This is the third in a series of occasional installments about the plight of Larry Hopkins, the death of his wife, Margaret, and the indifferent circumstances that led to it.
The last thing the officer said to Hoppy when he delivered him to booking was “Thanks for not making me kill you.”
It might have happened. A few hours earlier that day, on November 5, Hoppy had dialed 911 and told the operator he had just shot his wife at their home in Lawrence. She was dead.
It was supposed to be a murder-suicide, he said, “but I lost my nerve.” During his interview with detectives the subject of suicide-by-cop, (forcing an officer to gun him down) came up.
“No, I wouldn’t do that.” Hoppy told the detectives.
“It wouldn’t be fair to the officer.”
“HOPPY” IS Larry Hopkins, 67, a boyhood pal from long ago. He is in the Douglas County Jail awaiting transfer to the state penitentiary at El Dorado; there he will be “evaluated” to determine at which of the state’s prisons he will spend the rest of his life.
Larry has been “Hoppy” forever, it seems, since those heady, early days in Lincoln, Kansas, and that brief, sweet moment known as childhood, when life was simple. We were neighbors and played ball and rode bikes together and walked to school, and we wanted to be all the heroes we could be, back when we kicked around in our little town with our friends.
He was a brilliant student, attended Kansas University on an academic scholarship but dropped out in his junior year after his father died (heart attack) at age 46. He had a 20-year Army career, and later joined the Spencer Research Library at KU and became the assistant librarian for special collections, specializing in science fiction. An insatiable reader, half of his 11,500-volume personal library was in science fiction; he remains an expert. But all that was many years before a horrid tide of complexities would lead to his wife’s death and a no-contest plea to a charge of murder.
Hoppy telephones from jail every other evening, each call limited to 15 minutes. This has been the arrangement since his plea hearing on March 27 in Douglas County District Court, and through his sentencing hearing on May 15. It was no surprise when Judge Michael Malone sentenced Hoppy to life in prison with no possibility for parole for 25 years. Hoppy expected that. He knows he will die in prison.
LARRY AND Margaret Thompson were married in October 1989, a hundred days after their first “blind” date, deeply in love and happy – he, recently retired after 20 years in the Army and about to begin his long career at the Spencer Library; she, an accomplished and renowned social worker in Lawrence and Douglas County.
There were 15 or 20 wonderful years, in their tidy little home, its snug and leafy neighborhood.
Margaret had chronic diabetes and it seemed well-managed, but about five years ago, things changed. The afflictions began to mount. Margaret had a mild stroke, a pulmonary embolism, then a knee replacement, later a hysterectomy, another knee replacement, then a second stroke and weeks of physical and occupational therapy. Then
Margaret took a fall and broke her left femur in seven places; surgery took forever, then rehabilitation and therapy in Topeka and, weeks later, she came home to Lawrence in a wheelchair.
Hoppy suffered one stroke, then another. He had several falls, a herniated disc. He had been getting ready for work and fell over. In the emergency room, he had another stroke. He was unconsciousfor a week. Margaret was learning to use a walker.
She began to suffer sleep apnea.
At home one morning, Hoppy turned gray.
Margaret called 911. A routine exam with X-Ray revealed a spot on Hoppy’s left lung. He was sent to the KU Medical Center for surgical biopsy, and during a preliminary stress test doctors discovered four blocked arteries – one 85 percent blocked, two 95 percent and one 100 percent – and performed a quadruple bypass. The operation took a lot of veins. Hoppy’s legs had been savaged, but, as he now says, looking for cancer had saved his life. (The “spot” was benign.)
In the spring of 2012 Margaret had damage to her right rotator cuff repaired. She was in a wheelchair, with one arm of no use. Hoppy had begun to learn to use a walker. The herniated disc, the legs weakened by heart surgery, were too much. No fun, Hoppy recalled.
LARRY AND MARGARET Hopkins shared an anguish of deteriorating health. Margaret‘s special torment, ceaseless pain, came from diabetes, nerve disease, arthritis, bad knees, the wreckage of two heart attacks and multiple strokes. Hoppy could walk only with the aid of a walker.
Their home in Lawrence fell into disrepair, a home once celebrated, even written about in the local paper, for its gardens, its abundance of color and creativity. The couple was caught in what bureaucrats call a “resource gap.” In poor health himself, Hoppy was Margaret’s primary caregiver; he remained proud in spite of his own limits. The couple fit the profile of a caregiver reluctant to ask for help and a patient in an age gap, which kept her from receiving some services; they joined the ranks of growing waiting lists, a backlog due to depleted state funding. Age and income requirements were obstacles. Margaret was not 65. They were poor, but not poor enough. Or old enough.
“He and Margaret were good people, solid people,” said Harry Boyle, the Hopkins’ neighbor to the west. “But there toward the end everything got to be too much.
“When Larry had his trouble – the heart attack and the strokes and all – my wife, Vicki, helped take Margaret to the hospital to see him. But
Margaret had all her problems, too – diabetes, her heart attacks and strokes, and unable to get around, and then falling. Well, it got to be we’d see an ambulance there six or eight times a week.”
“I KNEW in general what it would be like,”
Hoppy said recently. “I went into it with my eyes open … and so what happened to me was immaterial.”
He was talking about that morning, November 5. He rose early and went to the kitchen and made coffee in the little one-cup brewer, and drank cup after cup and smoked about a pack of cigarettes.
Then he put down the cup and went to the bedroom where Margaret lay asleep. He took a Ruger Security Six .357 magnum revolver from a drawer in a bedside table. He held it a foot and a half from Margaret’s head as she lay sleeping, cocked it and pulled the trigger.
“I knew I’d drawn my last breath as a free man, that there’s life in prison and I’d have to live with it. I knew what was going to happen in general terms and accepted it.”
“I LAID the gun down after I fired the shot,”
He called 911 and carried the phone to the front deck at their house, sat down and lit a cigarette. “I was still talking to the (911) operator when I told the operator I heard the siren,” Hoppy said.
The police were there in moments. An officer approached Hoppy as he sat on the deck. “The officer told me to drop the telephone, to move very slowly and keep my hands where he could see them.”
Their lives had become unbearable, Hoppy said.
– JOHN MARSHALL