In 2010, George Exoo, a Unitarian minister who claimed to have assisted suicides, planned to turn a run-down North Carolina house into a center to assist people with suicide. He stated that he wanted to open a clinic that he described as a “hospice facility for people who want to die intentionally.” Later he abandoned the plan.
He had joined the Hemlock Society (now called Compassion & Choices ) in 1982 and attended his first intentional death in 1995. He later became a member of the Final Exit Network.
“I make it look like they died in their sleep” (Guardian, London, 5/12/08)
West Virginia’s George Exoo acknowledges assisting the deaths of more than 100 people, most of whom were not terminally ill, but were depressed and in need of psychiatric help.
Background about Exoo: “The Minister Makes House Calls”
To all appearances, they seemed so ordinary. Other guests at the posh Atlantic Coast Hotel in Westport, County Mayo, recall Rosemary Toole-Gilhooley (1) and her two male companions as three middle-aged people having a good time. They partied in the Harbour Master Bar for four hours, before retiring to one of the hotel’s 85 rooms for the night. (2)
“They were laughing and joking from the minute they came in. It was as if they knew each other very well. They ordered rounds of Jack Daniel’s with Coke and seemed to be having a good old conversation,” one hotel guest said. “The three of them got into the spirit of things and sang along…. Rose was tapping her feet, smiling and at one stage she did a little dance at the table on her way to the loo.”(3)
Another hotel guest who observed the merry threesome as they sang and danced said, “It sends a shiver down my spine to think that it was her last night alive. I’m shocked now to think that she had planned everything and the two guys with her knew she was going to die.”(4)
Two days later, Toole-Gilhooley ‘s body was discovered in an apartment in a wealthy Dublin neighborhood. Her head was covered with a plastic bag. Tubing led from the bag to a container of helium gas.
A search began for two West Virginia men, identified as George Exoo, a Unitarian minister, and his gay partner, Thomas McGurrin. They and Ireland’s first known assisted suicide became international news.
Very, very lonely
Rosemary Toole-Gilhooley had been married twice and was separated from her second husband. She had no children. According to her father, 91-year-old Owen Toole, she frequently talked to people from all around the world about suicide. In an e-mail message to a right-to-die list serve, she wrote that assisted suicide should be available for the mentally ill because “brain torture is worse than any physical torture.” (5)
According to Libby Wilson, a retired doctor who heads the Scottish pro-euthanasia group called Friends at the End (FATE), Toole-Gilhooley had been forced to give up her job at the Investment Bank of Ireland several months earlier because of severe depression.
Toole-Gilhooley had asked Wilson to help her commit suicide, but Wilson refused since her organization limits support of assisted suicide to those who are physically ill. Wilson was aware, however, that Toole-Gilhooley had obtained a copy of the suicide manual, Final Exit. Furthermore, five days before Toole-Gilhooley ‘s death, Wilson knew of plans for the assisted suicide but she did not inform anyone of Toole-Gilhooley ‘s impending death because she considered their phone conversations and e-mails to be confidential doctor-patient communication.
Asked why Toole-Gilhooley, who had done so much research and certainly knew how to kill herself, was seeking help from others, Wilson said, “I think she was very, very lonely. She did not want to be alone.” (6)
Time to go
Toole-Gilhooley paid all expenses for the men’s trip, but she didn’t meet Exoo and McGurrin in person until three days before her death when she greeted them at the Dublin airport. However, she had been in contact with Exoo by phone and e-mail ever since they had been put in touch through a “concrete referral” from a woman Exoo described as “really well grounded.”(7)
At the airport, Toole-Gilhooley rented a car. Then, she and the men spent two leisurely days, traveling through the Irish countryside, purportedly giving McGurrin the opportunity to get in touch with his ancestral roots in Westport, County Mayo. Their jaunt ended with the night of partying at the Atlantic Coast Hotel.
It appears that the unhurried pace ended when they went from the hotel to the rented apartment that had been chosen to serve as the backdrop for Toole-Gilhooley ‘s death.
Exoo and McGurrin had brought equipment to use for the assisted suicide. Toole-Gilhooley had obtained canisters of helium gas and drugs. “They were Irish pills and she had ground them up. She had tons of the stuff,” Exoo said.(8)
The men acknowledge that they helped set up a mechanism that would cut off Toole-Gilhooley ‘s oxygen supply. In addition to setting up the suicide kit, they admit guiding her through five practice sessions with it, but they claim they only watched as Toole-Gilhooley took pills with vodka and then placed a plastic bag over her head.
Exoo described the final moments during which Toole-Gilhooley swallowed the crushed pills, covered her head with a plastic bag and breathed helium. “She had not a second’s hesitation,”(9) he said. In other interviews, however, he acknowledged prodding her to get on with her death. During the process, Toole-Gilhooley decided to pause to smoke a cigarette. Exoo saw this as a problem and told her, “OK, Rosemary, time to put the cigarette down if you don’t mind.”(10)
She complied and the process continued.
(Exoo’s admission that he told Toole-Gilhooley to put out the cigarette and don the plastic bag could result in legal problems for him, as could his knowing provision of the equipment designed for assisted suicide. Section 2 of the Irish Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1983, states that anyone who “aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another” is guilty of an offence punishable up to 14 years’ imprisonment. )
After waiting for a short time to make certain that she was dead, Exoo and McGurrin returned the rental car to the Dublin airport and flew to Amsterdam where they claim that they received a message from Toole-Gilhooley.
Message from the grave?
According to Exoo, he and McGurrin received a “sign” from Toole-Gilhooley while they were in Amsterdam. “We always ask people to give us a sign when they reach the other side successfully. And they come within 24 hours of the person passing. She said her sign would be a bunch of roses. The very next night we were walking down the street in Amsterdam, and a guy brushed by us and he was carrying four bunches of red roses. I think that’s reasonable evidence.”(11)
McGurrin corrected Exoo’s recollection, saying it was “more like six” bunches of flowers.(12) He didn’t say whether six bunches of flowers indicated a higher satisfaction score than a mere four would have.
In addition to the roses-from-Rosemary story, Exoo points to other reasons to illustrate that his actions were above reproach.
He sees no problem with the fact that she had been lonely and depressed. Asked if he felt that he was fully qualified to decide if Toole-Gilhooley was of sound enough mind to choose her death, Exoo, who has no medical or psychological training, said, “Sure, I don’t have any problems with that.”(13)
He said, “Sometimes they say, ‘I don’t like the taste (of the pills),’ and that’s an indication of second thoughts; but she didn’t have a moment’s hesitation. She gulped that stuff down.” (14)
In addition, he questioned her to make certain 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 miserable.’ She had no doubt in her mind about her exit. She suffered from serious depression.”(15)
He explains that many times he obtains medical records, but he doesn’t always insist on it because most of the time a person’s medical condition is obvious.(16) He admits that he has also assisted “a certain percentage of people who are younger, who have illnesses that are debilitating,” but not life threatening, or individuals who have “multiple chemical sensitivities.”(17)
He also said that, just before she died, Toole-Gilhooley had a 45-minute phone conversation with a doctor from the United States who works with him. Without reviewing any medical records or even seeing Toole-Gilhooley in person, the unnamed doctor assured Exoo that Toole-Gilhooley was an appropriate candidate for assisted suicide.(18)
Exoo contends he should not be charged with any crime in connection with Toole-Gilhooley ‘s death.
“They won’t arrest me. I’m American.”
Not long after his involvement in Toole-Gilhooley ‘s death had been confirmed, Exoo, speaking of himself, pompously declared, “If George has to go before the authorities in Ireland, he will go with a free and open conscience.”(19)
But, as word reached him that Irish authorities and legal experts from the United States were actually building a case to extradite him, he said, “I don’t think this matter will go any further. They won’t arrest me. I’m American.”(20) Reflecting further on the possibility that he could be brought to trial, he said any case against him would be “a very bad case to try, given the fact that I am first of all a clergyman, secondly that she called me there, and thirdly because her family approved in advance.”(21) (Toole-Gilhooley ‘s father vehemently denies having approved his daughter’s death. Referring to Exoo, Owen Toole said, “He’s a bloody liar.”(22))
Exoo also claims that he didn’t know assisted suicide was illegal in Ireland.(23) And, he makes another assertion as to why he should not be held legally accountable for Toole-Gilhooley ‘s death. “I am more responding to the laws of the heart and what I believe are the laws of God and the laws that invoke people to end suffering,” he said.(24)
He told one reporter that he does generally try to follow the guidelines of what is legal in the United States(25) but that the law of the heart takes precedence. Of course, no state – not even Oregon – permits the activities in which Exoo has been engaged.
In fact, in many ways he bears strong similarities to Jack Kevorkian.
“Call me the local Jack Kevorkian”
Exoo, like Kevorkian, seems to take personal delight in assisted suicide, calling it “a beautiful thing” which “becomes a very intense spiritual event.” He has said, “In every instance I’ve been involved in, it’s been an incredibly fine experience.”(26)
Since being linked with Toole-Gilhooley ‘s death, Exoo has tried to emphasize his under-the-radar method of death delivery. “I’m not interested in being another Jack Kevorkian,” he told a reporter.(27) However, he had previously been viewed as a little known Kevorkian wannabe who sought publicity where he could get it.
In 1997, then describing himself as the “Chaplain in Dying” for Hemlock of Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia, he told a Pittsburgh newspaper, “You could call me the local Jack Kevorkian if you want. I take that as a compliment.”(28)
At that time, he was relying on Derek Humphry’s book, Final Exit, and sometimes called Humphry for advice. If the preferred drugs weren’t available, he said he would check the PDR (Physician’s Desk Reference on prescription medications) and “look for things that say, ‘Warning. Warning. This may be fatal when taken with alcohol.'”(29)
Since then, he has used various devices or veterinary drugs to assist deaths.(30) In 1999, Exoo was among the presenters at a select conference of right-to-die activists, assembled from around the world in Seattle, Washington. Participants at the “Self-Deliverance: New Technology Conference” shared inventions and devices intended to be so easy and effective to use that no government could stop suicide, assisted or unassisted. Exoo demonstrated the DeBreather, a device intended to prevent the panic reflex that occurs during suicide by asphyxiation.(31)
Like Jack Kevorkian, Exoo has claimed responsibility for more than 100 assisted suicide deaths. However, unlike Kevorkian, who fears flying and insisted that his victims travel to him, Exoo has traveled extensively to carry out assisted suicides. His death junkets — some of which have been to destinations in France, Singapore, Switzerland, and Italy(32) — are paid for by those who are soon-to-be-deceased. As he told the London Times, he will travel anywhere and guarantees that he won’t “botch it.”(33)
McGurrin says he accompanies Exoo on many of his suicide trips “because George needs a traveling companion. I worry about him because he falls asleep at the wheel.”(34)
As was the case with Jack Kevorkian, Exoo had a sporadic career before hitting the headlines with his assisted suicide activities.
Fifty-nine-year-old George Exoo was born in Cleveland. He was raised a Methodist, graduated from Boston’s Emerson College in 1964, earned a graduate degree from Harvard Divinity School, and studied toward a doctoral degree in music history at the University of California-Berkeley. After being ordained a Unitarian minister in 1973, he led congregations in South Carolina.(35)
While in South Carolina he received a grant to study how Interstate 26 rest areas were used for homosexual sex. He released his findings to pressure the state to install condom machines at the rest stops. Instead the information led to a police crackdown on rest stop sexual activity.
In the wake of the controversy, Exoo left South Carolina to help establish a hospice at a Hare Krishna community in West Virginia. It was there that he met McGurrin, a Krishna monk. (McGurrin now identifies himself as a Buddhist Unitarian.)
The two moved to Pittsburgh where Exoo supported himself with income from the care of a disabled man and with his salary as WQED Radio’s Church Man.(36) The pair now live in Beckley, a town of about 17,000 people located in the coal fields of southern West Virginia.
According to published reports, Exoo’s main source of income is the $375 a month he receives from his 24-member Unitarian congregation and from money he receives from those whose deaths he assists through his “Compassionate Chaplaincy” organization. Exoo says his congregation also provides support for the work of Compassionate Chaplaincy.(37)
Compassionate Chaplaincy, which operates out of Exoo and McGurrin’s home, is a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization whose materials bear the slogan, “We listen with the heart.”(38) Its services, listed at the group’s web site, include “Assurance of Success”:
Self-deliverers cringe at the prospect of botching the job. We all know the horror stories…
The Chaplaincy offers unique client services to the dying. Chaplain, George Exoo, a Unitarian-Universalist minister for a quarter century – life Hemlock member — guides the incurably and terminally ill to the Other Side…
Exoo makes house calls. Drawing on philosophical wisdom of the world’s religions and the practical wisdom of Derek Humphry, he prepares people for death and stays with them as they self-deliver. Thus death becomes a serene, well-managed shift from this world to the next.(39)
The site makes it clear that clients are expected to provide travel expense and makes a pitch for donations for the “work of the ministry.”(40)
Compassionate Chaplaincy’s promotional flyer asks, “Do you need help in dying well?” It also suggests to potential corpses, “If you would like to have personal and expert assistance in planning your death, based on the most advanced “how-to” information, contact the COMPASSIONATE CHAPLAINCY by letter or phone.” The ad notes that the organization provides house calls, gives “more than just ‘tea and sympathy,'” and “provides a personal and honest consulting service that has no equal.”(41)
In addition to listing Exoo as its chaplain, the business card for the group names McGurrin as its counselor.(42) However, the extent of his counseling services appears to be somewhat limited. He says that, while he does “meditate and get into a meditative state with clients,” the counseling and praying is left to Exoo.(43)
Tea and scenery in West Virginia
In early March, soon after returning to West Virginia, Exoo was out huckstering his services. In a presentation before the general annual meeting of the Funeral Consumer Alliance of Greenbrier Valley, Exoo explained that his position was one of openness to help anyone die who is totally clear about his or her intent to do so to relieve suffering. As part of his pitch he demonstrated a plastic bag and tube assembly as one mother for inducing a quick and painless death with helium. (44)
However, a few weeks later, Irish police announced plans to travel to West Virginia to finalize their investigation of Exoo, a step that is necessary before making a decision about charging him. In spite of the fact that he had spoken extensively with the media, Exoo will not be so forthcoming with authorities. He said his attorney has advised him that, when the Irish police come to see him, he should invite them in for tea, tell them about the beautiful scenery in West Virginia – but not talk about the case.
As for continuing to assist suicides, Exoo said he plans to be more cautious. He fears he might be “set up” by someone and could get in trouble with the law, so he is considering lie detector tests for those who request his services to insure that “they are not plants.” “It is horrible,” he said, “but we might have to do that.”(45)
By late September 2002, Exoo seemed to believe that he was out of the woods as far as Toole-Gilhooley ‘s death. He said he had not heard anything from either Irish authorities or police in the United States. “They have not done anything,” he told the Irish Examiner. “I think it’s kind of dead in the water.” (46)
He added that his conscience remains clear over Toole-Gilhooley ‘s death. “People are extremely grateful that I am present and that I am a minister,” he said. (47)
But Exoo may have spoken too soon. On Tuesday, October 8, 2002 Ireland’s RTE television announced that Irish police would travel to West Virginia the following week to question Exoo as “part of a process that could lead to Exoo’s extradition to Ireland” where he could face charges for assisted suicide. (48) Under Irish law, assisted suicide carries a penalty of up to 14 years in prison.
The attorney representing Exoo and McGurrin has instructed them to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to answer any questions.
In January 2003, Irish authorities announced that they were planning to begin extradition proceedings (49)
1. Toole’s full name was Rosemary Elizabeth Toole Gilhooly, but she used the name Rosemary Toole.
2. Toole had rented the room earlier in the day at a cost of EUR 164 a person. When her body was discovered, the hotel receipt was found in her purse. (Damien Lane, “Rose’s Last Night,” The Mirror, February 5, 2002.)
5. Message from Rosemary Toole to firstname.lastname@example.org, August 26, 2001.
6. Joe Humphreys, “Tragic choice of woman who most feared a failed suicide bid,” The Irish Times, February 3, 2002.
7. Tara Tuckwiller, “Beckley minister sat with Irish woman during suicide,” Charleston Gazette Online, February 2, 2002.
8. “Suicide helpers have no regrets,” Sunday Independent, (Ireland), February 3, 2002.
9. Kathy Donaghy, “I don’t regret helping woman to die, says preacher,” Irish Independent, February 6, 2002.
10. Henry MacDonald, “Rosemary, it’s now time to go,” The Observer, February 3, 2002.
12. Patrick Smith, “Minister says he gave ‘spiritual direction’ to suicide woman,” The Irish Times, February 3, 2002.
13. Supra note 7.
14. Supra note 9.
15. Supra note 2.
16. Jennifer Bundy, “Police in Ireland Investigate His Role in Death of a 49-Year-Old Woman,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 17, 2002.
17. Supra note 7.
18. “Minister defends role in Irish woman’s suicide,” Charleston Gazette Online, February 4, 2002.
19. Supra note 12.
20. John Breslin, “Evidence builds against suicide case minister,” Irish Examiner, February 5, 2002.
21. “Exoo says any prosecution unlikely to succeed,” RTE News, February 3, 2002 and supra note 3.
22. Mark Sage, “I did not approve suicide,” PA News, February 4, 2002 and Caoimhe Young, “Dad: No suicide blessing,” The Mirror, February 5, 2002.
23. “US pastor who helped Irish suicide says he followed ‘laws of God,'” Agence France Presse, February 4, 2002. (Ignorance of the law is not a defense to the crime of assisted suicide. However, even if it were, his claim of ignorance is ludicrous. As a longtime Hemlock member and participant at right-to-die conferences he would be well aware of the fact that assisted suicide is illegal in Ireland.
25. Jennifer Bundy, “Minister’s companion likes to get to know those he helps to die,” Associated Press, February 4, 2002.
26. Greg Stone, “Suicide Ruling Won’t Change Public’s Attitude, Minister Says,” Charleston Gazette, June 27, 1997.
27. Supra note 25.
28. Sharon Voss, “Last rights: Providing help to those who end the suffering,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 25, 1997.
30. Gay Alcorn, “The slow death of euthanasia,” The Age (Melbourne, Australia), December 18, 1999.
31. Carol Ostrom, “Conference displays new devices in search for a way to die,” Seattle Times, November 19, 1999.
32. Carol Ostrom, “Aided-suicide activists fed up,” Seattle Times, May 20, 2001; Michael O’Farrell, “Right-to-die pair who advised on woman’s suicide may never be charged over her death,” Irish Examiner, February 4, 2002; supra note 25; Roland Watson and Daniel McGrory, “Web’s minister of death ‘beyond the law,'” London Times, February 18, 2002.
33. Roland Watson and Daniel McGrory, “Web’s Minister of death ‘beyond the law,'” London Times, February 18, 2002.
34. Supra note 25.
35. The Unitarian-Universalist Association (UUA) stopped recommending him for ministerial positions in November 2001, although Exoo can still serve as a UUA minister. Exoo contends that the split occurred when the UUA wanted him to include a doctor on the board of Compassionate Chaplaincy. However, John Hurley, director of information for UUA in Boston said Exoo resigned because there were charges against him. “In light of those charges, he chose to resign,” said Hurley who would not reveal the nature of the charges nor whether they were of a civil or criminal nature. (Bev Davis, “Church officials: Exoo action not on their behalf,” The Register Herald(Beckley, WV), February 8, 2002.)
36. As the “Church Man,” Exoo evaluated church services, offering on-air critiques of music, architecture and sermons in area churches.
37. Jennifer Bundy, “Police in Ireland Investigate His Role in Death of a 49-Year-Old Woman,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 17, 2002.
38. Slogan from business card, web site, and from “Heart Voices, the Newsletter of Compassionate Chaplaincy.” On file with author.
39. Compassionate Chaplaincy web site (http://www.city-net.com/~compchap/) accessed April 26, 2001. The web site also describes Exoo as “the planet’s only paid church critic” and claims that “Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics have hired him as a consultant on congregational growth.” Since shortly after Toole’s death the web site has been inaccessible.
41. Compassionate Chaplaincy promotion flyer, distributed in 2001, on file with author.
42. Compassionate Chaplaincy business card on file with author.
43. Supra note 25.
44. Minutes for annual general meeting of Funeral Consumer Alliance of Greenbrier Valley held March 5 2002 in Lewisburg at new Greenbrier County Visitor Center. http://www.funerals.org/greenbrier/minutes.htm, last accessed Oct. 11, 2002.
45. Supra note 33.
46. John Breslin, “I won’t face trial, says ‘assisted suicide’ cleric,” Irish Examiner, Sept. 9, 2002.
48. Tara Tuckwiller, “Irish police to interview minister,” Charleston Gazette, Oct. 11, 2002.
49. Henry McDonald, “Minister to be extradited over assisted suicide,” Observer (England), Jan. 26, 2003.