Gail’s story: ‘I wasn’t alone in helping Bernadette to shut down her life’
Gail O’Rorke, acquitted of assisting in the suicide of Bernadette Forde, tells of the ‘nightmare’ that followed her friend’s death
In mid-April 2011 Bernadette Forde sat in her apartment in Dublin and recorded a suicide message. Diagnosed 10 years earlier with primary progressive multiple sclerosis, the 51-year-old had reached the limits of her endurance.
Forde was using a dictaphone because of her weakening condition, and she poured out her frustration and helplessness at having to plan her own death without support.
“I knew what I needed to do, because I just couldn’t live with this any more. My life is shit,” she said. “Hiding it from friends has been difficult, and it’s just so unfair that I can’t have any contact or chat to anyone, that I have to be totally alone . . . I hope that it will make my wishes and my intentions clear to anyone who wants to question it afterwards . . . It’s me and only me, and no one else.”
It was a valiant effort to absolve her friends of conspiracy in her death, which had been planned for late April at Dignitas, an assisted-suicide service in Zurich. That plan fell apart when the travel agent reported it to the Garda, but Forde’s wish to die was fulfilled on a night in early June that year, in her own apartment, using a barbiturate sourced from Mexico.
Far from absolving loved ones, however, the route Forde took would result in a three-year nightmare for a dear friend, in Ireland’s first prosecution of the crime of assisting a suicide – and its first acquittal, in 2016.
Staunch friend and carer
Bernadette Forde was not alone when she made the recording. Sitting beside her in the apartment was Gail O’Rorke, 12 years her junior, whose relationship with Forde had grown from cleaner, in 1998, to staunch friend and carer.
It was Gail’s contact number on Forde’s panic button. It was Gail who was in the car when Forde’s leg went into spasm and she crashed into a wall in the Brown Thomas car park, leaving Forde in intensive care and Gail with her own chronic problems.
It was Gail who made the first phone call to Dignitas. Gail who booked the Zurich flight, on April 26th, 2011, for Forde, her nephew Bernard and herself. Gail who told the Rathgar travel agent (insisted upon by Forde, incredibly) the reason for the trip.
When the Zurich plan fell through it was Gail who unwittingly posted the money to the Mexican barbiturate supplier, and it was Gail who let in the FedEx man with the box containing the Nembutal.
Gail made the call to the funeral directors and put Forde on loudspeaker to organise her own humanist service, with white lilies, a wicker coffin and songs including Cliff Richard’s Living Doll and The Eagles’ Take It Easy.
Having watched the lingering death of her sister Marcena, Forde knew precisely what she did not want. Her methodical approach to wrapping up her life was perfectly in character. “Put me down and post me home,” she would joke.
“She thought in black and white,” Gail O’Rorke says now. Even Forde’s apartment colour scheme and the hundreds of ornaments were black and white, she says. The former human-resources manager at Guinness fiercely valued order, independence, privacy and tight control in all compartments of her life.
O’Rorke, a “less confident” woman back then, felt that people who were “a little submissive” appealed to Forde. “But we found something affectionate and helpful in one another. I know it sounds cheesy, but I do believe in soul groups and that you’re attracted to a certain kind of person. And she was definitely one of them.”
“She cut herself off”
Forde’s outgoing life, once filled with friends, foreign travel and parties in her Donnybrook apartment, began to dwindle to perhaps a visitor every couple of months. “It would be fair to say she cut herself off,” O’Rorke says. “I think she hated that people who used to know her as a vibrant, independent, outgoing woman would see her in her deterioration.”
As their relationship grew into friendship, and O’Rorke also morphed into a carer, they would go shopping, spending hours in cafes, using black humour to combat the inevitable outrages of the able-bodied colonising parking spaces or toilets for the disabled.
They were an unlikely pair. One was a successful career woman from a comfortable midlands family who revered her stationmaster father and longed to see him again in the afterlife.
The other was a kind of bohemian spirit with piercings and tattoos, one of five children raised in Crumlin amid dysfunction, poverty and abuse of every kind.
In 1987, aged 16, Gail tried unsuccessfully to run away. At 17 she succeeded. Her means of escape was her beloved Barry, a strong, dependable man whom she would marry, and who later would often go to pick up Forde when she fell, while battling to save his wife from her kindly but legally dangerous impulses.
In Gail O’Rorke’s new book about the experience, Crime or Compassion?, references to regulars in Bernadette Forde’s life are sparse. She includes a kind of legal disclaimer in the preface: “Although Bernadette’s circle of support contained a wider cast than me – loving people whom she trusted and appreciated – it is not my place to tell anyone else’s story.”
Awaiting trial, O’Rorke wrote a narrative of her time with Forde because “it was also important to write down the roles that others had played over the last months and weeks of Bernadette’s life. I wasn’t alone in helping her to shut down her life and make final arrangements.”
There were visits from a public-health nurse every few weeks, plus two hours of home help a week. Mainly, though, those around Forde were her sister Catherine, Catherine’s daughter Catriona, and Kate, Forde’s adored grandniece. There were also Bernard, the son of Forde’s sister Beatrice; a close friend, Mary Lundy; and O’Rorke.
As Forde made her plans O’Rorke’s husband sensed trouble. “He used to say to me, ‘Gail, your loyalty is blind. Be careful.’ ”
O’Rorke had “overstepped the mark” on a couple of occasions, such as when Forde wanted to give somebody some money, and O’Rorke saw no problem in having the money lodged to her own and her sister’s account, then sent on.
Barry, she says, went “absolutely ballistic and roared at me to get in touch with Forde’s solicitor and tell him”. She was made acutely aware of the optics of Forde’s money going into her family’s accounts in the event of a Garda investigation.
Having chosen her time of death, and aware that O’Rorke was already under investigation, Bernadette Forde booked a hotel in Kilkenny for the couple, in order to distance them from the scene.
That morning O’Rorke visited Forde for the last time. She had picked up the usual Americano for her and hot chocolate for herself, and helped her dress for the visitors due to arrive later, including Catherine and her family and her friend Mary Lundy.
In Garda interviews entered into court evidence, although not reprised in the book, O’Rorke said it had been agreed beforehand that Lundy would be there when Forde took the drug; that Lundy later told her they had a few drinks; and that Forde took the drink and said, “Didn’t I do well”? She then started snoring, and Lundy left her, as she was close to death, O’Rorke said.
O’Rorke also told the Garda that they had agreed with Forde that they would all say afterwards that Forde “was very much alive” when Lundy left.
Apart from one count, charging O’Rorke with sending the money to Mexico to purchase the Nembutal, the immediate circumstances of Forde’s death were irrelevant to the case. The other two counts were of attempting to buy tickets to Zurich and of making Forde’s funeral arrangements. Ultimately, two were dismissed, leaving only the charge of booking the travel.
James Malone, the travel agent who reported the plans to the Garda, told the court he was so sure the tickets would be cancelled that he hadn’t printed them off.
Was a disabled person not allowed to travel, asked counsel. O’Rorke had asked a sales clerk for information on flights, taxi transfers and hotel accommodation in Zurich suitable for a person with a disability, Malone said he was unaware that a disabled person was travelling.
Although court onlookers discerned no obvious ill feeling between O’Rorke and more than 20 witnesses, the true picture was different. Having seen witness statements in advance, O’Rorke was deeply fearful.
In a statement retracted before the case, for example, Beatrice Forde had said she believed that O’Rorke had “some kind of a hold” over her sister and claimed that her family were terrified of the O’Rorkes.
Were some of those concerns centred on money? “I really don’t know,” O’Rorke says now. “I have no time for any of that. I’ll never understand.”
In the crossover between friend and employee, was she paid at all times? Her open face never flinches.
“The thing with Bernadette was, she wouldn’t let you bring that coffee cup over there without saying, ‘Can I sort you out for that?’ Her way of allowing herself to rely on people was to help in that way. And, no matter who you were, that’s what she did. So that was something I knew – and, silly as it sounds, something I knew enabled her to request so much. That’s how it worked, with either family or friends.”
Although motive was never an issue in the case, Forde’s decision to leave 30 per cent of the residue of her estate to her friend terrified O’Rorke. “When she told me about it I was mortified. But she said, ‘You helped me more than anyone else, so I want to make your life a bit easier.’ And that was fine, and I loved and respected her, and I’m human, so that’s okay.
“But when it came to the trial, and we looked at the [guidelines from the English legal system], we ticked all the boxes except that one: financial gain.”
The legacy amounted to €60,000. “It helped to clear some of the debts” accumulated in the pretrial years, when O’Rorke was unable to work. At the time Barry, her husband, was caring for her and coping with a condition of his own (diverticulitis), and they were borrowing heavily from their families.
Would O’Rorke avail of the Dignitas option for herself, if she were afflicted with a similar illness ? “I’d go for the Nembutal. I wouldn’t want to travel,” she says. “I’d have a little gathering to say goodbye. They’d all know about it, and I’d go on my own terms.”
In the end it’s about having the “security blanket” of an option, she says, noting that 85 per cent of people who get provisional go-aheads from Dignitas never proceed with it.
Although O’Rorke writes in her book that being willing to assist in a death “can come only from a good place”, she agrees now that it may not always be so. Although she supports the Dying with Dignity Bill proposed by Minister of State John Halligan and the right-to-die campaigner Tom Curran, she sees a problem with making it “completely safe, because there are always going to be people who will sneak under the radar”.
On the other hand, if people were able to talk openly about such plans – if gardaí had interviewed Forde when the Dignitas plan fell though, for example – “all those questions raised by the case would have been answered prior to her death, and there would have been no court case”.
In the context of the charge against O’Rorke of assisting a suicide by making funeral arrangements, a pivotal exchange took place between Judge Patrick McCartan and Bernadette Forde’s solicitor, Maurice O’Callaghan.
“Did you ever worry that, by taking instructions from Ms Forde relating to the arrangements in relation to her cremation and ashes, you might have been assisting a suicide or breaking any law?”
“No,” O’Callaghan replied. “I was acting in a professional way, and I do not consider anything I was doing for my client could be seen as breaking the law.”
“I agree with you,” the judge said, adding, “So the jury are being asked, What is the difference between you, the professional, and Gail O’Rorke, the accused?”
No grudge against the system
Gail O’Rorke says she holds no grudge against the system. “I do understand why I was brought to trial. Given the statements from certain family members, and the lack of information from others, it left a lot of room for inference in relation to my character.”
She has no contact with the Forde family beyond annual Christmas wishes, sent by text, to Bernard and Catriona, and theirs in return. She was not invited to the interment of the ashes and says she does not know where the grave is. “It’s a difficult situation, I know that, and I don’t want to upset anyone. But I would like to leave a bouquet.”
O’Rorke seems a contented woman now, together with Barry for 30 years in a marriage that has been tested like few others but has “never weakened”, she says. She is minding her family and doing part-time cleaning, where she is “more comfortable”.
O’Rorke is sure that Bernadette Forde, who had faith in angels, God and an afterlife, is “up there, happy and proud. I know she got her wishes, that she didn’t end up in a nursing home, hating her life. So I’m really proud and hoping that the ripple effect of this is that it will get people talking and thinking and deciding.”
Crime or Compassion?: One Woman’s Story of a Loving Friendship That Knew No Bounds, by Gail O’Rorke, is published by Hachette Ireland