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Utah man ordered to stand trial in death of ailing wife

Published August 29, 2014 9:04 pm

Hearing • Couple's adult daughter describes oddities about mother's death.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ogden • Before Jean Chamberlain died Feb. 16 in her Roy home, prosecutors say her husband had amassed a small library of suspicious titles. "The Peaceful Pill Handbook." "The Final Exit." "If You Go Into A Nursing Home, Will Your Spouse Go To The Poor House?"

The books and articles provided arguments for assisted suicide, warnings against nursing homes, and ways to kill a person without being caught — for instance, suffocation with a helium-filled bag. Techniques are punctuated with handwritten notes such as "Excellent," "How to do it," and "Silence is your best protection."

But in Dennis Vance Chamberlain's preliminary hearing Friday, his defenders pointed to an open-ended autopsy, which could not deduce the cause of the death of a 70-year-old woman who suffered "a plethora" of maladies, from an early stroke to an enlarged heart.

"Did this poor woman die of criminal agency or did she die of natural causes?" defense attorney Ron Yengich asked. "It could have been any of a number of things."

Chamberlain was bound over for trial Wednesday on a charge of first-degree felony murder in the death of his wife, whose body prosecutors say was secreted to burial while Chamberlain's children grew suspicious.

Cindy Hadley, Chamberlain's daughter, said her father told her that he had taken his dog for a walk and returned to find his wife had died. He claimed to have performed CPR, but Hadley said her mother's body was reclined in her wheelchair at a height that would not allow CPR. Chamberlain said he had called his LDS bishop, a doctor, to come to the house and pronounce Jean Chamberlain dead, Hadley testified.

At the visitation, Chamberlain's children spoke to the bishop.

"He had not been in the home the evening that she had passed," Hadley said.

When Hadley and her siblings confronted Chamberlain, "he seemed very agitated," Hadley said. He said he wanted to sue the bishop and McKay-Dee Hospital. He also said he intended, one year later, to kill himself.

"He was going to put his dog down and planned to drive 80 to 90 mph into a brick wall," Hadley said tearfully.

As her brothers took Chamberlain to a psychiatric ward, Hadley and other relatives went to her parents' home. They found membership cards to the Hemlock Society, an assisted-suicide advocacy group now known as Compassion & Choices, in the names of both Jean and Dennis Chamberlain. The cards were issued "several years" ago, said Roy police Detective Trevor Barker.

Hadley said her mother had spoken about assisted suicide once, 14 years ago.

"She said they were part of a group that would come put a bag over your head and end your life," Hadley said. "I told her that that was crazy. Those kinds of things don't really happen. … She never brought it up again."

In the years after that, caring for her mother "was taking a toll, mentally and physically" on Chamberlain, Hadley said. Jean Chamberlain suffered a stroke about 20 years ago, and her condition was worsening when she died. Medical Examiner Edward A. Leis said she also suffered chronic urinary tract infections and minor seizures and had an enlarged heart.

About 8 months before her death, Jean Chamberlain called Hadley in tears.

"She was sobbing, … 'Your father is getting overwhelmed with taking care of me. He's at the end of his rope,'" Hadley recounted. Jean Chamberlain wanted to look at moving to an assisted-living facility.

"She would talk about it excitedly," Hadley said.

But Dennis Chamberlain objected to nursing homes, saying people there "rot away and die."

He also didn't want to end up "penniless," Hadley testified.

Hadley began to cry as prosecutors showed her end-of-life literature, asking her to identify her father's handwriting in the margin notes. In "The Peaceful Pill Handbook," prosecutors pointed to a chapter titled "Dying Without A Trace." An underlined passage advised that "the only method that leaves no trace, even at autopsy, is the exit bag with nitrogen." At the top of the page appears the handwritten note, "Very good."

Illustrations show a large bag over the subject's head. An Amazon.com receipt shows Chamberlain bought "The Peaceful Pill Handbook" in August, along with a high-concentration oxygen mask, Barker said. He said investigators also found receipts for large plastic bags and plastic tubing, bought the day of Jean Chamberlain's death but never found in the house.

The dimensions of the plastic tubing and bags match those in instructions for a lethal "helium hood" in the book "The Final Exit," which a nurse found at Ogden Regional Hospital; the copy was marked with stickers containing Chamberlain's name and address, Barker said. No helium was found at the house, Barker said.

Chamberlain admitted to studying assisted suicides, especially with poisons, but he was "unimpressed" by the methods, Barker said.

"He said … he couldn't imagine poisoning Jean or using that method," Barker said.

He told officers to exhume his wife's body and "was adamant nothing would be found," Barker said. Leis found no lethal toxins but said gas-filled plastic bags typically leave no evidence except the bag itself when the suffocation is self-inflicted; there were eight such suicides from January through May, Leis said, with "zero external or internal findings."

Second District Judge Joseph Bean found probable cause to bind Chamberlain over for trial and denied bail because of Chamberlain's reported threats to flee to South America, where he served an LDS mission.

ealberty@sltrib.com