The Telegraph (England), Feb. 2, 2003
Police in Ireland are preparing to seek the extradition of two Americans who, by their own admission, helped a woman commit suicide a year ago. Andrew Alderson and Nicola Byrne, in Dublin, piece together the extraordinary final days of Rosemary Toole-Gilhooly.
The three guests who had arrived at the Atlantic Coast Hotel in the Irish seaside town of Westport were determined to enjoy their evening out. After dinner in the restaurant, they retired to the Harbour Master bar and ordered round after round of Jack Daniel’s whiskey and coke.
A traditional Irish band was performing and the only woman in the party joined in the singing with enthusiasm. It was not until the early hours that the group retired to their beds.
“I just thought they were three friends on a touring holiday,” the hotel receptionist recalled last week. “I do remember that they were in good spirits though: they seemed to be having a great time.”
With hindsight, it is surprising that the group was so animated. For the woman, Rosemary Toole-Gilhooly, 49, a bank worker, had already decided to end her life two days later. Her companions, two Americans whom she had met for the first time that day, were equally determined to help her carry out her wishes and to be with her as she died.
Despite being in good physical health, Miss Toole, as she preferred to be known, carried out her carefully devised plan a year ago last week.
Accompanied and aided by the Rev George Exoo, a minister from the Unitarian Fellowship in Beckley, West Virginia, and Thomas McGurrin, his homosexual partner, she took a cocktail of drugs and placed a plastic bag over her head before breathing in helium through a tube from a gas canister.
Minutes later, in the modern apartment in a prosperous suburb of Dublin, which she had rented so that her father, Owen Toole, 92, a retired stockbroker, would not find her body, Miss Toole lay dead.
Her two companions gathered their belongings and calmly left her with the bag still over her head. Indeed, they had more European sight-seeing to do and soon afterwards boarded a plane for Amsterdam. The Irish Republic’s first-known assisted suicide was over: a “success” for all concerned.
Inquiries by The Telegraph have revealed that Miss Toole suffered from mental problems and depression for years. She was adopted soon after her birth and grew up in an affluent area of Dublin.
By the time she reached her teens, however, evidence of mental illness was apparent. After her marriage collapsed while she was still in her twenties, she suffered a nervous breakdown. Her natural mother’s refusal to meet her is believed to have compounded her depression.
She is understood to have made several failed suicide attempts and once wrote that suicide should be available to the mentally ill because “brain torture is worse than any physical torture.”
On their return to West Virginia, the Mr Exoo and Mr McGurrin were initially willing, even keen, to discuss their involvement in Miss Toole’s death and they gave a series of interviews to American journalists.
Miss Toole had searched the internet for someone to help her commit suicide and had come across Compassionate Chaplaincy, a tax-exempt organisation that counsels people seeking to commit suicide.
It claims to focus on suicide prevention but, if an individual is adamant that he or she wants to die, Mr Exoo and another member “prepare people for death and stay with them as they self-deliver”. The group says that, since 1995, it has assisted with more than 100 deaths.
Mr Exoo acknowledged that he and Mr McGurrin had helped set up a system that would cut off Miss Toole’s oxygen supply. He also admitted that he guided her through five practice sessions – though, in the end, he insisted that she had killed herself.
He told the Charleston Gazette that he and Mr McGurrin had been with Miss Toole as she swallowed crushed pills, covered her head with a plastic bag and breathed in helium.
“The last thing she did before she pulled down the bag was take one last pull on the cigarette. I said: ‘Okay, Rosemary, time to put down the cigarette if you don’t mind’. I gave her instructions, but that’s what we do. And provided spiritual support for her.”
Mr Exoo said he had not known that assisted suicide was against the law in the Republic of Ireland, even though it is illegal in all but one American state.
In Ireland, under an act of 1993, it carries a penalty of up to 14 years in jail. He described it as “a horrible law” and added: “I have nothing to hide.”
He said that Miss Toole had paid each of the two men �1,650 for their air fares and had also paid for their hotel room. In other interviews, Mr Exoo claims that Miss Toole had told him that she was physically, as well as mentally, ill with an incurable brain disease.
The minister said that he had questioned her to make certain that she was acting rationally. “I said to her: ‘Are you really sure you want to do this? You’re so cheerful’.
She replied: ‘Yes, I really have enjoyed these two days with you, but I will be so miserable’. She had no doubt in her mind about her exit.”
The trip to the hotel in County Mayo had come about by chance. When Miss Toole met the two men at Dublin airport, Mr McGurrin had expressed a wish to investigate his Irish ancestry. They hired a car and set off on a four-hour drive.
Last week The Telegraph traced the last person to have had a lengthy discussion with Miss Toole about her desire to take her own life.
Dr Libby Wilson, a retired doctor who lives in Glasgow, had never heard of Miss Toole when she picked up the telephone at her home one autumn day in November 2001.
Dr Wilson, however, had founded Friends At The End (Fate), a pro-voluntary euthanasia group with 140 members. The first of her three conversations with Miss Toole lasted for more than 40 minutes.
“She phoned me up out of the blue,” Dr Wilson said. “I think she had got my name from someone who knew me. She told me a lot of detail about herself and that she wanted to kill herself.
“She told me that she had tried to commit suicide before with an overdose of drugs but someone had found her. She said she was kept in a psychiatric ward against her will.
“She was determined that the next time she would be successful. She wanted me to go to Dublin to help her but, of course, I said I couldn’t possibly do that. I thought by talking about it she might talk herself out of her impulses.
“She said that life wasn’t worth living. I said at the end of our conversation that if she ever wanted to ring me up again she should. I didn’t hear anything more from her until the middle of last January. This time she was ringing to tell me she had it [her suicide plan] all sorted out.
“She didn’t sound like someone who was suffering from depression. She talked briskly and firmly. I think that she was a manic depressive, but she was totally obsessed about this idea of dying.
“She said that she had arranged for two people she didn’t know to come over from America and that she was going to rent a place where she was going to die.
“Then she said that she wanted to write her story because she felt other people might benefit from it. I was just stringing her along and said we might be able to print something in our newsletter.”
Miss Toole then sat down at her computer and wrote about her desire to die. “She emailed me quite a long account called ‘My Story’. It went through all the things she had told me before,” said Dr Wilson, 76.
“Then on the Monday, she rang me in a state of great excitement saying that she thought she had put too much detail in the story. I just tried to calm her down.
“About a week later, I had the Gardai on the phone and they told me that she was dead. I wasn’t surprised but I was sorry and sad: she was only 49.
“I hadn’t tried to dissuade her from committing suicide because I thought it was futile. I felt my role was to listen to her and I hoped that by talking it through she would go ‘off the boil’.”
Dr Wilson was interviewed in May by three Gardai officers at her home about her involvement. In October, two Gardai detectives flew to America to try to interview Mr Exoo and Mr McGurrin. On the advice of their lawyers, the two men declined to be questioned.
Mr McGurrin said at the time: “Our attorney gave us a way of saying we declined to answer based on Irish, international and US law. When we read that statement, they [the detectives] said: ‘Is that your reply to any question?’
“We said ‘yes’.” Of the meeting at the federal court house in Beckley, Mr Exoo added: “They were very nice people.”
A church spokesman for Mr Exoo and Mr McGurrin said yesterday that, on legal advice, the two men did not want to speak to The Telegraph.
Mr Exoo, 60, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised as a Methodist. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1973. (Unitarians believe in God as “one person not a Trinity”, and the fellowship prides itself on being a “liberal” church.) Mr Exoo met Mr McGurrin, a Krishna monk, many years ago and they lived in Pittsburgh before moving to West Virginia.
Gardai officials revealed yesterday that they hope to begin formal extradition procedures against the two men later this month. A file on the case is being sent to the Irish Director of Public Prosecutions, who will decide how to proceed in the next fortnight.
“We took a very serious view of the matter at the time and we still do,” said a senior member of the police inquiry team. “As far as we’re concerned, these men were accessories to murder.”
Rita Markham, an attorney and the executive director of the American-based International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, has studied the case and believes that the two men should face charges in Ireland.
“There are so many alarming aspects about the case, not least the self-serving nature of the two men who are willing to travel to assist people in committing suicide,” she said. She is also concerned that Mr Exoo seems to take pleasure from suicide and once, in 1997, reportedly, called it “a beautiful thing”.
Despite being shocked by the events that led to Miss Toole’s death, Dr Wilson, who used to run a family planning service in Glasgow, does not share the view that the two Americans should be prosecuted.
“Rosemary is dead now. The only people who would benefit from further action are the lawyers. She would have found a way to take her life one way or the other.
“She wanted the drama and the headlines: a big ‘to-do’ about her death. It’s a pity she couldn’t live to see it happen.”