Jim Chastain is now 87 years old and still travels around the country to offer his services. Reached by New Times at his Sarasota home, he declined to talk about Sandra Snow or any specific case but explained he became interested in the right-to-die movement because "so many people die in an unhappy way." A former college professor, he and his wife joined the Hemlock Society in the late 1980s. But when that group chose to concentrate on legislation — "the unimportant part" — he splintered off with Final Exit.

"I get a couple of calls a week," he says.

Chastain says he'll self-deliver when he becomes a burden on his children. "Is there such a thing as a completed life?" he muses. "Would it be appropriate for a person to say, 'I've lived as long as I want to live'?"

The "exit hood" recommended by the group Final Exit.
Photo by Russel Odgen, published with a study in the Journal of Medical Ethics
The "exit hood" recommended by the group Final Exit.

Fran Schindler, 75, handles Final Exit "applications" from her home in North Carolina and helps assign the 25 or so exit guides around the country. It should be "a basic human right" to decide "how, where, and most importantly, with whom they choose to die," Schindler insists. She has sat in on 27 deaths since 2007 and says Final Exit helps people with anticipatory grieving. "Families are able to say all the things to each other that they want to say," she explains. "One lady had a great birthday party and a dinner" just before her self-delivery, she says. Another woman's grandson sat next to her with his arm around her.

Schindler, a retired nurse, found Final Exit after having scares with breast cancer and Lou Gehrig's disease. If she ever gets a terminal illness or is diagnosed with dementia, she knows how she will go. "I was so obsessed" with the fear of dying badly, she says. "When I learned I would not have to die alone — that there would be people who would come sit with me — I was not scared anymore. Bring it on."

Rivas, the Final Exit attorney, remembers how Sandra Snow's case ended: "Jim Chastain had a police officer knock on his door at 7, and Chastain told him to go straight to hell." Police also tracked down McGoldrick, who refused to talk. Eventually, prosecutors decided that because Sandra Snow's body — the evidence — had been donated to science and then cremated, it would be impossible to win in court. The medical examiner reclassified her death as a suicide by helium asphyxia, and Boca police closed their case in 2011.

Today, Jeffery Snow remains a realtor in Boca Raton. "It's no fun to be interviewed by the police," he says, but his experience made him a strong supporter of Final Exit. He became a member himself and has referred the organization to several friends who became agonizingly sick and struggled with every breath.

To witness Final Exit reassure his aunt "that we can be there — we can't help you physically, but we can be there for you... To witness a body who hears that, what comfort that brings, that was incredible," he says. "It's very unfortunate that dying with dignity isn't considered an option for some people."

Jeffery says that for him, the secrecy wasn't much of a burden, because "you get such joy out of helping people." Sandra Snow had been a nurse and then a pharmaceutical rep. She was also a big animal lover and, in her retirement, launched an animal transport business. She didn't want suicide to be her legacy, he said.

Still, he understands the legal risks. Not only is there a risk of criminal charges, but some families could also face legal battles with life insurance companies that might refuse payments for suicides. Jeffery says Sandra Snow had no life insurance, and although he was the sole beneficiary of his aunt's trust, there was not much to inherit.

Jeffery says he's "so dedicated to Final Exit" that he'd "love to see a video" so there'd be proof that exit guides help people experience an easy, painless death instead of a protracted, agonizing one. "If I ever get a terminal illness," he declares, "I'll volunteer to do the video."

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Another thing. The Boca police say they abandoned the case because the body was cremated and as a result there was no evidence. This is self-serving propaganda. I don't fault New Times for falling for it, though I could have clarified if I had been asked. A body does not yield any evidence when a person dies from the displacement of oxygen by helium. The body would not have provided the prosecution with any evidence whatsoever. The Boca police abandoned the case because they had no case, and it had nothing to do with the lack of a body. The Boca police have no evidence that anybody from Final Exit Network "assisted" in any death. Period.


Your story builds to the big dramatic breathless punchline:  "But the truth was far more complicated. It involved lies, secrecy, a tank of helium, and something called an 'exit hood' that would lead to suicide." (Scary music here.) But where in the story is anything about anybody lying to anybody? Nowhere. What about secrecy?  Final Exit Network is a nationwide not-for-profit organization that does everything in the open --- except for one thing. Final Exit Network keeps its members' medical information confidential. Is that "secrecy"? Is it wrong? Only to someone who is trying to sound melodramatic and breathless in a BS story. By the way, the story keeps referring to "Final Exit." Final Exit is the name of a book. The organization is Final Exit Network. A real news medium knows what words mean and how to use them.


At the end, the author babbles that "some families could face legal battles with life insurance companies who might refuse payments for suicides," and refers to "legal concerns about a policy being nullified" by "suicide." There is no attribution to this discussion because there is no truth to it.  The fact that one dies by "suicide" is not a basis for a life insurance carrier to deny a death claim unless the person dies during the "contestability" period, which is one or two years from the date the policy was taken out. It is implausible that someone would be terminally ill and imminently dying within two years of having, by chance, taken out a life insurance policy.  After 15 years in the movement for the right to death with dignity, I have never heard of life insurane being an issue for anyone. The contestabiilty period is only designed to stop people from taking out a life insurance policy with the intention of killing themselves to collect the proceeds. Life insurance never becomes an issue with someone who is legitiately planning to hasten an otherwise intolerable death from disease. In Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, the states with physician assisted death laws, insurance carriers are prohibited from denying the death claim on the mere basis that the physician-aided death is labled "suicide" by opponents of the practice. 


This story is truly inept journalism. The headline says, "Should Assisted Suicide Be Legal?" Yet nowhere in the story is there any mention of anyone contending that assisted suicide should be legal, or of any debate about it. As the general counsel for Final Exit Network, I can assure you that the organizaation has never asserted that "assisted suicide" should be "legal," except in connection with a Death With Dignity Law such as those in Oregon, Washington, and Vermone, where the practice is limited to physicians. Final Exit Network does not assist in suicides (and neither did the old Hemlock Society), yet the story calls Final Exit Network and the Hemlock Society "assisted suicide" groups. The author seems unaware that to call Final Exit Network and the Hemlock Society "assisted suicide" groups is to pronounce them guilty of crimes. It's like writing a story about an upcoming murder trial and saying, "The murderer goes on trial next week." Nobody associated with Final Exit Network has ever been convicted by a jury of any crime.

funchey1 moderator editor

@robertrivas1  You say "The fact that one dies by "suicide" is not a basis for a life insurance carrier to deny a death claim unless the person dies during the "contestability" period, which is one or two years from the date the policy was taken out. It is implausible that someone would be terminally ill and imminently dying within two years of having, by chance, taken out a life insurance policy."

... But one need not be terminally ill to get help from Final Exit -- so anyone who takes out a policy but "self-delivers" within two years "COULD also face legal battles.