Petaluma man suspected of aiding in wife’s Bodega Bay suicide will be tried for voluntary manslaughter
A Petaluma man who said he helped his wife hang herself this year, tying a rope around a tree on the Sonoma Coast, can be tried on felony voluntary manslaughter and aiding suicide charges, a judge ruled Tuesday.
David Clement, 65, said his wife, Debra Bales, 52, of Petaluma, grew determined to kill herself after doctors ended her prescriptions to the opioid medication she had been dependent on for nearly two decades, He made similar statements in a lengthy 911 call and repeated them during his initial interview with Sonoma County sheriff’s detectives. The recordings were played during Tuesday’s preliminary hearing in Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge’s courtroom.
“She took the other end of the rope and she jumped,” Clement said to the 911 dispatcher. “She just wanted out of her pain. I couldn’t see abandoning her.”
Clement was arrested Jan. 10 after he called 911 from Inn at the Tides in Bodega Bay, telling a dispatcher that “my wife took her life; I helped her,” according to the emergency call recording played in court Tuesday.
A state parks ranger found Bales near the inn, hanging from a tree off the side of southbound Highway 1.
Clement’s lawyers argued suicide is not a crime in California, and they asked LaForge to reject the felony voluntary manslaughter charge.
California law allows for medically assisted suicide. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the End of Life Option Act in 2015, a state law that went into effect in June 2016 allowing terminally ill people to request life-ending medication.
LaForge ruled there was enough evidence for a trial on felony voluntary manslaughter and felony aiding suicide, a decision made after more than four hours listening to sheriff’s detectives’ testimony and Clement’s 911 call and video-recorded interview with detectives.
Scott Fishman, an attorney representing Clement, argued the true culprit was a healthcare system that enabled Bales to become reliant on prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety medications, including fentanyl, hydromorphone, lorazepam, diazepam and benzodiazepine, and then abandoned her.
Clement said he married Bales, a longtime friend, about six years ago to get her onto his health care plan through his work as a grocery store department manager.
Bales lived with her mother in Petaluma.
Bales had been mostly bedridden for the last decade and had chronic pain since 1999 or 2000 when she underwent surgery for a hysterectomy, Clement said.
She experienced daily bouts of debilitating nausea and constipation that lasted hours. For Bales, the thought of going through detox “was just unimaginable,” he said.
But Clement lost his healthcare - and hers - in October when he was going through his own troubles. He had a manic episode and quit his job, a decision he told detectives was “irrational,” costing him his income, health insurance and apartment. He moved into a homeless shelter in San Rafael.
Without private insurance, Bales visited new doctors who had “a new philosophy” about opioid prescriptions and abruptly declined to renew hers, Clement said. Bales took her last dose about a day before she killed herself, he said.
“The defense views this as a massive failure - a systematic failure - of the health care system,” said Fishman, a public defender.
Clement said he agreed to help Bales kill herself because he felt guilty about losing their health insurance. Bales called him about two weeks before she died and said she wanted to drown in the ocean, he said.
He agreed to spend several days with her at an inn near the ocean and then die with her in the water, according to his statements to detectives. Suicide was something Bales had openly contemplated for years, he said.
But their plan fell through. Clement told detectives they realized they were too far from the ocean to walk to and drown.
Bales was too weak to walk far, and they didn’t have a car.
Bales then asked him to pierce her heart with a pair of scissors, he said.
They decided he would smother her with a pillow instead.
He bought duct tape at a Bodega Bay store to tape shut her nose and mouth. He said he began to smother her with the pillow as he straddled her on the bed, but he stopped the moment she started struggling. They scrapped that plan and took a break. Clement took a nap while Bales watched movies.
“My conscience wouldn’t let me do it,” he told detectives in the recorded interview.
In the hotel room, detectives found a book titled “Easy Death” and a computer on which, according to Clement, Bales researched ways to die. She wrote notes to her daughters and grandchildren and left the letters, along with stuffed animals for them, on a dresser.
Detectives also found a handwritten note on the night stand that read: “you don’t have to push so hard.”
Prosecutor Bob Waner said Clement’s actions went beyond passive, compassionate support, particularly when he tried to smother the woman.
Even if Bales asked him to help end her life, “Mr. Clement had no lawful right to do what he did,” Waner said.
“This is a man who escorted her outside and tied a knot he was certain would not break,” Waner said.
If convicted, Clement faces up to 11 years and eight months in state prison. His next court appearance is June 5.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.