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Posted: Monday, July 7, 2014 7:21 am
BY ANDREW J. NELSON WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Law passed in era when Dr. Kevorkian helped others die is invoked
McPAUL, Iowa — They met online, playing a Facebook game called Gardens of Time. She was living in her native California but moved to western Iowa in November to live with him in his trailer.
Two months later, she was dead. In June, he was arrested, accused of helping her die.
James A. Zingg, 58, of McPaul is charged with assisting or participating in a suicide in connection with the death of Gwendolyn N. Melloway, 47, formerly of the Sacramento area, who was a cancer survivor.
Authorities are prosecuting Zingg under a seldom-used law that dates to 1996. The law makes it a felony if someone “intentionally or knowingly assists, solicits or incites” another person to commit or attempt to commit suicide. Nebraska has a similar law on its books.
Supporters pushed for the Iowa ban, spurred by the actions of Michigan pathologist Dr.Jack Kevorkian, who had been present when numerous people committed suicide.
Past known assisted suicide cases in the area have largely involved family members who helped ailing relatives kill themselves.
This case is different. Officials say Melloway died on Jan. 21, two days after making a suicide pact with Zingg, then ingesting a lethal cocktail of pills. Zingg also took pills but did not die.
Zingg, who has pleaded not guilty to the charge, disputes the characterization, saying it was Melloway’s idea to swallow pills, and he went along with it.
“I just decided, what the hell, too, because I was pretty well drunk,” he said. “She ended up passing away, and I ended up in jail.”
Fremont County Attorney James Burger said the charge is justified. “We have one person dead, and one person alive,” he said.
Zingg’s criminal record in Nebraska and Iowa includes convictions for operating a vehicle while intoxicated, driving with a suspended or revoked license and mutual assault. In 2012, he received a deferred judgment on a charge of unlawful possession of a prescription drug. In Florida in 1994, he received probation after a conviction for assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill.
Melloway was a devout Catholic, said her estranged husband, Gary Melloway of Placerville, California. She had been taking antidepressants and was in a “fragile” state emotionally after battling colon cancer for years, but he says he still can’t fathom her taking her own life. She had 1 1/2 feet of her colon and parts of other organs removed in 2007, but her cancer was in remission, he said.
He thinks she left for Iowa in hopes of going to a place where she didn’t have to think about the cancer.
“I think she wanted to go someplace where she could just live and not have to drag that burden with her,” Gary Melloway said.
In a phone interview, Zingg said he met Gwendolyn Melloway online in late spring of 2013.
At first, their interactions focused on the game, but as they got to know each other, the two found they liked classic rock — Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin — and Zingg grew to like her.
“We just started talking. We talked for like half a year,” said Zingg, formerly of Brule, Nebraska.
Their conservations online and, later, in person sometimes turned to what happens when a person dies. He said they both believed that the deceased go to a different dimension.
He invited her to come to Iowa to stay with him. She accepted.
“She was anxious to come out here. It was weird,” he said. “I never thought anybody would come out to be with me.”
Zingg was living in a trailer on the property of Keys Transport, a trucking firm. The Keys property is just west and across Interstate 29 from the tiny community of McPaul, about 35 miles south of Omaha.
J.D. Chavez, one of the company’s owners, said Zingg had applied for a job as a truck driver in 2011. But company officials doubted Zingg’s ability to do the job because of a back injury. Zingg didn’t get a job as a truck driver but was allowed to stay in a trailer on the property in return for doing odd jobs.
After Melloway arrived in Iowa, things didn’t work out as planned, according to Zingg.
“We tried making a stab out of it as a boyfriend-girl-friend thing,” he said. But, he said, they decided they were “happy with being friends” and continued to live in the trailer together.
They occasionally talked about suicide and going to “another dimension” after death, but he said both were in good spirits. “Nobody was depressed that I ever saw.”
One morning, someone ran into Melloway’s parked car.
“It just kind of put her in a tailspin,” Zingg said, referring to her emotional state.
Then, the night of Jan. 18, as Zingg drank Natural Light beer, she called him to the back of the trailer, he said, and placed some pills in his hand.
“She says it’s time to exit, in so many words,” he said. “I don’t remember the words because so much of that night was in a blur. … ‘Nobody wants us here. Nobody likes us.'”
Zingg said he was taken aback and questioned why. But he also said he is in a lot of pain from fibromyalgia, two hip replacements and back surgery.
“I said, ‘OK, let’s go,”‘ he said. “I’m pretty much sick and tired of the pain, living the way I am…. After that I pretty much just threw them in my mouth.”
At some point that night, he called a friend in Elk Creek, Nebraska, to tell her of their plans. He asked the friend to come get their belongings but asked her not to tell anybody, according to court documents. Instead, the friend called authorities.
When Fremont County deputies arrived at the trailer just after 3 a.m. on Jan. 19, the doors were locked, so they used a window to get inside.
The pair were rushed to Jennie Edmundson Hospital in Council Bluffs in separate ambulances. On the way, Zingg became “disruptive” so the ambulance stopped and deputies came on board to calm him down, said Burger, the county attorney.
Melloway died two days later. Zingg was hospitalized and later released.
After an autopsy, the State Medical Examiner’s Office described the death as suspicious. Melloway had four kinds of painkillers and antidepressants in her body at the time of her death.
The hospital reported that Zingg ingested several medications, including relatively low levels of the painkiller acetaminophen.
Prescription medications and empty bottles belonging to both were found in the trailer.
Ultimately, the Iowa Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Melloway’s death a suicide caused by an acute drug overdose.
Zingg insists that he didn’t assist in Melloway’s suicide. The assisted suicide charge, a felony, carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison.
Sheldon Kurtz, a professor of law at the University of Iowa, who teaches health care law, said that although the state’s assisted suicide law was intended to prohibit physician-assisted suicide, it still can be used in other circumstances.
“The jury is the one who ultimately has to make those decisions,” he said. “The fact (that this kind of case) wasn’t the motivation for the statute does not mean that the statute doesn’t apply.”
Prosecutions under the Iowa law are rare. According to data from the Iowa Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning, the charge was twice filed from 2000 to 2013, without any convictions.
Gary Melloway said he last communicated with Gwendolyn around Christmas. She talked of returning to California and of their getting back together. Gary Melloway lost his job as an automobile mechanic in 2007, the same year as his wife’s surgery.
Her medical treatment and bills, plus his sporadic employment, stressed their marriage, and she moved out in 2012, he said.
“We had spent a lot of money on her medicines…. That first year it was like $26,000,” he said in a telephone interview. “Living with cancer for five years … really drug her down.”
Gwendolyn Melloway liked to read books, especially the Harry Potter series, and she enjoyed knitting. When they had their own house, the couple would work in the garden in the backyard, then sit outside and have coffee. The Melloways had one daughter together, and she also had a stepdaughter and four step-grandchildren.
Gary Melloway holds Zingg responsible for his wife’s death.
“As far as I’m concerned she was in his care…. Shame on him. He let her down,” Gary Melloway said. “No responsible person would have done that. … If someone wants to die, you call 911 and get some help.”
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“I just decided, what the hell, too, because I was pretty well drunk. She ended up passing away, and I ended up in jail.”