In Laguna Woods Village, where thousands retire in leisure and comfort, there is mostly sympathy for Phyllis and James Fish. He is a kind man, neighbors say. Even at 90, he took care of his wife. She had been ill for years and was getting worse, they say.
The small white house the Fishes shared betrays nothing of what happened Sunday afternoon. The driveway is empty, the grass neatly cut and the pink hibiscus bush in full bloom.
But the home where husband and wife came to live out their lives is empty now. Authorities say Dr. James Fish shot his terminally ill wife in the head. He then turned the gun on himself and fired but survived. He is recovering and will be charged with manslaughter.
“She was under hospice care,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Jim Amormino. “That is the motive.”
The Fishes moved into the retirement community in the early 1990s, when it was known as Leisure World, according to public records.
Phyllis Fish, one neighbor said, was “a 5-foot-tall little fireball.” She was elected to the local governing board and served on it until she suffered a stroke a few years ago, from which she never fully recovered. James Fish, who graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine in 1943, cared for his wife with the help of a caregiver.
For years, every day at 11:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., the caregiver would put Phyllis, 88, in her wheelchair and take her around the neighborhood, residents said. But in recent months, the walks stopped. About one week ago, Phyllis Fish learned that she also had cancer, said neighbor and friend Joseph Tuso.
On Sunday the caregiver, who normally had the day off, heard gunshots in the home.
Before he shot her, James Fish gave his wife morphine to ease the pain, said prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh. He then shot himself in the head.
On Monday, the sheriff’s cars were gone and the police tape was taken down. Officials at the complex reassured the community that services were available for those with terminal illnesses.
Laguna Woods Village has its own social services department, which provides counseling, support groups, crisis intervention and other services precisely because so many people in the community are coping with similar issues, said Marcia Wilson, manager of the department. Every month, the department opens between 75 and 100 cases of people asking for some kind of help, Wilson said. But, she said, there is a generational difference, with the oldest residents seemingly more reluctant to reach out.
“There’s no charge for our services,” she said, “but some people are very private.”
Coping with the end of life is a part of living here, people say.
“You see a lot of it,” Tuso said, “a lot of people beyond their time.”
Tuso and others said they had nothing but sympathy for Fish, who, if convicted, faces a maximum of more than 20 years in prison.
Baytieh, the prosecutor, agreed.
“This is a man who lived to be 90 years old without violating the law, without committing a crime,” he said. “It’s a horribly sad case, but he has to be, to some degree, held accountable for what he did.”