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For Palm Springs man, grief and anger over an end-of-life decision

CrimeCrime, Law and JusticeHuman InterestSuicideJames Stewart

On the evening of July 2, Bill Bentinck, 87, was led from his Palm Springs home in handcuffs, in mourning and in shock.

The body of his wife of 25 years, Lynda, was still in the house, but there was no time to grieve. After telling police that his terminally ill wife had chosen to disconnect her oxygen supply and put an end to her suffering from emphysema, he was arrested on suspicion of murder.

Bentinck, a straight-talking man in the Jimmy Stewart mold, felt that he had made a difficult but compassionate choice in honoring his wife's last wish and not reconnecting the oxygen. But police saw it differently, and Bentinck, a retired entomologist and medical equipment designer, was about to endure a nightmarish three-day ordeal.

Bentinck was marched with other inmates late one night through a Banning jail compound in a jumpsuit and slippers that kept falling off. His pleas for help with a medical condition were repeatedly ignored, he said, and it took 24 hours before he was taken to a hospital for a catheterization, which is the only way he can empty his bladder. At the county jail in Banning, another inmate schooled him on racial divisions, explaining which toilets were for whites. And during one jail transfer, he was in leg irons.

Maybe, he joked, they thought a man of nearly 90 would break out and terrorize half of Riverside County.

And then, on July 5, the Twilight Zone experience came to an abrupt end. After spending time in three different jails, Bentinck was released when the Riverside County district attorney's office decided there was insufficient evidence to try him for murder or for aiding, encouraging or advising his wife to commit suicide.

And so Bentinck went home to an empty house to deal with both his grief about his wife's death and his anger at the way he was treated. There have been no apologies from police, nor any explanations of why he was arrested.

Sgt. Mike Kovaleff, a Palm Springs police spokesman, told me the case is technically still open pending toxicology results. He said the arrest was made because of unspecified "statements" and "evidence," but he added that, barring unexpected developments, police do not expect to re-arrest Bentinck.

The mere possibility of new charges has Bentinck terrified of speaking out against police. But he did tell me, in great detail, what happened on July 2 and in the days leading up to the death of Lynda, 77, who had worked in real estate and as a legal secretary and legislative aide before her retirement.

"The last few weeks, it had become unbearable for her," Bentinck said of his wife's breathing problems and general decline. "She'd wake up and say to herself, 'Oh my God, another day to go through like yesterday, only worse.' And she wanted to end it all. She kept asking hospice how long it was going to take and they couldn't tell her, of course, so she finally took things into her own hands."

He'd been in the kitchen on the morning of July 2, then entered the bedroom to see that Lynda had removed her nasal oxygen catheter. And he knew she was ready. They'd discussed moving to Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, and she had considered ways in which she could take her own life without his being complicit.

"I said, 'Are you sure you want to do this? It's probably not too late to stop without any kind of serious damage.' And she said, 'Oh, yes. Please, don't resuscitate. And don't let anyone in here resuscitate me.'"

She asked him to post her advance healthcare directive not to resuscitate on the bedroom mirror for any paramedics to see. Bentinck said he and his wife then held hands and professed their love for each other. After a while, she stopped breathing.

"It was a very peaceful death," Bentinck said. "She didn't struggle at all. She just went to sleep."

After Lynda stopped breathing, Bentinck waited a long time to call hospice. Maybe two hours or longer, he said, telling me he wanted to make sure paramedics couldn't revive her. She had made clear she didn't want to end up "half brain-dead," he said.

That may have been one factor in the arrest of Bentinck. Another was that he told police he had given his wife three or four shots of vodka the morning of her death, per her request. The alcohol gave her some relief in her final weeks, he said, and hospice workers didn't talk him out of the practice.

After the death, the hospice agency notified the coroner, and as a matter of routine, the coroner called the police. Soon, Bentinck had several officers in his home. They obtained a search warrant after some questioning, and according to Bentinck, police took a shot glass and vodka bottle as evidence, along with his wife's medication.

Bentinck's son and daughter, outraged at their father's treatment, told me they believe his honesty worked against him; he could have just said he had entered her room and discovered his wife had died. Lynda Bentinck's grieving daughter by a previous marriage said her mother was a good and loving woman who had told her recently that when her life became unbearable she would end it. And David Duffner, one of Lynda Bentinck's physicians, suggested that what happened was neither a case of suicide nor murder.

"If she said, 'Stand back, I'm going to turn off my oxygen,' in my opinion, it would be immoral to interfere with that," said Duffner. In general, he said, "we hang on too long," and the cost of extending the lives of terminally ill patients who are ready to die could "bankrupt this country."

Bentinck has been in touch with Compassion & Choices, which advocated for the Death With Dignity acts in Oregon and Washington, and said he supports more end-of-life choices for California patients and their loved ones.

"A terminal patient died. What did they expect was going to happen?" Bentinck asked of police, saying his wife's oxygen support was an intervention she had a right to refuse.

"Why should anyone have control over what a person wants to do with their own body when they're suffering?"

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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