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‘Dr. Death’ Plans a New Kind of Clinic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has been barred from the practice of medicine, accused of killing as many as 26 of his patients, and branded by the American Medical Assn. as a “reckless instrument of death.”

But that has not prevented Jack Kevorkian, the enthusiastic “Dr. Death,” from amassing tens of thousands of dollars to finally open a clinic of his own, possibly right here in Southern California.

While the 67-year-old retired pathologist fights in courts here and in Michigan to use his “mercitron” suicide machine and other lethal devices, his plans to open a nationwide chain of “obitoria” are still very much alive.

According to Kevorkian’s flamboyant Michigan attorney, Geoffrey Fieger, Kevorkian “gives special preference” to California patients and “is coming out to California to prove how utterly impotent [the state is] in stopping his work.”

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Kevorkian has lost his California medical license and his Michigan license is suspended pending the outcome of various legal actions, including two pending trials on assisted suicide charges. Although several of the deaths Kevorkian says he “attended” have been ruled homicides, prosecutors’ efforts to try Kevorkian for murder have failed.

On Jan. 3, Kevorkian abandoned his string of appeals to keep his California medical license. But he has not abandoned a federal lawsuit challenging the state medical board’s action as a violation of his constitutional rights and those of a 36-year-old Los Angeles AIDS patient who seeks a physician’s help in dying. (See story, Page E2.)

“Because [the California Medical Board] has been so frightening and so anachronistic in its denial of Dr. Kevorkian’s right to practice medicine, California patients get more prompt attention than other patients,” Fieger told The Times. Indeed, Kevorkian, who has acknowledged a role in 26 deaths, most recently took credit for assisting in the death of a Northern California travel agent. Patricia Cashman, 58, of San Marcos, died Nov. 7 after being hooked up to Kevorkian’s mercitron.

Her body was found wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of a car parked outside the medical examiner’s office in Oakland County, Mich. Although Cashman had undergone a mastectomy for breast cancer, her condition “was in no sense terminal,” said medical examiner Dr. L.J. Dragovic, who ruled the death a homicide.

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Like 22 Kevorkian patients before her, Cashman died of carbon monoxide poisoning, apparently after breathing the gas from a canister attached to a face mask. But Cashman also had been attached to Kevorkian’s homemade suicide machine, a device he designed to deliver high levels of barbiturates and other potentially lethal drugs directly into the bloodstream at the flick of a patient’s finger.

According to Fieger, the machine, which Kevorkian assembled from parts scavenged from garage sales and flea markets, had not been used since 1991 when Kevorkian’s license to practice in Michigan was suspended--and with it, his access to the drugs he needed to operate the machine.

Cashman, said Fieger, brought her own medicines. “She had been saving up.”

For years, Kevorkian has proposed creating a network of obitoria--or death clinics--where terminal patients would receive pain treatment and, for those who wanted it, assistance from “obitiatrists” in ending their lives.

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Although neither Kevorkian nor his attorneys will reveal how much money is in the clinic fund, there have been two substantial deposits in the last few months. A wealthy Chicago woman who admired Kevorkian’s work left him $50,000 in her will, Fieger said, and retired Los Angeles filmmaker Kurt Simon, 83, gave Kevorkian a $20,000 cashier’s check from his private foundation at the end of November.

“Dr. Kevorkian was very excited by the award. He said that with this money, he finally had enough to open his clinic,” recalled Simon, who hand-delivered the check to Kevorkian in Southfield, Mich.

Simon, a German immigrant who established the nonprofit Sovereign Fund to honor “the pursuit of individual freedom,” singled out Kevorkian “because it is not up to some bureaucrat or politically elected judge to decide when people can die.”

Charitable trust officers in both Michigan and California said Kevorkian’s clinic fund is not registered as a corporation or as a nonprofit institution eligible to receive tax-free donations.

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Although that means gifts to the fund are taxable, Fieger said his efforts to persuade Kevorkian to register his clinic fund as a charity have been unsuccessful.

“Dr. Kevorkian does not want to do anything that would appear to solicit or encourage people to give him money,” said Fieger, adding that Kevorkian would never take money, or anything else of value, from any patient or family of any patient.

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According to Fieger, all contributions to the clinic fund come through his Southfield, Mich., office. The clinic fund was recently renamed to honor Kevorkian’s sister and former “medicide” assistant, who died in September of a heart attack. It is now known as the Margo Janus Mercy Clinic Fund.

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Kevorkian was unavailable for comment, but Fieger said the worth of the fund today “is nobody’s business.” Although he said that Kevorkian “has already counseled many California patients,” Fieger suggested that it was unlikely his client would open a clinic here, or elsewhere in the country, before his current legal trials are finished.

“Technically, there is nothing he’d have to do to open such a clinic. He wouldn’t need any kind of license because [Kevorkian] has always said you don’t have to have an MD to help people end their suffering,” Fieger said.

But California Deputy Atty. Gen. Thomas Lazar warned that if Kevorkian were to ply his trade in this state, he would be arrested. “You can’t open a business in this state or any state in order to do something that is illegal. And what Mr.--and please stress that he is now only Mr.--Kevorkian has done is very much against the law.

“He has abandoned all his appeals and given up his license to practice medicine here. This is a very important point, because he no longer has legal standing to raise the question of rights of patients. He’s just another guy now, like any shoe salesman or any other layman,” Lazar said.

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Since 1993, Lazar has overseen the state board’s effort to revoke the medical license California issued to Kevorkian in 1957. In the late 1970s and for much of the 1980s, Kevorkian worked as a pathologist at a number of Southern California hospitals.

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In interviews with The Times in 1992, Kevorkian recalled with fondness his days in California, sometimes living in the same 1968 Volkswagen van that would in June 1990 become infamous as the site of his first “medicide,” 54-year-old Oregon Alzheimer’s patient Janet Adkins.

Since 1986, Kevorkian has rarely left Michigan, dedicating himself to what he calls his “long-range goal of terminal experimentation.”

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He lives modestly, apparently subsisting on little more than about $500 per month from Social Security. Although his attorneys refuse to discuss their financial arrangements with Kevorkian, it is generally assumed that they continue to represent him without compensation.

As for his California clinic plans, anything is possible.

“Don’t be so sure Dr. Kevorkian hasn’t come to California already to help patients,” Fieger teased.

Help them to do what?

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“Well, he doesn’t help them play baseball, does he?”


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