Woman's death ruled homicide Son, 68, is suspect

assisted suicide might be an issue

October 20, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

A Columbia man is being investigated by Howard County authorities in the death of his ailing 89-year-old mother, a case that could raise the issue of assisted suicide.

After the death Sept. 7 of Helen Vanmeter Fishback, a housemother for football players at the University of Kentucky decades ago, authorities struggled to determine whether it was a suicide or slaying -- or a combination of both. Police, who found her dead in the apartment she shared with her son, initially thought it was a suicide and investigated whether her son assisted.

Yesterday, making their first official comments on the case, authorities said the medical examiner has ruled the death a homicide by suffocation and that her son, William Fishback, 68, is a suspect.

Fishback declined to comment yesterday on the investigation. His attorney, Frederic C. Antenberg, said, "We are not in a position to comment or speculate at this time." In previous comments at his Columbia apartment, Fishback acknowledged he was questioned by police while they investigated his mother's death.

State's Attorney Marna McLendon, alluding to "fairly complicated legal issues," said the investigation is continuing and she expects to present the case to a grand jury late next month.

In the weeks after the woman's death, prosecutors studied Maryland law concerning assisted suicide while awaiting results of an autopsy. McLendon asked the state attorney general's office for a 1993 opinion on the legality of assisted suicide.

Although Maryland has no law specifically addressing assisted suicide, the opinion left room for prosecutors to bring charges.

"Just because there are no laws against assisted suicide, that doesn't mean assisted suicide is legal," Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz said recently.

About 3 a.m. Sept. 7, police arrived at the Fishbacks' home and found Helen Fishback in bed with a plastic grocery bag around her head, said officials familiar with the investigation.

Police, first suspecting suicide, soon focused on William Fishback, said Sgt. Morris Carroll, spokesman for the Howard County police. "Evidence at the scene led officers to believe that William Fishback was a suspect," he said.

That evidence included a tape-recorded message, said Carroll, declining to elaborate. Officials familiar with the investigation said Helen Fishback pleaded to die in the tape and her son could be heard sobbing in the background.

For several years, the Fishbacks lived together in the son's apartment, with their Yorkshire terrier. Legally blind and with limited mobility from severe arthritis, Helen Fishback, a widow, also suffered from emphysema and heart disease, said officials, who asked not to be identified.

Helen Fishback was a longtime resident of Lexington, Ky., where she became the housemother for varsity football players at the University of Kentucky.

Friends remembered her as a kind and caring woman, known as "Mom Fishback" to ballplayers, who kept many from leaving school while instilling values in young men who often had little social training.

One remembered Helen Fishback keeping all the players' luggage in a locked room -- they would need her key to get their bags and quit. Few did after speaking with "Mom Fishback."

"She brought a lot of people a lot of happiness," said Dick Mueller, 59, who graduated from Kentucky in 1961 and saw Fishback every day. "She was a great person who aged elegantly."

Friends said they knew of no other relatives of the pair. It's not clear when she moved to Columbia. Her son said he attended the University of Kentucky.

McLendon would not discuss details of the investigation yesterday, but did comment on why she is waiting to take the case to the grand jury.

"Often when there is a long-term investigation rather than an immediate arrest, and when there are fairly complicated legal issues, we take the case right to the grand jury for charging decisions," she said.

The lines separating assisted suicide and homicide often can be blurry, experts said.

In response to Dr. Jack Kevorkian's actions, many states have set up laws, either banning or allowing assisted suicide. In June 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not grant Americans the right to die.

In 1994, Oregon enacted the first law to allow assisted suicide in very restrictive circumstances.

Most of the debate has surrounded allowing physicians to help their patients die, experts said. When relatives are involved, those experts said, the issues become murkier. For example, the motivations of family members could play a role, especially if large estates or money is involved.

In New York City, a veterinarian was charged last week with manslaughter, accused of helping give a close friend suffering from terminal cancer a lethal dose of sedative.

That man reportedly would be the second person in New York history prosecuted for helping someone die.

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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