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.

After introducing the police to Early, Erickson had hustled back to his own home in the hopes of tracking down Fingerman's therapist. "I was on the phone when I saw one of the officers come through the door. He put the shotgun against the wall, not ten feet from the door, and then left without a word." Frantic and distracted, Erickson was not thinking about the gun. After a few minutes he managed to get the therapist's emergency number. "As I was writing down the last digit, I looked up and Clay was at the door. He was smiling. He saw the shotgun, and within seconds he'd found a box of shells and got it loaded," Erickson says. "That's when everything turned." Less than three hours later, Clay Fingerman was dead.

 

Jim Erickson first met Clay Fingerman in February of 1994 on the opening day of a weeklong Caribbean cruise. Erickson, a commercial filmmaker, was shooting video for the cruise's sponsor, RSVP Travel Productions, a company that caters to the gay and lesbian market. "It was pretty much instantaneous attraction for both of us," Erickson remembers fondly. "He was like a figure from a romantic novel. He had this very, very deep voice and this Southern accent. My God, he was charming." He had an air of mystery about him, Erickson says: "Something in his eyes, an energy that if you caught, you'd just snap back and say, 'Whoa!'" At the time Fingerman was living in Austin, Texas, where, he told Erickson, he'd recently been a professor of anatomy at the state university. Later Erickson learned that was a lie, a bit of autobiography constructed on the fly. Actually, Erickson says, Fingerman was then, as he was most of his life, unemployed, living off a small family stipend, and moving from relationship to relationship. He'd gone on the cruise in search of romance, having just gone through another breakup.

Fingerman did quickly confess an important truth to Erickson, however. He had recently tested positive for HIV. "He told me right away, and he was really scared I would reject him," Erickson says. As it turned out, he had nothing to worry about. Erickson was seduced by Fingerman's knowledge of art, history, and politics--beguiled by "his sweet, loving manner." Just three weeks after the cruise Fingerman packed a couple of suitcases and his Airedale, Brandy, into an Alfa Romeo convertible and headed up I-35 to Minneapolis for a visit. After a couple of weeks Fingerman and Erickson decided to make the arrangement permanent, and Fingerman had the rest of his belongings shipped to Minneapolis. As soon as he was settled Fingerman began meticulously researching his treatment options, eventually enrolling in one of the early AIDS cocktail trials. "His number-one goal was to keep himself healthy and alive," Erickson explains. "And I was just happy to have him around and share my life with him."

At first Erickson was ecstatic. Fingerman taught him about carpentry and helped fix up his house. He built the fence and deck, laid the brick walkway, installed a set of French doors, even picked out the "New Orleans colors" for the bungalow's exterior. That Thanksgiving Erickson and Fingerman exchanged marital vows in a small family ceremony held at home. The happiness didn't last. By midwinter, Erickson recalls becoming increasingly alarmed by Fingerman's drinking habits; on at least two occasions Fingerman had become so ill from overconsumption that he needed to visit the emergency room. In June 1995, about a year and a half after first meeting, Fingerman and Erickson split up. "I was sober, and he was blacking out, and I finally told him, 'You have to leave, because if you don't I'm going to start drinking again.' I regret that now," Erickson says with a sigh. "We had a commitment to care for one another in sickness and health."

In the intervening years, Erickson had little contact with Fingerman, but admits that he watched over his friend from afar. Fingerman, meanwhile, found a new partner about eight months after the breakup; a man with whom he lived until the last six weeks of his life, in a home just a few blocks from Erickson's. Like Erickson, Bill Boyd (who requested his real name not be used), a manager with a national financial services company, was immediately smitten with Fingerman. And like Erickson, Boyd exchanged wedding vows with him. "He was one in a million," Boyd says of Fingerman. "It amazed me to see Clay in a social setting. He could read the emotions in a room and respond to make himself look like he was feeling what everybody else in the room was feeling. Or he could take the room and change what everybody was feeling. And he could talk incredible amounts of money out of people."

As it turned out, Fingerman put that latter talent to good use. In 1998 he began volunteering with the Minnesota AIDS Memorial, a nonprofit foundation with ambitious plans to install a public sculpture in Minneapolis's Loring Park and create an endowment to help fund AIDS education efforts. Fingerman quickly rose to the position of executive director, and on World AIDS Day (December 1, 1998), he stood next to Terry Ventura and Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton for the official dedication of the site. "It's not for people who have passed on," Fingerman later told Focus Point, a newspaper that covers gay and lesbian issues. "It's for the people who are living...people who wouldn't go to a support group, but they'll sit there and tell each other stories."

According to Boyd, the memorial became "the most important passion of Clay's recent life." But Fingerman had also become increasingly frustrated with his inability to meet the memorial's goal of raising $1 million by year's end. "He didn't deal well with failure. And when he felt he was failing, that brought out the dark side," Boyd explains. During the last year of his life Fingerman's behavior became increasingly erratic, marred by severe bouts of depression, infidelity, and frequent talk of suicide. "Clay fundamentally did not believe he deserved to be alive," Boyd observes. "His HIV treatment was very expensive, and it was keeping him healthy. But every month, when he saw the bills, he'd say, 'What am I doing to warrant consuming this much money? I should be doing something brilliant for society.' Clay was two different people. He had a very dark side and he had a light side, and the two sides fought continuously with each other. There were moments when he'd be brilliant, and you'd be amazed just listening to him talk. And there were other times when he'd be an idiot."

By the time Boyd broke off his relationship with Fingerman this past November, the downward slide was in full motion. Unhappy about the failed romance, Fingerman had also grown increasingly preoccupied with his appearance. "Clay was a beautiful man, but he was very vain. And he was approaching 40, and when you're approaching 40, whether you're HIV-positive or not, you start to lose some of that," Boyd says. "His looks were his most prized possession. He did not want to get old. He didn't want to age, and--to use the term--become a tired old queen." In addition, Boyd says, a round of blood tests last fall showed a spike in Fingerman's viral load, which for years had remained nearly undetectable. Fingerman interpreted that development as a sign of his certain decline, and his mood grew darker still.

 

At the same time as Fingerman's life began to fall apart, Jim Erickson was struggling. After ten years of sobriety, he suffered a brief relapse. Feeling isolated, he leapt at the chance to reconnect with his former partner, who had invited him to attend an AIDS Memorial benefit at Bobino Cafe and Wine Bar in northeast Minneapolis. Fingerman briefly addressed the assembled crowd that night, but seemed out of sorts and under the influence. "He wasn't speaking loudly enough, and he wasn't making much sense. He ended by saying something like, 'I'm the luckiest guy in the world,'" Erickson recalls. "He came over to me afterwards and gave me a big hug. And I told him, 'I think you're really in trouble. If you ever need a safe place to stay, you can come to my house.'"

A few weeks later, in late November, Erickson received a note from Fingerman, asking whether he could take care of his dog, Brandy. When he dropped Brandy off, the dog was underweight and "not in the best condition," Erickson remembers. Then, on December 18, Erickson says, Fingerman showed up on his doorstep. Erickson was shocked. In the years since their breakup Fingerman had worked to build up his body, but now he looked like a skeleton with muscles. Erickson attributed the changes to the multiple drugs Fingerman was taking; an array of hormones, stimulants, and steroids designed to counteract the effects of the AIDS cocktail, along with an antidepressant. "He was just a mess," Erickson says. "He was shaking and severely toxic.

"He asked me whether I was serious about my offer. And I said, Of course. When he came into the house, he was carrying a duffel bag. He set it down on the floor and he pulled out this shotgun and said, 'We've gotten to be really good friends, this gun and I.'" For the first two days Fingerman clung to the gun like a security blanket. Then, while he was sleeping, Erickson managed to snatch the shotgun from Fingerman's side and ferry it to John Early's house. At first, Erickson says, Fingerman said nothing, but--seeming agitated--began searching the house high and low. Then, quite suddenly, his whole demeanor seemed to lighten. At Erickson's encouragement, Fingerman made an appointment to see his therapist. He put down a $300 deposit for a membership at U.S. Swim and Fitness. He even called his father, Milton Fingerman, to assure him all was well. (An eminent marine biologist living in New Orleans, Milton Fingerman declined to speak about his son's death, saying only that he's "not interested in pursuing the matter." His mother is deceased.) Today Erickson recognizes Fingerman's improved mood as a that of a suicidal person who had simply made up his mind to die. At the time, though, he was less well versed on the subject. He just thought his old friend has started to round the corner.

On the evening of December 22, Erickson decided Fingerman was well enough to accompany him to a company Christmas party. At the party Fingerman seemed himself again, comfortably mixing with the crowd. Erickson and Fingerman both consumed drinks. "It was stupid, and I'll regret it till the day I die," Erickson says now. They stayed at the party for about four hours before returning to Erickson's home and splitting a bottle of wine. As the night wore on, they stayed up, laughing and talking until about 4:00 a.m., when, Erickson remembers, Fingerman made a sexual proposition that involved bondage, something the couple had never done together. "Clay had gotten really into deep dark rough stuff, and I told him that's not love. After that, he just kept saying, 'There is no hope. Dreams can't come true. Go to the bedroom and leave me alone,'" Erickson recalls. "I knew I couldn't reach him anymore. He had told me earlier that he still had two guns hidden somewhere, and I wasn't about to leave him alone."

 

It was a little after 5:00 a.m. when Fingerman returned to Erickson's home and found the shotgun the police had left by the door. This time, Erickson says, he decided not to call the MPD. He knew that Fingerman was scared of the police (a fear both Erickson and Boyd attribute to a drunk-driving arrest in Texas years ago). And now that Fingerman was armed the situation seemed too volatile. Instead he led his friend into the bedroom and tried to talk him down. "I sat him in my lap, facing a mirror. And I said, 'You're not well. This not a picture of a well guy. But there are places that can help you. It doesn't have to be like this." To Erickson's surprise, Fingerman agreed to seek help. But with two demands: no more cops and no psychiatric wards. "I was flabbergasted. I couldn't believe this was coming from him, because he could be a very stubborn guy. But he'd finally surrendered. And that's what's so tragic about what happened," Erickson says. "He'd gotten to the point where he might have been able to get his life back in order, but he never got the chance."

Figuring that Fingerman needed to be "detoxified," Erickson called the Betty Ford Clinic in California. No answer. Then he dialed up the renowned Hazelden Foundation in Center City, Minnesota. A staffer answered the phone. Erickson inquired about Hazelden's admission procedures, letting it be known during the course of the conversation that Fingerman was in desperate shape and that he had a gun. "She said, 'You're giving me heart palpitations,' and I said, 'Well, how you do you think I feel?' But I told her I wasn't in any danger. And I told her at least three times that we didn't want the police here." Finally, Erickson says, the staffer promised that a Hazelden caseworker would call back at 8:00 a.m. Erickson was relieved. It was just after 7:00 a.m.

What Erickson didn't know was that someone from Hazelden had called the Minneapolis Police Department. According to a police report, whoever called from Hazelden reported that Erickson had "told them he was being held in his home by another male who was armed with a gun." (The caller's identity has been redacted from the police report. A spokeswoman for Hazelden told City Pages that Hazelden could not comment on any aspect of the incident). The Fifth Precinct responded quickly, dispatching four beat officers from the day shift to the scene and simultaneously attempting to establish contact at the door and via phone. The sudden commotion riled Brandy along with Erickson's other dog. While they barked wildly, Fingerman retreated to a small bedroom in the northwest corner of the home, shotgun in hand. "I told Clay, 'Stay calm. I'll take care of this. I'll be right back,'" Erickson recalls. "Those were the last words I ever said to him."

Officers Marvin Schumer and Scott Shepard, sidearms drawn, were the first to reach the door. According to Officer Schumer's account of the incident, an agitated Erickson tried to persuade them to back off. "He told me, 'The gun's inside here and we don't need police. We can handle this,'" Schumer wrote in his report. "I told him we needed to come inside to make sure everything was OK....and he told me, 'Just go away' and began closing the door." (Erickson remembers his words a little differently: "I told them, 'The situation is under control. He's still got the gun but has agreed to go to Hazelden.' And then I said, 'Please don't come in, because if you come in, he's going to kill himself.'") According to the report, Schumer then blocked the door with his body and pulled Erickson from the home. Erickson says he told the officers that Fingerman would shoot himself if they entered the home. Another officer on the scene, Robert Cunningham, then handcuffed Erickson and placed him in the back seat of a police cruiser parked on the street out front.

It was now 7:30 a.m. For the next twenty minutes, Clay Fingerman remained on the bed, a shotgun to his neck. He asked for Erickson and, according to Officer Cunningham's report, repeated "over and over that he wanted us [the police] to leave.'" Schumer, Cunningham, and Ofcr. Sarah Saarela were standing just inside the entryway where, through the open bedroom door, they could make out a reclining figure and a shotgun. Schumer's report states that Fingerman began laughing hysterically, asking whether he should shoot himself in the head, and then threatening to shoot the officers if they entered the bedroom. At an impasse, the three police officers retreated on the orders of Sgt. Cheryl Alguire, who, upon arriving at the scene, made the call to establish a perimeter around the home and bring in an Emergency Response Unit, the MPD's version of a SWAT team. The ERU never had a chance to do anything. Three minutes after the officers backed out of the house--and before the ERU arrived--Fingerman pulled the trigger. Erickson heard about the report of a gun fired on the police radio, handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car. "It was my worst nightmare realized," he says now. "I'd hoped to see Clay being led out of the house and taken somewhere he could get help. Instead, I saw him rolled out on a gurney."

 

On June 13 Erickson read a newspaper story about the death of a mentally ill woman named Barbara Schneider, who was shot by Minneapolis police officers in her apartment. Unlike Clay Fingerman's suicide, Schneider's death was big news; in the view of critics, it was clear evidence that the department's rank and file officers are inadequately equipped to deal with the mentally ill. In the wake of the Schneider shooting, Minneapolis police officials and politicians began speaking publicly about the need for additional training for cops, modeled after progressive programs in cities such as Memphis and San Jose.

For Erickson the public debate over Schneider's death set "bells ringing." If the police department had special crisis teams and better training, he wondered, would Clay Fingerman be alive today? Would the officers who visited his home the first time have taken Fingerman into protective custody? Would they have at least handed Erickson a crisis hotline information card? Would they have confiscated the shotgun? Would they have been able to talk Fingerman out of killing himself? For six months Erickson brooded over these questions, becoming increasingly frustrated while trying to find the answers. His calls to Hazelden were never returned. Requests to meet with city officials met with silence. And efforts to retrieve the official police files were rebuffed, he says, under the pretext that only Fingerman's immediate family and the executor of the estate were entitled to that privilege. (Police spokesman Cyndi Montgomery initially told City Pages that the documents were not part of the public record, but later arranged for the release of a partially redacted version.)

Along the way, though, Erickson found some allies, including Jackie Casey, the executive director of Suicide Awareness/Voices of Education (SAVE), a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works to raise public awareness of depression and suicide. As she learned more about the case, Casey adopted a critical view of the MPD's actions--both before and after Fingerman's death. The failure of police to confiscate Fingerman's shotgun was the most glaring miscue, she says, but hardly the only error in the cascading series of events that led to his death. To begin with, she contends, the first set of officers who visited Erickson's home should have filed written reports: "It just seems like they didn't take it very seriously. But when somebody calls the police because of a potential suicide risk, it should always be documented. We've got mandated reporting of domestic abuse, and it seems to me we should pursue a similar policy for suicide calls. Especially when a gun is involved. Because when a gun is around, the risk of lethality goes way up."

In April Erickson and Casey wrote to Belton requesting a formal meeting between "key individuals and officials" to discuss Fingerman's suicide. That letter, Erickson says, went unanswered. After Barbara Schneider's death, he became increasingly intent on getting answers and he took his case to city council member Lisa McDonald, in whose ward both the Schneider and Fingerman deaths occurred.

McDonald then arranged for a sit-down in the community building at Bryant Square Park. Among those present at the meeting in late June were Erickson, his neighbor John Early, Jackie Casey, Inspector Christine Morris of the Fifth Precinct, council member McDonald, and the assistant city attorney assigned to the police department, Margaret Culp.

Erickson began by reading a list of prepared questions: Why did police allow Fingerman, whom the medical examiner later determined to be "acutely intoxicated," to drive away after the first call? Why wasn't a police report filed after the first call? Why was the gun brought into Erickson's home? According to Erickson and others who were present at the meeting, very little in the way of specific answers was offered by Assistant City Attorney Culp. (City Pages made three calls to Culp. They were not returned.)

"The lawyer for the police only said there's a lot of legalities associated with police confiscating guns, and that they wouldn't take the gun from the owner because there wasn't a crime," Early says. According to Early, on the day of Fingerman's death he telephoned Inspector Morris with the same questions and got a different answer: "She told me that she didn't have an explanation, but that standard procedure would have been to keep the gun in police custody and return it to the owner at a later date. And she said she couldn't say anything because of the potential for a lawsuit, but that there would be an investigation." Early and Erickson say they were never questioned in connection with any investigation.

Inspector Morris declines to discuss any specifics of the case. "As a citizen it bothers me when government officials say they can't talk about something," she explains. "But we really can't talk about this, partly out of respect for a family that has already suffered a lot, and partly because of the potential for litigation. It was a frustrating meeting--kind of dehumanizing. I felt like a bureaucrat, having to sit there and not be able to talk. I really wish I could have."

Council member McDonald, meanwhile, says she hopes the police department will seriously examine its procedures for dealing with the mentally ill. "Because of this incident, and because of the Schneider incident, I sat down and talked with the police chief [Robert Olson] about the way we respond to these types of crises," she says, adding that her office will press for increased training for rank and file cops. "The short-term goal is, What are we going to do if we have another incident like this?...And the long-term goal is, What are we going to do in the future to try and narrow these incidents down to zero? And I'm going to bird-dog this one. Trust me."

Casey, the executive director of SAVE, came out of the June meeting cautiously optimistic: "There does seem to be an interest in fixing the problem, and I think the city is moving forward because of the Barbara Schneider incident. But I don't feel there's been enough acknowledgment of the seriousness of the situation with Clay Fingerman and the impact it had on Jim and his neighbors. The city is just saying, 'We can't talk about it, because you're not immediate family.'"

Bill Boyd, who is acting as the executor of Fingerman's estate, says he has talked about the specifics of Fingerman's death with Inspector Morris. Initially he agreed with some of Erickson's complaints. But now Boyd says he is satisfied with the MPD's promise that it will review department procedures. And he's convinced they are acting in good faith. What's more, he has come to view Fingerman's suicide as inevitable: "I have a hard time holding the Minneapolis Police Department responsible for failing to save Clay's life. If the city had a squad of highly trained officers that could have talked Clay down that night, that would have been great. That night. But Clay had been on a self-destructive path for a long time, and the bottom line is that he was going to do what he did, and it was just unfortunate for Jim Erickson and the officers of the Fifth Precinct that he chose to involve them. The truth is, I think Jim [Erickson] should be grateful that neither he nor any of the neighbors were hurt. I don't think Clay had a malicious bone in his body. And I don't think he would have intentionally tried to hurt Jim. But he had a very powerful weapon in his hands, and he didn't have a clue what he was doing."

In the wake of the June meeting, Erickson received letters from both Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Police Chief Robert Olson. They mayor wrote that it "appears from the records...that the police acted promptly and in good faith in attempting to resolve this crisis." Olson, more circumspect, said that the department was "reviewing some promising programs in other cities which may help us go a long way to help us further minimize the risk of future tragedies."

None of this has satisfied Erickson, who says he now hopes to interest a lawyer in his case. "You know, people sue because of their treatment after the fact," he says. And while he regrets much of his own conduct the night Clay Fingerman died, that guilt is minuscule compared to his continued outrage with the city. "I'm angry about this. And I want the public to know what happened here. I don't want Clay's death to be swept under the rug with no benefit."

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