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.

Petrie asserts he has always believed in the Catholic doctrine categorizing suicide as a mortal sin warranting the soul's eternal damnation (although most priests today prefer to let God judge suicides). Even so Petrie simply couldn't muster the psychic energy to care about his own perdition. "I thought, Hell would be better than this," he says. Still he kept putting off his suicide. He's certain religion wasn't what delayed him, but he doesn't know what it was.

After three weeks in Bangkok, Petrie says, Roth called his hotel room, warning him he was on the verge of getting fired and losing his life insurance if he didn't fly back to Miami to get another extension of his leave.

By the time Petrie returned to Miami, Roth had sold the house and removed all its contents. (The selling price, according to Petrie, was $120,000, about $40,000 less than its market value.) He checked in to the Marriott by the airport and proceeded with the usual psychiatric visit and ticket purchase. But Roth, according to Petrie and at least one other person, had by then lost patience with his slow dance with suicide. "Around the end of July 1998, I went to the Mariott [sic] on LeJune [sic] in Miami," Juan Rivera would later recount in a sworn affidavit dated December 30, 1998. Rivera had been Petrie's tenant and then Roth's; he moved out shortly after Roth sold the house on July 24, 1998. "I went to George's room, and there was George, Robert Roth and Jeffrey, his stepson," the affidavit continues. "George went to fix a drink. Robert Roth then said to me, 'You got to help me out with this, it is taking too long. I want him to get it over and done. Convince him to commit suicide.' He also told me: 'I could use that insurance.' He told me that I would get some of the insurance money and that there was a $300,000 policy. He said: 'Don't worry, I will take care of you if you help me out with this guy.' I told him, 'You guys are nuts.'"

Petrie says that by then all the money he had left was $1800 in traveler's checks, but that he was counting on Roth to deposit $2000 to $3000 into his bank account, either from his paychecks or the $42,000 in proceeds from the house sale. To save money until his departure for Bangkok in the next few days, he accepted Roth's invitation to stay in the maid's quarters at the attorney's lushly landscaped home near Vizcaya. Petrie was scheduled to leave Miami early Monday morning, August 3, 1998. But when he called the bank a few days earlier for his account balance, he says, the account was empty. And, Petrie adds, Roth informed him on Sunday that he wasn't going to deposit any money.

"No reason. He just told me, 'I'm not going to give you anything,'" Petrie says, his voice trembling slightly. "He was treating it sort of as a joke. I realized I couldn't go [to Bangkok] because I wouldn't have enough money to last more than a few days. It hit me that I had lost everything. My house had been sold, everything was gone from the house, everything was over with as far as my personal life. I just thought, if you'll excuse the language, Fuck it."

Petrie had been drinking rum and Coke since the afternoon, so by Sunday evening around 9:00, he was pretty sloshed. After Roth went to bed, Petrie retreated to the maid's quarters, a small, comfortably furnished apartment. His two suitcases were packed and sat by the sofa. The TV was on, but he wasn't paying attention to it. He took out a flask full of Xanax capsules, a narcotic sedative he says a doctor (not his psychiatrist) had been prescribing since before his depression to help him sleep. He started washing down mouthfuls of the pills with a fresh bottle of Bacardi and more cola. After the Xanax was gone, he found a few other sleeping pills and took them for good measure. Then he lay down on the bed and waited to die. CJ, his Doberman, jumped up on the bed, too. And as things often go in melodramas but rarely in real life, the dog saved his master. CJ happened to bump an in-house alarm button on the wall at the head of the bed (Petrie can't think of any other explanation for the alarm ringing), which roused Roth, who stumbled in, found Petrie unconscious, and called 911.

An ambulance took Petrie to Mercy Hospital, where he regained consciousness in the intensive-care unit. He doesn't know how many hours later. When he focused on the face of one of the hospital chaplains, bent down close to his as the priest administered the last rites of the Catholic Church, Petrie began to cry. "I was terrified that he might die and be without God's love and grace," recalls the priest, who because of confidentiality concerns didn't want his name published. "The important thing is that God's grace saved one man and hopefully gave him a completely new direction. It is never too late, as long as there is breath in their lungs."

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