Assisted Suicide

Minneapolis officials insist police did everything by the book before Clay Fingerman killed himself. But nobody wants to talk about the shotgun left by his door.

As Jim Erickson tells the story of the worst night of his life, he pauses now and then to dab away a tear. Over the past seven months he has relived the night countless times, in both memory and conversation. It never seems to get easier. He has shared the story with his friends, his psychiatrist, fellow recovering alcoholics, and any lawyer who will listen. He has tried to get it across to the higher-ups in Minneapolis City Hall and at the Minneapolis Police Department, too. Sometimes, he says, he has had to shout into the phone. And sometimes he still wonders whether he should relent. But he wants something good to come of that dreadful night. So he breathes in deeply and sets out to recount the story once more.

He is a slightly built man, 43 years old, with closely shorn, dirty-blond hair. When he smiles, he has a pleasant, open face. But his features seem to tighten into a knot as he tries to sort out the emotions that hound him; a bleak trinity of anger, frustration, and regret. On this hot July day he is sitting bolt upright on a black leather couch in the living room of his tiny three-room home, an old bungalow a few blocks east of Lake Calhoun in south Minneapolis. It is immaculate, a well-tended property with flowers, shrubs, and an artfully constructed cedar fence and deck. A hunk of granite engraved with the word Imagine is mounted on the front of the home. Inside there is no clutter or mess. Everything is just so. "I had to take out a second mortgage just to get it livable again," he says with a shrug.

Erickson guesses he has spent nearly a year trying to erase the physical legacy of that night, and the undertaking has required a fair amount of remodeling. The carpet is new. A fresh coat of yellow paint and an array of neatly framed 1960s photos from Life magazine cover the blood stains that dappled the walls. And the small bedroom at the front of the house--site of the single, calamitous shotgun blast that has caused Erickson so much grief--is entirely gone now. He tore down the walls and made it part of an expanded living room. He didn't think he would be able to sleep there anymore. Not after what happened in the early morning hours of December 23, 1999.

At 4:32 a.m. that day, Erickson called the Minneapolis police. He remembers being exhausted and desperate, not knowing where else to turn. He had an emergency on his hands. And in an emergency, he figured, the best thing to do is call 911. It is a decision he has regretted ever since.

In the tape recording of Erickson's call for help, his tone is firm and insistent, entirely lucid. "Hi. I have someone who is suicidal and I need somebody here right now," he told the operator. He then quickly related the most pertinent information. His former partner, 38-year-old David Clay Fingerman, had been threatening to kill himself. Fingerman had recently purchased a shotgun. Erickson earlier managed to smuggle it to a neighbor's home for safekeeping, but he feared Fingerman might have another weapon stashed somewhere in the vicinity. As he repeated his plea for immediate assistance, the connection went dead. Fingerman had hung up the phone. Erickson called 911 again. Besides requesting a squad ("now," he says emphatically on the tape) he warned the operator that Fingerman planned to tell the cops this was just a run-of-the-mill domestic squabble. Erickson knew that Fingerman could be persuasive, that he had an actor's gift for deception. He thought it was important that police be forewarned.

Within ten minutes four night-shift officers from the MPD's Fifth Precinct, which covers the southwest corner of the city, arrived on the scene. Worried about a possible lawsuit, Minneapolis police and other city officials have steadfastly refused to discuss what happened next. But, as Erickson tells it, the visit was brief, thirty minutes at the most. After Erickson let the cops in the house, he says, Fingerman emerged from the bedroom and quietly took a seat in the living room. "I told them the whole story about how Clay had showed up at my house with a shotgun a few days earlier. And then I got Clay's dad on the phone. He told them he didn't think Clay was suicidal because he'd talked to Clay that afternoon. And then Clay told the officers that he wasn't suicidal, that this was just a quarrel." Fearing that the police weren't taking the situation seriously, Erickson began desperately combing the house for one of the suicide notes Fingerman had written over the course of the past week--evidence, he thought, that might persuade the officers Fingerman ought to be taken into protective custody. He couldn't find the notes, and says when he returned to the living room he overheard an officer asking Fingerman whether he had anywhere to go. Fingerman said he did, walked out the door, and drove off into the winter darkness.

After Fingerman's departure, Erickson says, one of the officers asked to see the gun he had been talking about. So Erickson took the cops next door to meet his neighbor, John Early. Early led one of the officers to the locked garage where he had stored Fingerman's 12-gauge Remington pump-action shotgun. "He [the officer] checked and made sure it wasn't loaded," recalls Early. "And then he said to me, 'I'll take care of this for you.' And I said, 'That's great.' I was relieved, because it wasn't my gun and I was uncomfortable having it around in the first place. When the officer said he would take care of the gun, I figured he meant the police would keep it in their possession." They didn't.

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