Murder? Or Mercy?
By Ron Donoho
(page 1 of 3)The note leaves an unintended reader with a disquieting chill: “Tom Help Help Help Get Dead.” The words are stacked vertically—sort of. They zigzag down the lined sheet of paper. The third “Help” looks a little like “Hop.”
Seventy-six-year-old Thomas May killed his fatally ill wife, but botched a suicide attempt. The case—increasingly relevant to a rapidly aging population—illustrates the inadequacy of laws dealing with end-of-life issues.
The note leaves an unintended reader with a disquieting chill: “Tom Help Help Help Get Dead.” The words are stacked vertically—sort of. They zigzag down the lined sheet of paper. The third “Help” looks a little like “Hop.”
Thomas May’s 69-year-old wife, Hazel, wrote the note at 6 a.m. last October 4. Underneath Hazel’s cryptic message, Tom took a red pen and wrote, “I believe what she meant was ‘Help me to get dead’—but she never asked me in so many words.” May later told police detectives he annotated the note to help add perspective to the situation for his youngest son.
The son didn’t understand. Neither did the police. But was Thomas May the murderer the district attorney’s office decided he was?
Some background. Since 1995, Tom and Hazel had lived in Alta Mar, a tight-knit, 168-home community in Del Mar Heights. The Mays would have celebrated their 50th anniversary next year. Fifty years. Take any life accomplishment and match it head-to-head with spending half a century as man and wife. Matrimony wins hands down. After so long together as man and wife, don’t you become adept at knowing just what the other is thinking? Wanting?
The Mays owned a tidy, ocean-view home; it could fetch close to a half-million dollars on today’s market. As much as possible, they kept in touch with three grown children—ranging in age from 35 to 47 and scattered across California.
“They were a tight, loving couple,” says Dave McIntyre. President of the Alta Mar homeowners’ association, McIntyre is a 56-year-old sales-and-marketing rep for California Action Sports. He works from home, a half-block from the Mays’ yellow house with the red roof. “They were pretty private,” he adds. “Especially after she got sick.”
Three years ago, Hazel was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the condition is always fatal. One year after her diagnosis, Hazel lost the ability to speak; hence the notes she’d write to Tom. By October 4, 1999, when she either did or didn’t want Tom to help her “get dead,” Hazel could barely walk. She refused to wear the neck brace that helped keep her head up. For the last several months, she had trouble swallowing. A tube was inserted into her abdomen. This gastronomy tube is how Tom fed her.
Tom and Hazel slept in separate bedrooms. Hazel could summon Tom with a bell—often in the middle of the night—to get help using the bathroom. The bell wasn’t always loud enough, so Tom gave Hazel a metal pot to bang. The Mays’ eldest son found this to be a somewhat medieval system. He went to Radio Shack and bought a signaling device with a remote that beeped. It was “a really annoying sound,” according to Tom. “It always awakened me ... no matter how sound asleep I might be.”
According to McIntyre, Tom was “a proud man—but mellow. He told me he’d stopped going to see his psychologist.” Tom took medication for high blood pressure, had early stages of glaucoma and an enlarged prostate.
A few days after October 4, Hazel penned another critical note, this time in a confusing, horizontal line: “Go a Whole Ay.” The “G” in “Go” could very easily be a “D.” Again, in red ink, Tom later wrote below it, “No idea. Unless she meant ‘Go Whole Way’ with Unisom and Ambien—which I did yesterday prior to the carbon monoxide coupe [sic] de grace.”
Indeed. At 8 a.m. on Friday, October 8, Hazel was lying on her bed in the master bedroom. Tom gave her a drug overdose consisting of 20 ground-up Unisom gel tablets and 60 milliliters of Ambien. Hazel fell fast asleep. But she did not die.
The Mays’ daughter called at 1:30 in the afternoon. Tom talked with her briefly. He cut the conversation short, since he was preparing to finish the job he’d started in the morning.
Tom fed the cats. He made himself a cream cheese sandwich and washed the dishes. Then he placed Hazel in the back of their silver Volvo 240 station wagon. It was parked on the left in their two-car garage. Using gray duct tape, he secured a vacuum-cleaner hose to the exhaust pipe. Tom put the other end under the hatchback.
Next, he collected the cats and put them in the car. Boots was a black cat they’d adopted from the Humane Society. Generally regarded as Hazel’s, Boots, coincidentally, could barely make a sound, because of throat surgery. Suki, the smaller of the two felines, was Tom’s. Sitting behind the steering wheel, Tom turned the ignition key. He took Suki, who was crying, out of the cage that rested on the front passenger seat.
About 12 hours later, Tom woke up. Hazel was dead. So was Boots. The driver-side car window was down. Suki was alive. It’s unclear if Tom lowered the window or if the cat somehow managed it.
Two of the Mays’ children showed up the next day at nearly the same time in the afternoon. It was a Saturday. The police were summoned. Thomas James May was arrested. The 76-year-old former Navy lieutenant commander was charged with first-degree murder. It was his first-ever brush with the law.
“It was a total surprise when I read about Tom,” says John Moonie, an East San Diego resident who served in the Navy with May in the early 1960s. “I knew him as an ultraconservative individual whom I never saw take a drink of alcohol the whole time we were on the island of Midway.”