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Autopsy Says Woman Died of Suffocation

December 11, 1995

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) _ The death of a 76-year-old woman who died with a plastic bag over her head while her husband and two sons watched is being investigated as an assisted suicide, police said.

Velma Howard and her husband had celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Joplin a day earlier with their sons.

The three men called police after Mrs. Howard’s death Saturday at a Days Inn Motel. They told officers she had been suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal disease commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Preliminary autopsy results Sunday showed that suffocation was the cause of death. The autopsy also confirmed that Mrs. Howard, of Belleville, Ill., had the disease, Police Chief David Niebur said.

Police found a copy of the suicide manual ``Final Exit″ in the room.

Niebur said Mrs. Howard’s death was being investigated as an assisted self murder, a form of voluntary manslaughter. The Newton County prosecutor will decide whether to file charges.

The plastic bag was secured around her head with a thick rubber band that had been tied, Niebur said. That initially made officers suspicious because Mrs. Howard, suffering from a disease that destroys the nerves that control muscles, wore braces on her arms and fingers.

``But it explains in the book how feeble people can make such a device (a noose), and we found such a device in the room,″ he said.

The husband and two sons told police that Mrs. Howard began contemplating suicide in February, when she was first diagnosed with ALS, Niebur said.

The men were released Saturday night. Niebur said they were despondent but cooperative with police.

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