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04.27.11

The 91-Year-Old Woman Selling $60 Suicide Kits

A shadowy online company selling suicide kits recently claimed its first confirmed victim. Winston Ross talks exclusively with the entrepreneur behind it: a grieving 91-year-old woman.

The paramedics who showed up to Nick Klonoski’s house on Highland Drive four months ago discovered the 29-year-old’s lifeless body, covered up to the neck by a blanket. It was his brother Jake, detectives learned, who’d found Nick lying in his bed less than an hour beforehand, a clear plastic bag over his head, and a plastic tube running from the bag to an orange metal helium tank. Next to the tank was a white box, decorated with a butterfly, the box the plastic bag and tube had arrived in the mail in, with a book titled Final Exit inside.

“Is it the book and the kit?” asked the first police officers to arrive on the scene. The paramedics nodded knowingly. “Yep.”

These materials were assembled and sold to Klonoski last June for $60 by a company that calls itself the Gladd Group, which is not really a group at all. It’s a woman from the San Diego suburb of La Mesa, California, named Sharlotte Hydorn. She is 91 years old.

Each of the kits Hydorn assembles by hand is a simple contraption designed for a single purpose: people kill themselves with it by encasing their head in a bag of helium, which is lethal in pure form. People like Klonoski, the son of a U.S. district judge and whose funeral was attended by more than a thousand people. The Gladd Group’s estimated annual sales are $98,000. That means Sharlotte Hydorn sells more than 1,600 suicide kits every year.

“I’m too busy to cash the bloody checks,” she told The Daily Beast. “I haven’t made a deposit in three months.”

You have probably never heard of the helium-hood kit. Neither had Oregon State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, until he read a newspaper story published last month about Klonoski’s death. The horrified legislator quickly floated a bill to make it a Class C felony to sell such a kit. The first to testify at his April 11 hearing was one of Klonoski’s four brothers, Zach. Zach told the state senate judiciary panel that “my brother Nick was a beautiful person...It would be a disservice to him to remember him only for the way he died.”

Zach didn’t discuss his brother’s reasons for killing himself, but Nick’s mother, U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken, told police he’d been running every day and had been in an upbeat mood, despite battling a severe cold over the past several weeks. Klonoski’s brothers told the Eugene Register-Guard that he’d battled bouts of pain and fatigue for years without a diagnosis, that he was depressed about the effect that had on his life, and that he was worried he’d never regain his normal health.

“This is analogous to putting a gun-vending machine next to a depression clinic.”

Klonoski wasn’t terminally ill, so he wouldn’t have qualified for lethal prescriptions provided to eligible Oregonians under the state’s Death With Dignity Act, one of only two states that allow assisted suicide. But he was able to buy Hydorn’s kit on the Internet, to rent a helium tank from nearby Party City for $175, and do the job himself.

This, an emotional Zach testified at the hearing earlier this month, should be illegal.

“In a society where so many people suffer from depression and other mental-health disorders,” Zach said, “this company has found their niche in the market by peddling death. This is analogous to putting a gun-vending machine next to a depression clinic. The Gladd company, so named as to avoid suspicion in case family members happen to sign for or come across the package, made $60 off my brother’s death.”

Though Hydorn admits she did sell Zach’s brother his implement of death, she makes no apology for it. She has a story of her own.

It was 30 years ago, Hydorn said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, that her husband, “a six-foot-four, wonderful, handsome, loving, intelligent man,” was dying of colon cancer. After several operations, the cancer had spread to his brain, and surgeons had cut a hole in his stomach, out of which came his excrement, into a bag.

“It was my duty, and I did it willingly, to empty that thing every three or four hours,” she said. “One time I ran out of bags and went all over town looking for a pharmacy that sold them. Even years after my husband died, I would wake up and say, ‘I’ve got to go get those bags.’ ”

No one should have to go through that, Hydorn said, to die a slow, painful death in a hospital bed. “Death should be with loved ones beside you, holding your hand."

Not long after her husband died, Hydorn met a man named Derek Humphry, a longtime advocate of assisted suicide and founder of the Hemlock Society, which has worked to change laws prohibiting the practice around the country. It was Humphry, in 1992, who penned Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, which effectively serves as a manual for how to kill yourself and which Humphry told The Register-Guard sold 500,000 copies in the first six weeks.

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A Gladd Group helium hood suicide kit. Image via The Seattle Weekly.

Hydorn includes the book in the helium kits she sells. She joined the Hemlock Society (which has since merged with another group and renamed itself Compassion & Choices) not long after she went to her first meeting. It was through this affiliation she learned of a man in Canada selling helium kits all over the world. The laws addressing the practice were stricter in that country, so Hydorn offered the man sanctuary in the U.S., she said. He moved to La Mesa, where he showed her how to make the kits.

“I thought it was wonderful,” said Hydorn.

At the outset, the Gladd Group was selling two kits a month, according to Hydorn. But word got out, and her orders steadily grew. She’s since sent helium hoods to Israel, Brazil, Germany, England, Scotland, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore. “I had to look up Singapore on the atlas,” she said.

She claims her orders have skyrocketed since people found out about Klonoski’s death and how he did it, a notion that would surely make his surviving brothers’ blood curdle. But she stands by her product. “I had someone ask me once, ‘Aren’t you worried you’re going to hell?’” she said. And while she sympathizes with the Klonoski family, “They haven’t had the experience I went through 30 years ago. There’s no law I violated unless I sit by somebody who’s dying and say, ‘Use this and shut up.’"

It's not entirely clear whether that's accurate. The legal murkiness surrounding right-to-die laws varies from state to state. Prozanski, himself a former prosecutor, said he thinks it’s possible that selling the kits could violate Oregon law as it’s currently written, but that this bill would “draw a bright line.”

Two other states have actually put Hemlock Society members on trial for manslaughter, said the group’s president, Faye Girsh, in an interview with The Daily Beast. In Georgia, four volunteers have been charged with conspiracy and homicide for actively assisting a suicide, in one case allegedly holding down a person’s hands as they did the deed. And in Arizona, four volunteers were charged with conspiracy to commit manslaughter for assisting the suicide of a mentally-ill woman who was not terminally ill, which Girsh admits isn’t how things are supposed to happen.

“She did slip through the cracks,” she said. “We don’t ordinarily take a person like that."

Nick Klonoski, Girsh said, wouldn’t have made it past the interview process had he called Hemlock for advice. “We would have tried to talk him out of it,” she said. “We don’t work with 29-year-old depressed kids.”

But that didn’t stop him from ordering a helium-hood kit on his own. And according to some recent research, the idea that the kits are mostly aimed at the terminally ill might stretch the truth. Researchers in North Carolina recently published a study reviewing the findings of the state’s chief medical examiner’s look at 10 deaths that resulted from helium asphyxiation between 2000 and 2008. The dead were “almost exclusively” non-Hispanic, white men who were relatively young. Six of the 10 suffered from some mental illness, and with three of those six, substance abuse was involved. None of the group were suffering from a terminal illness.

Oregon’s chief medical examiner said she’s seen a spike in the number of helium-related deaths in the last couple of years, which she speculates could be related to the newer additions of Final Exit adding helium as the suggested method of asphyxiating oneself.

“Most of the ones we see are young adult males, pretty tech-savvy, in their twenties and thirties,” said Dr. Karen Gunson. And just as the North Carolina study found, “None were terminally ill.”

At the senate hearing, Zach Klonoski admitted neither he nor his family will ever know whether Nick would have found another way to cause his own death without Hydorn’s kit. But he did recall a family friend who, in the throes of severe depression, once tried to kill himself by driving a car into a tree. The friend survived, Klonoski said, and five years later is alive and happily married with two children.

The problem with the kits, said Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner, is that they “grease the skids,” making it too easy to commit suicide in a single weak moment.

“They’re relying on people who are at a particularly low spot,” Gardner testified, “relying on basically an impulse purchase.”

As for Hydorn, she says that if she herself hits that low spot, she may one day use the helium hood, too.

“If I’m helpless in bed, I’m wearing diapers, I can’t speak, I think so,” she said. “Life can be hell right here on earth.”

Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com. He blogs irregularly at winstonross.wordpress.com.