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.

But nearly all schools of thought advocating the right to die do not condone assisting in suicide in cases of severe depression alone, absent other terminal or debilitating conditions. (Petrie has submitted some medical records along with his lawsuit indicating he was and is in good physical health, despite allegations in the lawsuit that Roth told at least one person, Petrie's sister, that Petrie had AIDS. A blood test performed at Mercy Hospital shows Petrie to be negative for HIV.)

In late June Petrie flew to San Jose, Costa Rica. Before he left, he says, he paid all his bills (so conscientiously that he later learned he'd paid the same phone bill twice), including one from the Neptune Society for his prearranged cremation. He says he had agreed with Roth to call the lawyer from Costa Rica just before he set the suicide in motion. Petrie filled his first week in Costa Rica with excursions outside the capital to beaches and jungles. But on the second week he fell ill with bronchitis and stayed in his hotel room. This was when he'd planned to end his life, but he didn't want to spend his last vacation being sick. He still had plenty of money, too. So he decided to return to Miami and ask his psychiatrist to extend his leave another two weeks.

When Petrie got back, he says, he was surprised to see that Roth had already put his former house on the market and had removed Petrie's television, stereo, jewelry, art, and some of his furniture. So Petrie checked in to the Embassy Suites near Miami International Airport. During the next four days, he went to see his psychiatrist and stopped by an American Express office to purchase another plane ticket. This time, Petrie recalls, his idea was to go much farther away, someplace where his death wish would be irrevocable, someplace where his death would seem more like annihilation. He looked at a map and picked Bangkok. "Why Thailand?" he wonders now. "I don't know. I was screwed up. Under normal circumstances, I never would have taken off like that. I've never done anything like that. I never would have traveled alone to someplace exotic. I hate to fly, and it's a very long flight. But at that time I didn't care."

On July 7, Petrie says, Roth drove him to the airport. He landed in Bangkok early on July 9 and checked into the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel. "We'd worked out this whole scheme," Petrie recounts. "After two weeks I was to call Robert and leave a message telling him I was going to Vietnam. This was the sign that I was going to kill myself that night. I had made a copy of my passport, and on the other side Robert had printed his name and address and telephone number to call in case of emergency. I laminated that. I was going to keep it in my pocket at all times, and that would be the first identification they'd see when they found me."

Two activities took up big parts of Petrie's waking hours in Bangkok: visiting Buddhist temples and crying to the accompaniment of Andrea Bocelli. "I would lie back on my bed in the hotel room and play that CD until I must have worn it out," Petrie remembers. "And I would just cry and sob. I was really, really depressed. I knew my life was winding down, kind of like it was ticking away."

He liked to talk to the saffron-robed monks at the city's numerous temples, or wats, and became friends with one monk in particular. "He was kind of nice," Petrie remembers. "I told him what I was going to do. We talked about it quite a bit, and of course he told me many reasons why I shouldn't, that things would get better. It didn't change my mind, but it gave me a little time to think about it."

One day as he approached a temple he stopped to look at the scores of sparrows in bamboo cages that vendors were selling at the temple entrance. "You would buy a bird and then set it free, sort of like a spiritual offering," Petrie says. "I thought that was so neat. Cages cost something like five dollars apiece, and there were about four birds in each cage. On impulse I bought all the cages they were selling, and I let all the birds out, and they all flew up across the face of the Buddha. Then later in the day, when I got back to the hotel, I was telling the clerk about it, what a great experience it was to set all those birds free. And he just laughed and said, 'I hate to spoil it for you, but the vendors put some drug in the birdseed which addicts them, so after they're let out of their cages they fly back for more of that feed, and so they're recaptured and sold all over again.'"

After two weeks in Bangkok, Petrie wasn't quite ready to die. "I was still determined to do it, but I guess it just wasn't time yet," he recalls. "I absolutely was not afraid [to die], but I decided, I still have some money and I don't have to do it right now." He pauses, his long face expressionless as more impressions come back to him. "Actually I was starting to have this spiritual revelation, maybe you could call it. My depression was still intense, but I remember praying on many occasions to Buddha and God, and whoever was out there, to send me a sign that I'd absolutely, positively made the wrong decision [to commit suicide]. I never got that sign. But you know, the sign could have been Buddha himself hitting me over the head with a two-by-four and I never would have seen it, I was so depressed."

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