Death ruled not a suicide

Court ruling means insurer must pay

October 13, 2001|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

A debt-ridden Frederick County woman who persuaded a co-worker to kill her did not commit suicide, Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday. The decision could end a dispute over whether the woman's estate can collect more than $1 million in life insurance benefits.

Mary Gaye Fister had hoped that the insurance benefits would pay off her creditors, and she enlisted roommate and colleague Lawrence Goldman to help her kill herself and make her death appear to be murder. Her insurance company argued that it was suicide and withheld benefit payments.

The Maryland Court of Appeals rejected that argument yesterday.

"In this case, Goldman held a shotgun to Fister's head and ultimately pulled the trigger, causing Fister's death," Justice Lynne Battaglia wrote for the court. "This is homicide, not suicide."

The opinion overturns a decision this year by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which agreed with Allstate Life Insurance Co. that Fister's intent made her death a suicide.

The 45-year-old woman owed $1.2 million to creditors at the time of her death. She had told friends that she planned to kill herself and had made elaborate arrangements to make it look like murder.

Her plan - to tie a string to the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun and then pull it - didn't work. So, on Sept. 11, 1996, she talked Goldman into helping her on a dark country road in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"Let's do it! Let's do it! Let's do it!" she yelled at Goldman, according to his statements in court. He said she continued: "Larry, for the first time in your life, do something right, help me! Help me!"

Goldman pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served five years in prison. He was released this year, lawyers in the appeals case said yesterday.

In yesterday's unanimous ruling, the Court of Appeals said Goldman's role in Fister's death had to be considered, despite the woman's intent to kill herself.

"Suicide requires more than simple thought, and more than elaborate planning; it requires conduct," Battaglia wrote in the court's 21-page opinion.

"Fister did not commit suicide because she did not take her own life. ... Fister's death was undeniably the result of a homicide. A conscious, thinking human being, who was in no immediate danger or peril, made a choice to pull the trigger."

The court ruled that the woman's beneficiaries are entitled to recover the $1.3 million in life insurance benefits.

Lawyers for Fister's estate said some of the money will go to Fister's mother and two children, but most will go to her creditors.

"The family was very pleased," said attorney Bruce Kauffman. "They knew all along that she didn't kill herself, but for this to be confirmed legally gives them a measure of comfort."

Allstate's only avenue of appeal is to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that is unlikely because the case involves state, not federal, law, Kauffman said.

Lawyers for the insurance company said they were reviewing the ruling and declined to comment further.

Fister, who was 45, had piled up $1.2 million in debt from frequent trips to Atlantic City, outstanding taxes and credit cards, according to the court.

She was also under investigation for her involvement in a pyramid scheme to defraud investors.

In 1994 and 1995, Fister took out five life insurance policies from Allstate, totaling $1.65 million. Two of those policies, worth $350,000, were not at issue in the case decided by the appeals court.

She had hoped that the policies would resolve the debts when she died, lawyers said during Goldman's criminal proceedings.

But she knew that the policies wouldn't pay out if she killed herself, they said.

After unsuccessfully pleading with friends and a former boyfriend to kill her, Fister set about doing it herself.

Goldman accompanied her to Harpers Ferry, where he was supposed to hold the shotgun steady while Fister pulled the string attached to the trigger.

She tried several times, without result, then, according to Goldman, yelled at him to do it for her. Goldman is a beneficiary of one of the insurance policies, but he cannot collect because he was convicted in Fister's death, Kauffman said.

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