The Last Temptation of George Petrie

He was supposed to turn up dead. His friend, attorney Robert Roth, was supposed to wrap up his affairs. Now they've ended up mortal enemies.

After he formulated his suicide plan, Petrie went to Robert L. Roth, a 46-year-old attorney and one of Petrie's best friends. They'd known each other socially even before Petrie moved to Miami, and both lived in the same Coconut Grove neighborhood. Petrie says he asked Roth to dispose of his estate after his death. "At first he tried to talk me out of it," Petrie says of that conversation, "but he finally agreed to help me wrap up my affairs."

Miami-Dade County records show that Petrie deeded his house to Roth on June 2, 1998, "so I wouldn't lose equity on the house and there wouldn't be a challenge to the deed," Petrie explains. On a change of beneficiary form dated May 26, 1998, Petrie designated Roth as beneficiary of his $300,000 life insurance policy. "I changed it from my sister," Petrie says, "because he told me it could be tied up in probate and if I left it to him, he'd make sure my parents were taken care of and he'd distribute it according to my wishes."

In a July 7 letter to Petrie's employer, Roth wrote that Petrie would be taking a leave and that his paychecks should be sent to Roth's home address, where he "is temporarily residing." Petrie maintains he signed over the title to his 1996 Jeep Cherokee to Roth, and also entrusted to him the care of his seven-year-old Doberman, CJ.

Petrie says he instructed Roth to give his possessions to family members or to sell the items and distribute the proceeds to family members; but he was more than happy, Petrie adds, to have Roth to keep whatever items he wanted, as well as part of the insurance money. None of these arrangements were committed to paper, and Petrie says no one advised him to make a will, nor did he consider it necessary. "I didn't need a will," he declares. "My best friend was a lawyer who was going to take care of everything.

"To me," Petrie adds, "Robert was a modern-day hero. He was the smartest man I knew. He was the one who was going to help me get out of here without leaving a burden on anyone. I was so thankful to him for being such a good friend."

But Roth and Petrie are no longer friends, and Roth denies that Petrie ever told him he was planning suicide. Roth declined to talk to New Times because his attorneys are preparing his defense to a civil lawsuit Petrie filed against him on January 25 of this year. One of Roth's attorneys, Harold Bluestein of Miami, asserts that Petrie's version of events concerning Roth is "unequivocally false" and that "forthcoming testimony and documents will disprove Mr. Petrie's allegations." Nevertheless many of Petrie's statements are supported by documents or witnesses, and there's little dispute about the basic facts of his story. As for the tale's ambiguous motives, ambivalent actions, and absurd outcomes, those will probably never be quite clear.

Jeffrey Blyskal, Roth's stepson, observed some of the action at fairly close range and counts both Petrie and Roth as friends. Today Blyskal wants only to keep his distance. "I don't know what the reality is," he acknowledges with some annoyance. During the past several months, he says, he heard talk from both men of a suicide and of money disputes. But he's not going to take sides. "I don't put much faith in what either of them says," Blyskal admits. "I don't know when they're kidding around or when they're serious. They're both idiots for fighting with each other. Life is as difficult as you want to make it, and if they want to make it more difficult for each other and chase their own tails, that's their problem."

Asking a friend to help plan for one's death -- when the death is to be by suicide -- raises a number of legal and moral questions. "Assisting self-murder" is a felony under Florida law (actually committing suicide is a crime in several other states, though not here) and currently the subject of great debate across the nation. When the person assisting is an attorney, the situation could become stickier. Simply helping with legal paperwork and taking care of post-death details (even before death) may not necessarily be assisting suicide. Still, if nothing else, it looks bad if the attorney is aware that a friend is contemplating suicide and doesn't actively try to prevent it, especially if the attorney stands to gain any financial benefit after the death.

But Robert Rosen, a professor who specializes in legal ethics at the University of Miami School of Law, thinks appearances are misleading when it comes to such murky moral questions. "I don't know if the standard should be 'Does it look good?'" Rosen says. "It should be 'Are you as a lawyer providing your client with what he needs?' Even if he's acting as a friend, as an officer of the court an attorney has the obligation to disclose information to prevent a crime. But the problem you're dealing with here is that social mores may have changed faster than the law. If you ask most people, they'd say it wouldn't be a crime if you had a friend who was in great pain with AIDS, for example, and they asked you to help with a good death. It's a very complicated moral choice."

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