A mother's death, a host of questions Image of caring son at odds with coroner's ruling of homicide


They were inseparable. In what seemed like a daily routine, William Fishback would take his elderly mother to his red pickup outside their Columbia apartment and head off to run errands, perhaps to the grocery or the drugstore.

Fishback dedicated the past 11 years to his ailing mother, Helen V. Fishback, 90, he recently told an acquaintance. Legally blind, arthritic, suffering from emphysema and heart disease, she became his life as her own declined.

That image of the caring son -- attested to by friends and neighbors -- contrasts with the cold language of a medical examiner's report that describes Helen Fishback's death Sept. 7 as "homicide by suffocation." William Fishback, 68, a retired Westinghouse Corp. worker, is the Howard County Police Department's suspect in her death, authorities said -- but that's not the whole story.

Evidence gathered by police and the state medical examiner's findings raise another possibility: assisted suicide involving a son who might have helped grant his mother's last wish, a son who cared enough to risk entering a murky area of the law.

William Fishback declined to be interviewed. His attorney, Fredric G. Antenberg, said: "William Fishback is a kind and decent man who deeply loved his mother." He added, "I hope he won't be indicted."

Little is known about their lives in Columbia. The few remaining relatives, all out of state, refused to be interviewed. But neighbors and merchants recall Fishback parking his truck and patronizing their stores to pick up medicine, groceries, dry cleaning. Often, Helen Fishback would be waiting in the passenger seat, a Yorkshire terrier on her lap.

"She couldn't get around," said a former neighbor, David Fields, who lived above the Fishbacks' apartment in the Village of Harper's Choice. "He did everything for her.

"I used to help them out," Fields said, although, like many who knew the Fishbacks, he had never been in the apartment. "I used to shovel his truck out of the snow."

Once, after Fields had shoveled, William Fishback left a bottle of champagne outside Fields' door.

Nothing Fields saw indicated the possibility of homicide raised by the medical examiner's finding and recorded on Helen Fishback's death certificate. "I couldn't see [William Fishback] doing that."

April Raullerson, who lives in a building next to the Fishbacks', would see them on their 11 a.m. routine and sometimes say hello. "He was always taking care of her," she said. "It was just what he was supposed to do."

Once a beloved and outgoing housemother for varsity football players at the University of Kentucky, Helen Fishback was found about 3 a.m. Sept. 7 with a plastic grocery bag wrapped around her head, according to officials familiar with the investigation. That bag was put there by another -- unnamed -- person, according to the death certificate.

At first, police said, they suspected suicide. They said they later focused on William Fishback's possible role.

Detectives found an audiotape recording in which the mother describes her desire to die and the son can be heard crying in the background, investigative sources said. The death certificate said "drug intoxication" contributed to but did not cause her death. Those drugs included tranquilizers and sedatives, the sources said.

Weighing options

That evidence echoes a section in "Final Exit," a 1991 best seller by Hemlock Society founder Derek Humphry about assisted suicide for the dying.

For more than a month, prosecutors and detectives have been weighing their options. Last week, after receiving the autopsy report, Howard State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon said she expected to take the case before a grand jury late next month, leaving the panel of area residents to make a decision.

If jurors see a case of assisted suicide, they won't get much help from Maryland law: No statute specifically addresses assisted suicide, although experts say prosecutors could bring charges in such cases, depending on the circumstances.

In the weeks after his mother's death, Fishback called Dot Keczmerski, a mental health coordinator for the Howard County Office of Aging. He had seen an advertisement in a newspaper describing a group that helps widows and widowers deal with their pain, Keczmerski said.

Fishback told her that he didn't know many people here, that he moved here 11 years ago after retiring to live with his mother. Then his mother took sick, and that was his "life after that," he told Keczmerski.

Different lives

Fishback didn't seem to connect with those in the bereavement group, Keczmerski said, and left the session early.

"He seems like a man who had a lot of struggles," Keczmerski said. "He took care of his mother and didn't do much socializing."

Their lives were much different in Lexington, Ky., where he was born and graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1952 with a degree in law. His mother supervised a residence for varsity football players at the university in the 1950s and early '60s. Players fondly recalled a woman known as "Mom Fishback" because she often acted as their surrogate mother.

Said former football player Talbot Todd, who last talked to her around 1975: "She ran that house better than anyone. She was the sweetest lady."

Todd also recalled William Fishback and the mother's high opinion of her son.

During those years, the football team struggled, and tension between players and the coaches was high. Often, Mrs. Fishback kept players from quitting and coaches from punishing.

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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