Sharlotte Hydorn peddles a product touted for its deadly simplicity. Inside her butterfly-decorated boxes are clear plastic bags and medical-grade tubing. A customer places the bag over his head, connects the tubing from the bag to a helium tank, turns the valve and breathes. The so-called suicide kit asphyxiates a customer within minutes.
Orders come from all over the world, from people young and old, depressed and terminally ill. "People commit suicide by jumping out of windows and buildings, and hanging themselves," said the 91-year-old former elementary school science teacher. Her product, she says, ends lives peacefully, leaving people "eternally sleepy."
In December, one of Hydorn's $60 devices was found over the head of a dead 29-year-old man from Eugene, Ore. His death triggered a wave of media attention that doubled her orders to 100 per month, but placed Hydorn under scrutiny from politicians and law enforcement agencies that culminated last week with a raid of her ranch-style home outside San Diego.
FBI agents seized dozens of boxes ready for shipment as part of an investigation into possible mail or wire fraud violations and whether Hydorn has violated a law prohibiting the sale of adulterated and mishandled medical devices. In Oregon, where assisted-suicide is legal under certain conditions, lawmakers have introduced a bill that would outlaw any device sold with the intent that another person use it to commit suicide.
Hydorn has been compared to Jack Kevorkian, the physician who went to prison in 1999 for assisting suicides. But the Dr. Death image doesn't fit this gregarious woman who dispenses advice on dying with a neighborly demeanor that is disarming.
Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, the tall and slender woman told reporters last week that hers is a mission of compassion. The "exit bags" end lives of suffering through humane means, she said. The federal investigation leaves her more bewildered than concerned, and she almost laughs at the prospect of going to prison.
"Do I look like a criminal?" Hydorn said, standing on her manicured front lawn.
Her critics would say yes. Even people who believe in assisted-suicide said she peddles the product without knowing the circumstances or identities of the buyers. While some suicidal people are rational, others are not, said Alan Berman, executive director of the American Assn. for Suicidology, a suicide-prevention organization.
"What if this was a young person masquerading as an adult? What if this was a person with a totally treatable psychological condition who was not otherwise given the opportunity to get treatment?" he said. "She's not evaluating who she is providing the product. Clearly, she's doing no due diligence to defend her behavior as compassionate."
Hydorn became interested in assisted-suicide after watching her once-healthy husband die from a long battle with colon cancer 30 years ago. He passed away in a hospital bed and she regrets not being able to respect his wishes to die in the comfort of home.
Over the years, Hydorn said, she has witnessed the deaths of about 50 people using the helium-hood method. Like other assisted-suicide advocates, she has role-played with people first, showing how the bag works. It's not necessarily a grim exercise, she said. One woman who saw the bag inflate joked: "I always wanted to be the Cat in the Hat," Hydorn recalled.
In a workshop at her home in an unincorporated area of El Cajon, east of San Diego, Hydorn assembles the packages with her adopted son and ships them to customers from Singapore to Cyprus. Many orders come from Florida and other areas with large populations of senior citizens. She doesn't know how many people have died using her product, but she regularly receives letters of gratitude from loved ones, she said.
Some aren't so appreciative. After Nick Klonoski died last December in Eugene, Ore., his brother Zach blamed Hydorn at a hearing in front of Oregon state lawmakers. The packaging, he said, disguises the device's lethalness and comes with instructions that tell users, when buying helium, to avoid suspicion by asking for party balloon tanks rather than helium tanks.
"In a society where so many people suffer from depression and other mental-health disorders, this company has found their niche in the market by peddling death," he said at the hearing this month. "This is analogous to putting a gun-vending machine next to a depression clinic."
Hydorn makes no apologies for Klonoski's death, saying that he pondered his suicide for months and had not acted impulsively. She concedes that in the future she may require people to send copies of their drivers' licenses to prove their age, however.
Her immediate concern is getting the kits, or refunds, to people whose orders were confiscated by FBI agents. It's not about the money, she said. "It was never my intention of getting into the business of killing people. I was just interested in helping people," she said.