned boyfriend who gets a revolver and goes gunning for his girlfriend's new love interest. After three swings and misses, Assembly members Lloyd Levine and Patty Berg have given up on a death with dignity bill in California. But they now have one before the governor that would require doctors to give terminally ill patients information on all their options, including hospice care and sedation.

Let's hope Gov. Schwarzenegger signs it. But still, it would be a far cry from what they've got in Oregon, and Californians might go on using bridges, guns, toxic cocktails and underground suicide options. Or they might make botched and bungled attempts like Jimmy Wheeler's. Kathryn Tucker, a lawyer with Compassion & Choices, says that patients in Oregon can sign an "advance directive" stipulating that in cases of progressive dementia, they would want no steps taken to keep them alive.

Here in California, we've got the prospect of an 84-year-old grandfather going to jail if a jury finds that he tried to lie down beside his wife and die with her. Sure, you could argue he had no right to decide for his wife whether she should go on living. But prosecuting him aggressively and sending him to prison would be a miscarriage of justice and a waste of tax dollars.

"I'm trying not to think about that possibility," Wheeler told me.

I asked if he had considered taking his wife to a nursing home -- she's in one now -- instead of trying to die at her side.

"My sister is in one of those convalescent homes," Wheeler said. "Those people are just passing the time of day, not knowing what's going on. That's no kind of life."

And what would he want to happen to him, I wondered, if he were as sick as his wife?

"I'd want to be gone," Jimmy Wheeler said.

I understand completely. If I ever get to where I don't recognize the people I care about, I wouldn't want to hang around. And I'd be grateful to any friend or family member who helps me move on.

I'd consider it an act of love.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

 

 

 

 

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