The Question Left Hanging

By Joyce Arthur
Pro-Choice Press, Autumn/Winter 2002

Little did he know that the secret he was about to carry to his grave would one day cause a notorious murderer to use him as an alibi.

Dying was probably the last thing on Maurice Lewis's mind when he turned his big rig into the roadside pullout just outside Wawa, Ontario. Maybe he was thinking about his new court case, hoping he'd be able to overturn his conviction for violating an access zone outside an abortion clinic in his hometown of Vancouver BC. Or perhaps he was thinking about his new maybe-girlfriend and fantasizing about... well, about finally settling down and starting a family at age 46. We'll never know.

And we may never know for sure what happened inside the cab of Maurice's truck that September night in 1997, because the Wawa police who found his cold body a couple of days later won't release their files. But it wasn't foul play, they insisted. It was an accident, the coroner ruled—"accidental asphyxiation" to be exact. Whatever that means. Case closed.

Fast forward to October 1998. A brutal murder in New York takes the life of Dr. Barnett Slepian, in his kitchen, in front of his family. The gunman, shooting from the woods behind the doctor's house, escapes. The sensational murder makes headlines around the world, because Dr. Slepian performed abortions. Within a couple of weeks, police release the gunman's name as a "witness", so with the help of friends, the murderer flees to Mexico, then Europe. James Kopp is soon placed on the FBI's Most Wanted List. Finally, Jim is caught in France in March 2001, and extradited to New York the next summer to stand trial.

All this time, Jim swears he's innocent. As a radical anti-abortion protester from New Jersey with an impressive arrest record, Jim certainly had the respect of his peers. Most of the anti-abortion movement lapped it right up, raising millions for his defence, and spilling lots of ink on wild tales about how Jim was framed by the police, how it might have been pro-choice people who killed the doctor, and how the police are covering it all up, because they really hate pro-lifers. As Jim tells it, he got beat up bad by the cops once. They're out to get us pro-lifers, he said. Don't trust them one bit. Amen! said the anti-abortion movement in near-perfect unison.

A good conspiracy theory can explain everything, including awkward questions like: Why would an innocent man flee the country and live as a fugitive for two years? Jim had a very exciting excuse. In his own words, "The answer is a person, not a thing, or an idea. The person is Maurice Lewis, R.I.P., who was poisoned in Canada in 1996, roughly."

My goodness. Who would have thought that Maurice and Jimmy had been best buddies for years—starting with the six weeks they spent together in a Rome jail cell in 1992 after getting arrested for blockading abortion clinics there.

Apparently, Jim thought Maurice was quite the VIP up here in Canada, important enough—and dangerous enough—for the authorities to want to silence him. Canadians tend to chuckle politely at nonsense like this (Maurice who?), but I guess it seems more credible south of the border, where no-one knows the facts. So Jim concocted this fiction that the police did away with poor Maurice. "If that's how they treated Maurice, what about me?" he sniveled. So off he ran off to the sunny beaches of Mexico to escape the homicidal clutches of the police.

Well, it's too bad Maurice isn't around to tell his side of the story.

For one thing, do you think Maurice would approve of his "friend" exploiting his death like that, using it to prop up a big fat lie? Jim did kill Dr. Slepian after all—he recently confessed. That means the Maurice alibi must be a total crock (like we didn’t know already). And the lies just keep piling up. Jim says he acted alone, never even heard of the doc before, just picked his name out of a phone book. Only problem is, Dr. Slepian wasn't listed in the phone book as an abortion provider. So Jim's still lying, this time to protect his friends.

The anti-abortion movement is still in shock over all this; they really believed in good, kind, gentle Jim. They certainly accepted Jim's tall tale about Maurice being murdered. A few months ago, Vancouver's own Gordon Watson told the media, "The pro-life community here is more or less convinced that Maurice was murdered—done away with—so his appeal would not continue."

Do you think maybe they've come to their senses, now that Jim no longer needs his bogus Maurice alibi? No, I don't think so either.

So, let's return to that fateful night in September 1997, when Maurice breathed his last. I decided to see what else I could dig up about it.

I called the Ontario Provincial Police detachment in Wawa on the five-year anniversary of the day they found Maurice's body in his truck (just one of those funny coincidences). I got a Sergeant Scott Smith on the phone, and started explaining about dead Maurice and his illustrious friend Jim and so forth, when the sergeant jumped in to clarify—Who was this guy again?

M-A-U-R-I-C-E ... L-E-W-I-S, I spelled out. It was right about then, if memory serves me correctly, that the good sergeant broke into a chuckle, and said something in an amused tone about "interesting circumstances." And when I divulged that Jim was accusing the cops of bumping off poor Maurice, the sergeant laughed again. The very idea was completely ridiculous to him, as it is to all normal people. He told me he had never heard of any of this before.

So I asked Sergeant Smith how Maurice died. Was it carbon monoxide poisoning? No, came the emphatic reply. Then how did he die?

"He hung himself."

Perhaps my stunned reaction prompted Smith to clam up, because that was about all I could get out of him, then or in the future. But after we said goodbye, I had a nagging thought. How do you hang yourself in a truck? Plus, Maurice’s death was not listed as a suicide—it was "accidental". (And police officers don't start laughing when they recall a suicide; it's just not proper.)

So how do you accidentally hang yourself in a truck?

The Internet is a wonderful thing and it's so easy! All you have to do is type "accidental asphyxiation " into Google dot com. Most of the entries are about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but I was astounded to learn there's a lot of adults like Maurice who've also died of "accidental asphyxiation" (and no foul play for them, either.) Sometimes it's poisonous gases, or severe sleep apnea, or in one odd case, a "swollen neck bone", but what kept popping up were terms like "asphyxiophilia", "paraphilia", and "autoerotic asphyxiation."

Autoerotic asphyxiation is a self-applied suffocation method while masturbating to orgasm. Apparently, when you use some tool to strangle yourself (like your belt or a noose hanging in your closet), you reduce your brain's oxygen supply and go into a semi-hallucinogenic state. Practicing asphyxiologists—also called "snuffkins"—describe the result as the most incredible orgasm they ever had. Unfortunately, if your timing is off by a few seconds and you pass out before loosening your belt, you're in big trouble.

This is a very dangerous activity. Please don't try this at home. (I hereby am not responsible.) An estimated 500 to 1000 Americans die doing this to themselves each year. It's mostly adolescent boys and young men, but women can be very kinky too. Also, some couples indulge in this activity together, with the experts agreeing that the "buddy system" is a lot safer. Even so, a number of husbands with perfectly happy marriages have gone to jail for strangling their wives.

Of course, I'm speculating here. We can't be sure how Maurice really died. However, since we now know "he hung himself", we can rule out poisonous gas, sleep apnea, and "swollen neck bone". There's not much left to choose from. It's either Jim's cooked-up murder and conspiracy theory, or it's "autoerotic asphyxiation"—and that's far more popular than I ever wanted to imagine—just Google it and see!

Not much is known about why people do this, or how to help them stop. It's a difficult behaviour to treat, since the first presenting symptom is usually a dead body. Sometimes, the death is misclassified as suicide or homicide because people don't understand what they're seeing. Most victims are found nude or partly nude. Family members who discover the body often confuse the matter by hiding embarrassing evidence, such as women's clothing. Cross-dressing is associated with at least 1 in 5 deaths, and it's even more common to find sex toys, pornography, or other paraphernalia at the death scene. Older victims usually have a long history of compulsively repeating the behaviour, which may evolve into an elaborate ritual complete with props.

Autoerotic asphyxiation is not associated with homosexuality, but one source said that males with sexual fetishes "feel rejected by women [and] show an enhanced response to women's clothing and a decreased response to women." Usually, "there is no sexual satisfaction from, or the ability to indulge in, normal sexual behavior." Deviant sexual behaviours in general are caused by "disruption of the normal sexual development during adolescence," which is when the behaviour usually starts. Autoerotic asphyxiation itself is frequently associated with a history of abuse as a child and a masochistic need to punish oneself.[1]

Maurice was held up as a shining example of what the “pro-life” movement is all about—a devout Catholic leading an ordinary but noble life. So the question left hanging is: How many other pious pro-lifers keep secrets tucked away in their closets or in the back of their underwear drawer? Kind of makes you wonder what Maurice and Jimmy were doing in that Rome jail cell together, with so much leisure time on their hands...


[1] The Autoerotic Asphyxiation Syndrome in Adolescent and Young Adult Males. Mark Clark.