The Last Temptation of George Petrie
At odd moments faint smells from the streets of Bangkok come back to George Petrie -- pollution from gasoline engines, meat roasting on spits, sweat, overripe fruit. Whether the fleeting odors have clung to his clothes and hair or whether they're purely remembered, Petrie can't tell. A pervading despair has distanced him from sensation. It's a cloudy summer morning in London, late July 1998, and his Qantas Airways flight from Thailand landed at Heathrow Airport about an hour ago. He's now on a bus to Gatwick Airport, where he'll catch a plane to Miami.
Tears are streaming down Petrie's ruddy face, leaving little tracks of vapor on his gold-rimmed glasses. He is sitting with a portable CD player on his lap, listening through headphones for the 10,000th time to Romanza, a recording by the celebrated Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. For about four months now, he has found himself crying all the time; he doesn't even try to fight it anymore.
Petrie is vaguely aware of not wanting to go back to Miami, the town in which he lived for more than twelve years, where he owned a home, and had a good job and some good friends. In the past three months, he's lost everything -- his job, the house and car, and all but one or two friends, and now he even has doubts about them.
But this was something he planned. He's going to die in Bangkok, thousands of miles away from everyone and everything he's ever cared about. His family will never know his death wasn't accidental. The trip to Miami is only for a few days, to get some life insurance paperwork straightened out, and then he'll be back on the plane to Thailand. At least that's what he thinks. By now everything has become so surreal, it's almost as though he's just watching what happens, as if he were already dead. The beautiful music in his ears could be a magnificent farewell to the world, a requiem. But he would find it impossible to imagine that, in just a few days, he'd open his eyes to see a Catholic priest hovering over him, administering last rites. Nor could he imagine how much more bizarre his life would become after that.
Most people who knew George Petrie a year earlier would be surprised that this well-mannered, red-haired, 53-year-old Irish Catholic could be obsessed with darkly melodramatic thoughts in far-off exotic lands. Of medium height and slender build, he dresses neatly in classic attire: oxford shirts, khaki slacks, loafers. Petrie grew up in Boston in a middle-class family, the youngest of three children, and never married. His father was a shipping company executive, his mother a housewife; they're now retired and in ill health. The family was not particularly close. His brother is a retired career air force man; his sister, with whom he is in regular touch but who declined to be interviewed for this story, is an accountant and lives in Maine.
After graduating from high school in Boston, Petrie moved to Los Angeles to work as a sales manager for a regional telephone company, then to Colorado Springs for a job at another phone company. He accepted a severance package in 1986 after AT&T bought the regional service and started downsizing. Later that year he found a job in Miami. Petrie asked that the name of his Miami employer not be published because he is currently negotiating another severance package.
In early 1998 Petrie began to feel depressed about problems at work. He won't discuss the nature of his troubles, but says his demeanor never cracked; even as his emotional state worsened, he expressed none of it. He had never before suffered serious depression of any duration, but weeks passed, and this didn't let up. In the spring he began consulting a psychiatrist who diagnosed "major depressive disorder" and prescribed Prozac. Petrie, however, says he never filled the prescriptions. "Finally, when I went to a psychiatrist, things were so bad that I didn't feel there was any way out, even with antidepressant medication," he would recount several months later in a journal. "I was going to end my life."
In fact, he says now, he went to a psychiatrist only for help in carrying out his suicide plan. He needed a medical leave of absence from his job. He had devised an elaborate scenario in which he would overdose on pills and alcohol in a Third World country. Presumably, he reasoned, by the time local authorities found him and began attempts to contact his family, information about the cause of death would be muddled and it would look like an accidental overdose of sleeping pills or a heart attack. "I wanted to keep my family from embarrassment," Petrie reports, "to keep them as far away from it as possible and make sure they never knew it was suicide." His unsuspecting psychiatrist ordered a two-week leave, and he bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica, a country he'd visited before and greatly enjoyed.
That much of Petrie's suicide plan might have made some sense as an effort to protect his loved ones, but as events unfolded, one irrational decision led to another until delusion and reality seemed indistinguishable. Of course that's what mental illness is all about, something Petrie says he now understands. "I try to explain depression to people, but if you haven't gone through it, you can't imagine," he reports. "You think you can just say, 'Snap out of it.' You're as sad as you have ever possibly felt, and you just can't shake it. Someone could walk up to you and tell you you've won $60 million in the lotto, and you'd look at them and say, 'What can I do with that?' Your thought processes are completely twisted." The unhappy consequences of Petrie's twisted delusions have been concrete and continual, and they include an ugly legal dispute that shows no sign of quick or easy resolution.
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."
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."
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."
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.'"
No furniture was left in his room, so Petrie bought a mattress with money from one of the paychecks Roth had given him. "I was paying $400 a month to rent a room in my own house," Petrie says. "It was pretty weird. But I was just glad to have a place to live."
Furst and Foster say when they bought the house, Roth told them it was an estate sale. "Then the story started changing; we heard the former owner was sick, he was dying of AIDS, we heard different stories from different people," Furst adds. "But we liked the house. We should have known something wasn't quite right."
For starters they discovered after closing the sale with Roth that the City of Miami had cited Petrie for numerous code violations, including a carport and a garage constructed without proper permits, and electrical wiring that didn't meet code. "We've hired an architect, and we're just correcting the problems one by one," Furst says. He doesn't know yet how much money they'll finally spend, but the work will be extensive. "I had to go before the code violations board to get an extension of time."
But there were other, more disturbing, surprises for the new owners. "Then we got to the point," Furst groans, "where Roth was showing up at the door with a gun and knife." On September 14 around dinnertime, Roth did indeed appear outside Petrie's former house. According to the three men living there, Roth was calling for Petrie to come outside and talk, presumably about the letter Roth had received some ten days earlier from Petrie's attorney, Joseph Shook. (Roth later claimed he visited Petrie in an effort to make arrangements for returning Petrie's property, thus avoiding involving another attorney.) Jay Mason and the third housemate, David Alvarez, were in the kitchen cooking. Petrie was in his room but went to the front door when he heard Roth's voice. "Robert was yelling for George to come outside," Mason says. "George was talking to him behind the burglar bars on the door, then he decided to go out and calm him down."
"I unlocked the gate to let George out," Alvarez recalls, "and just as I turned around after I locked the gate again, I heard George screaming, 'David, David, he's got a gun! Help me!' I open the gate, I give the phone to my other roommate, Jay, and tell him to call the cops, and I go out. Finally we got him pinned down. I gave the gun to Jay and he put it on a counter inside." During the struggle, Petrie's two front teeth were chipped, a screen door was bashed in, and Roth suffered minor cuts on both hands.
After an hour a Miami Police Department squad car arrived. Ofcr. Ruben Lameira arrested Roth on charges of aggravated assault with a firearm and carrying a concealed weapon. "Def. had in his possession a fully loaded (9 bullets) .25 caliber Beretta," Lameira wrote in his arrest report. "Def. also had a full 8 shot magazine and a pocket knife in his left front pocket. Victim is in fear of his life and fears that def. will shoot him one day.... Note: Inventory of def's 98 Chevy truck revealed 2 extra 8 shot magazines." Roth was released from jail that night on $16,000 bond.
Furst lived in Aventura and wasn't at the house during the worst of the altercation, but arrived as Roth was being hustled into the squad car. After the police left, Furst told his tenants he wanted them to move out. "That was just a little too much," he says. "This house has been bizarre. I have never dealt with such" -- searching for the right word, Furst finally comes up with " -- such human nature." Today he and his wife live in the house, and they say everything is a lot quieter.
Roth will not be prosecuted for the incident. Three weeks ago the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office concluded that it couldn't prove Roth actually pointed his gun at Petrie, the sine qua non of aggravated assault. (The attorney does have a concealed-weapon permit.) Both Roth and Petrie took and passed lie detector tests, but neither was consistent in all retellings of his version of the event; prosecutors also considered the two witnesses less credible because they were "invested in the perspective of George Petrie," according to Assistant State Attorney Don Ungerwrite. "It's impossible for us to say beyond exclusion of a doubt that Robert Roth pulled out a gun and pointed it at someone," Ungerwrite continues. "We're certainly concerned that a member of the bar, armed like he was, would go and visit someone represented by counsel and with whom he has a legal dispute. But that's not a matter for us to resolve; it's for the bar to resolve."
In fact Petrie has lodged a complaint against Roth with the Florida Bar, which is now awaiting Roth's response and hasn't yet opened a formal investigation.
Roth emerged relatively unscathed from an earlier arrest on criminal charges. In April 1995 police encountered Roth standing outside the Miami Arena, allegedly scalping tickets to a Miami Heat basketball game. After they ordered him to leave and he refused, officers arrested him and found a switchblade and a dagger in one of his back pockets. He was charged with trespassing, doing business without a license, and carrying a concealed weapon. Almost one year after the arrest, with the help of a series of continuances and motions filed by defense attorney Richard Sharpstein, and the fact that Roth possessed a concealed-weapon permit, the state dropped the case.
Roth has weathered some professional storms, too. In 1997 he received two public reprimands from the Florida Bar for ethical misconduct. Although the case file has been sealed by the Florida Supreme Court (an unusual action, according to Bob Olian of the bar's Miami office), the court's ruling as published in the legal journal Southern Reporter reveals that Roth was disciplined for making an improper settlement offer and for being responsible for the creation of a fake document by his office (there was no evidence he created the document). Petrie's brief testimony as a character witness for Roth, which apparently impressed the judge, may have deflected worse punishment, but the Supreme Court judges had harsh words for Roth's behavior. "The misconduct in this case involves selfish motive, a reprehensible circumstance," the judges wrote in their ruling.
Petrie, imputing similar selfish motives to Roth, filed a civil lawsuit this past January 25. The 33-page complaint accuses Roth of acquiring Petrie's possessions and property through fraud (none of the property or money, Petrie says, went to his family), of professional misconduct, assault and battery, and defamation (for allegedly making statements that Petrie had AIDS). The complaint reiterates attorney Joseph Shook's earlier arguments that all legal transfers of property from Petrie to Roth are now invalid because the transfers were in anticipation of an event (Petrie's death) that never happened; also, the complaint asserts, Roth's refusal to return Petrie's property constitutes theft because Roth never intended to (or never did) distribute proceeds to Petrie's family members.
"We're going to vigorously defend this," says Andrew Seiden of Boca Raton, one of Roth's attorneys. "He denies all allegations of wrongdoing. Yes, some of these [property] transfers happened, but there's a very plausible explanation for all of this. It's ludicrous to suggest that Bobby Roth encouraged or told this guy to commit suicide."
The civil suit, brought during the State Attorney's Office investigation of Roth's criminal case, came as yet another professional crisis was concluding. This past November Roth resigned after more than a decade as a federal Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee, an appointed position with the U.S. Department of Justice. The resignation was officially for "personal medical reasons," according to C. David Butler, the U.S. Trustee for the Justice Department's southern regional office in Atlanta. Two sources within the U.S. bankruptcy court system, however, assert that Roth's departure may not have been entirely voluntary, following as it did years of conflict between Roth and his supervisors in the U.S. Trustee's Office.
Counters Seiden: "Bobby Roth is very emphatic that he was not forced to resign."
In 1995 Roth and three other bankruptcy attorneys and an accountant filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against five current or former U.S. trustees and other Department of Justice employees. The suit alleged that the defendants "conducted the affairs of the Office of the United States Trustee through a pattern of racketeering activity" that involved extortion, bribery, and mail fraud. After two years, U.S. District Court Judge Shelby Highsmith dismissed the suit.
Petrie, who remained Roth's friend through all those past skirmishes, says he never felt entitled to judge Roth's conduct and always held his intelligence and legal talent in high regard. He continued to think of Roth as a friend even as he began legal action to recover what he believed Roth owed him. But the gun incident was a turning point: After that, Petrie says, he saw Roth differently. He wanted Roth to pay -- whether with jail time or money or both, he didn't care.
Petrie was fortunate this past September to have re-established contact with a long-time friend who offered to share her two-bedroom apartment with him. It's far from the Grove, in southwest Miami-Dade, surrounded by tall palms, banana, and black olive trees, and Petrie says he's gradually recovering his sanity. He is still taking medication for depression and going to therapy. "For a while I was afraid to leave the house," Petrie admits, sitting at a small glass-topped dining-room table in his new place, the afternoon sun shining through a patio door onto a thick file of legal and financial papers he's looking through. "But I'm doing better now. I went out to the grocery store and the post office. I go to my doctor appointments. I wouldn't have been able to have this conversation a few months ago."
Nevertheless he is still on disability and negotiating a severance package with his employer. He says he doesn't intend to look for another job until his civil lawsuit against Roth is resolved. For now thinking about the future seems too risky. "I lost everything I ever worked for in my life, and I blamed myself. I still do," he observes. "But a friend wouldn't have let me destroy myself.
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