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 was released from Mercy about four days after his suicide attempt, and was admitted straight into the psychiatric ward at Doral Palms Hospital. He stayed there almost two weeks, and by the time he left, he'd lost his desire to die. "The day I started getting better," Petrie remembers, "was when they brought in a guy, a retired doctor. His wife had left him and he was having a really hard time. Talking to him, I said to myself, You need to put this in perspective. I started realizing I'd made a terrible mistake. I felt I couldn't go any lower, but the more I talked in the group sessions and did the [mental training] exercises, I started to feel better. I was willing to start all over again." Before he left Doral Palms, Petrie says, he spoke with Roth in a telephone conference call that also included Petrie's attending psychiatrist. "Before we talked, my doctor didn't believe my story," Petrie recounts. "But he got me to write down [a list of the possessions] I wanted back from Robert. So I said, 'Robert, I feel better, I'm taking medication, and there are some things I want back.' He said, 'Well, there is some money from the sale of the house.' But then he didn't give it to me."

Upon his release from Doral Palms, a hospital van took Petrie to Roth's house to pick up his Jeep. The car was parked outside, as Roth had promised, with the key on top of a tire. Inside was a suitcase full of Petrie's clothes and a book he'd never seen before, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He was sure Roth meant to communicate something to him by leaving the book for him, and he thought it was subtle encouragement to go ahead and finish the cycle of death he had started. The Jeep's title wasn't inside, Petrie adds, alleging that Roth kept that, as well as his passport.

Now he had his car, but he didn't have a home. Once again Petrie checked into a hotel, this time the Riviera Motel on South Dixie Highway. "While I was there I thought, Where am I going to go?" Petrie remembers. "I'd alienated all my friends. I realized I could be on the street in a very short time. But you know what the difference is between me and a homeless person? They have street smarts, and I don't." Part of the $1800 in traveler's checks was still in his wallet, and his paychecks were still arriving at Roth's address, though Petrie says he panicked because he didn't know if he was going to see any of them.

After a few days at the motel, Petrie called the priest who had ministered to him at Mercy Hospital. "[The priest] stayed on the phone with me one whole day, trying to calm me down," he says. "He told me he would call Brother Paul at Camillus House [a respected downtown homeless rehabilitation facility] to see about me going to stay there until I could get back on my feet."

Petrie spoke with Brother Paul by phone the next day, he says, and Paul assured him he could stay indefinitely at Camillus House and work for room and board. Then Petrie opened the Yellow Pages to "Attorneys" and picked up the phone again. He says he called the lawyers in the directory one by one, always leaving messages with their secretaries that he needed help in recouping his money and possessions from another lawyer. Not surprisingly, he didn't get much response. Only one attorney, Joseph Shook of Coral Gables, returned his call. Shook says he listened to Petrie's tale but didn't believe him until Petrie came to his office with papers supporting at least the basic outline of the story.

Shook wrote to Roth on August 31, asking that he return personal property to Petrie, sign the car title back to Petrie, and turn over $6000 in cash (two paychecks and money taken out of Petrie's checking account), plus "the median market value of the home minus reasonable adjustments for realtor's fees together with the amount owed on the mortgage." Shook argued that because Petrie had signed over to Roth various possessions while he was planning to take his own life, all the transfers were now invalid as Petrie subsequently rejected suicide.

Meanwhile Petrie had escaped homelessness and Camillus House, although he wound up in a similarly undesirable living situation. Jay Mason, whom Petrie had befriended when they were both patients at Doral Palms, had recently (at Petrie's recommendation) moved into Petrie's former home in the Grove as one of two tenants of the new owners, Greg Furst and his wife Trisha Foster, who had purchased it as a rental property. Mason then told Petrie that no one was living in Petrie's old bedroom and that he should inquire about renting it.

"There were three tenants there, and then Juan [Rivera] leaves," explains Furst. "It was the weirdest damn thing. This guy George calls one day and asks us to meet him at the house. So we get there and he takes a key out of his pocket and opens the front door and says, 'Come on in.' He's inviting us into our house. I thought we were going to flip out. So he goes, 'Well, I just got back and I know two other guys are staying here, but do you mind if I rent a room?' And so we go, 'No, of course not.'"

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