Husband, 90, in alleged mercy killing could face prison time

LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. (AP) -- James and Phyllis Fish did everything together. The Indiana natives both served in World War II -- he as an Army captain and she as a nurse. They filled their ensuing decades of marriage with golfing, world travel and...

LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. (AP) -- James and Phyllis Fish did everything together.

The Indiana natives both served in World War II -- he as an Army captain and she as a nurse. They filled their ensuing decades of marriage with golfing, world travel and community service at the gated retirement village they called home.

But when dementia and terminal pancreatic cancer threatened that bond, prosecutors say James Fish did what he thought was best: The retired doctor gave his ailing bride morphine then shot her once in the head with a small-caliber handgun before turning the gun on himself.

Fish, 90, survived but his 88-year-old wife did not.

Prosecutors have charged the former surgeon and radiologist with voluntary manslaughter for what they believe was a mercy killing. Fish, who has spoken with investigators and at one point struggled to get up from his hospital bed, could face up to 21 years in prison if convicted.


The district attorney's office decided to pursue the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder in part because of Fish's age and the circumstances of the case, said spokeswoman Susan Schroeder.

"Their lives were really over, but I feel so bad for Jim because he made such a mess of it," said Rita Schoonmaker, 76, a close friend and former neighbor. "There's probably times when it's a good thing, it's easier on the families if you can just slip away together."

Friends and neighbors said the Fishes were an extremely close and loving couple, even in the gated retirement community of Leisure World where decades-long unions are more the rule than the exception.

Both were from Indiana and James Fish graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine in 1943. The couple both served in World War II, he as an Army captain in both the European and South Pacific combat theaters and she as a nurse, said Schoonmaker.

Schoonmaker didn't know exactly how or when they met, but by 1952 James Fish was practicing medicine in California, according to state records. The couple lived in Santa Barbara County and Salinas, where Fish had a radiology practice, before he let his medical license expire in 1979.

By 1990, they were living in Leisure World, where Phyllis quickly gained a reputation as a tireless community organizer and social butterfly. She served on several elected boards, was on the landscaping committee in her neighborhood and loved to golf and garden, neighbors said. She had a wonderful sense of humor.

Her husband was more introverted and rarely said more than a hello to neighbors who saw him hanging the American flag outside every morning and taking it down each evening promptly at 5 p.m.

But those who knew James Fish found him to be a sweet -- though somewhat opinionated -- man who was devoted to his wife and had a wide range of hobbies. The former doctor puttered in his woodworking shop, cooked fabulous dinners of curried lamb and French seafood stew, and fixed a Sunday brunch of omelets and champagne for his wife each week.


The couple had a son who also became a doctor. They took barge trips down the Seine River in France and cruises through the Panama Canal well into their 80s, and would regale their friends with their travel tales over cocktails or dinners.

"They had a very, very loving relationship and he loved her to death," Schoonmaker said. "They told stories about their life together and how they met."

But a few years ago, old age and infirmity began to encroach on their love -- and their lifestyle.

Phyllis, ever outgoing, suffered a debilitating stroke that left her unable to walk. Slowly, she regained the use of her legs with her husband's help but then began to show signs of dementia, said Schoonmaker.

"She'd be very happy to see me, she always knew who I was. But she could look at a glass of wine and say, 'What's that?"' she said. "She was failing physically and mentally."

Meanwhile, James Fish was slowly going blind from macular degeneration. At times, his vision was so bad he didn't even know who was saying hello to him, said next-door neighbor Paul Jones.

Jones, 86, said the couple hired a caregiver who would wheel Phyllis outside almost every day for fresh air and sometimes would drive her around the community in a golf cart. The caregiver at first came five days a week but recently started stopping by every day, Schoonmaker said.

Then, earlier this month, Phyllis was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and James Fish was told she would die by the end of the year, neighbors said.


Around that time, Schoonmaker called to see if she and her husband should stop by for their ritual cocktail. They hadn't seen their friends for at least a month and a half and the last time they stopped in, Phyllis hadn't taken part, she recalled.

James Fish told his friends it was better for them to stay away "because it just wouldn't do any good," Schoonmaker said. He seemed depressed about his wife's condition and his own failing eyesight but never hinted at what authorities now believe he did just days later.

On Sunday, police say, James Fish gave his wife morphine, picked up the handgun, shot her and tried to kill himself, even as their caregiver tried to intervene. He remains hospitalized in critical condition with a bullet still lodged in his forehead.

"I'm very, very sad. I'm particularly sad for Jim. I know Phyllis was going to be leaving us soon anyway, but I'm sorry that Jim didn't leave us too," Schoonmaker said. "I think he probably is too."

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