USUALLY THE TWO CABINS OVERLOOKING Michigan's Tamarack Lake attract people looking for rustic fun. For the scout troops and families who ordinarily sack out in the bunks lining the walls, the absence of electricity and plumbing only adds to the adventure. But on Oct. 23 the people who rented Cabin 2 in the Bald Mountain Recreation Area, 50 miles north of Detroit, had a different purpose. They went there to die.

That afternoon two Michigan women—Marjorie Wantz, 58, of Sodus, and Sherry Miller, 43, of Roseville—came to the cabin in search of a merciful end. Both women were suffering from diseases that promised them only years of incapacitation or pain. Both were to be freed from their hells by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who created a storm of controversy in June 1990 when he helped an Alzheimer's patient kill herself. Kevorkian's critics call him Dr. Death and describe him as "a serial mercy killer." He prefers his own nom de mort—"obitiatrist"—and says he engages in "medicide." "His role is facilitating suicide," says his attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, who has ordered his client into seclusion. "He provides the means, expertise, counseling and assuredness."

According to the attorney, the scene that day was less charged than one might expect. Kevorkian, 63, and his sister, Margo Janus, got lost in the winding dirt roads leading to the cabin. The two women, accompanied by a total of three supporters, arrived soon afterward but had to wait for several hours while Kevorkian returned to his home in Royal Oak, Mich., to retrieve some equipment he had forgotten.

By 5 P.M. everything was ready. The first to die was Wantz, a former elementary school teacher who had suffered from a genital disorder that became so painful her neighbors in the Meadow Streams trailer park near Sodus, Mich., could hear her screaming in agony at night. She had undergone surgery 10 times to remove inflamed tissues, but none of the operations relieved her distress—nor did heavy doses of Demerol. In a videotape made by Kevorkian's sister the night before the suicides, Wantz said she had failed to kill herself three times previously. "I wish I could have done it a year ago or two years ago," she said.

Kevorkian attached strings to Wantz's index and middle fingers. "I am going to miss you," said Hill Wantz, 65, her husband of five years. Then she pulled the string on her index finger, and Brevital, a fast-acting anesthetic, began flowing through a tube into her arm. She fell asleep almost immediately. When her hand fell to her side, it pulled the second string, releasing a fatal intravenous dose of potassium chloride and anectine. Within three minutes, she was dead.

Watching was Miller, a former housewife who learned that she had multiple sclerosis in 1978. Five years later she and her husband, Wayne Polachowski, were divorced, and their two children, Jennifer, now 20, and Kevin, 17, moved in with their father. By then Miller was so incapacitated that she had to live with her parents. Once a vigorous roller skater and swimmer, Miller had lost the use of her arm, leg and neck muscles and was confined to a wheelchair. "I'm not in any pain; I just can't do anything anymore," she said last year. "I'm just existing, and I no longer care to just exist."

Kevorkian had originally planned to hook both women to the machine, but Miller's veins were too weak. Instead he employed a backup system, a face mask (normally used for oxygen) attached to a canister of carbon monoxide. "Are you sure this is what you want?" he asked her.

"Absolutely, positively," she replied.

Miller and two close friends each said. "I love you." and then she pulled a string that opened a valve. Her death took longer than Wantz's, about half an hour. When it was over, Kevorkian called the Oakland County Sheriffs Office to report "a double doctor-assisted suicide."

So far Kevorkian has not been arrested, as he was in 1990, when he was charged with first-degree murder. A judge later dropped that charge since Michigan has no law that clearly bars physicians from helping patients to die. However another judge issued an injunction forbidding Kevorkian from using his suicide machines again, and the Oakland County Prosecutor has launched a new investigation.

The deaths touched off another round of debate over the ethics of medically assisted suicide. Even the Hemlock Society has qualms, since Kevorkian has not restricted himself to helping only the terminally ill to die. Kevorkian has asked for a state commission to study the matter, a move that might prove popular in Michigan, where recent media polls show his support is as high as 81 percent. "This thing has hit a national nerve, an international nerve," Fieger says. "There is going to be a fundamental change in the rights of people to decide their own destinies in the face of illness."

JOE TREEN
JULIE GREENWALT in Detroit BENITA ALEXANDER in Roseville

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Greenwalt,
  • Benita Alexander.