Thomas Houck accepted that his wife could no longer endure the physical and mental suffering that began when she was a teenager and worsened as her senior years drew near.
In the roughly 12 years the Eden Prairie couple were married, Houck was there for his wife’s every need as her condition — the pain, the depression, the weakness — forced her to quit her job, shun family gatherings and live as a recluse.
When she was ready to end her life last summer, he helped her do it and then hid the incriminating evidence.
For that, he has a felony conviction on his record — and his mother-in-law’s love and gratitude.
Houck pleaded guilty last week to assisting suicide and was sentenced to 90 days in the workhouse in the asphyxiation death of 59-year-old Linda I. Conrad, who suffered from chronic migraines, severe stomach pain, allergies and depression.
Houck’s sentence from Hennepin County District Judge Kathryn Quaintance also includes three years’ probation, 90 days of community service and $1,078 in fines and fees. Five days were trimmed off his workhouse term for the time he was jailed after his arrest.
Quaintance granted the defense’s request that if Houck, 61, abides by the terms of his probation, the conviction will be reduced to a misdemeanor on his otherwise clean criminal history. The prosecution argued for the conviction to remain a felony.
The statute calls for up to 15 years in prison upon conviction for assisted suicide, and there is no state guideline for what punishment should be imposed.
Houck’s attorney, Earl Gray, said his research showed that Houck’s sentence for that crime is typical around the state. “It was a just plea agreement and sentence,” he said.
Gray added that letters in his support from Conrad’s friends and family contributed to the sentencing terms.
“I feel great sadness that Thom is facing punishment for helping Linda end her suffering regardless of the consequences to himself,” Conrad’s mother-in-law, 88-year-old Irene Rantala, wrote in her letter to the judge. “No one could have loved and supported Linda any more than Thom did. Thom is a sweet and caring soul. I love Thom, and I want nothing but the very best for him.”
County Attorney Mike Freeman said Houck’s case “was challenging in large part because we have very little experience with these types of cases in Hennepin County and throughout Minnesota. … We sought the strongest penalty we could. The judge gave him a lighter sentence probably because both the mother and ex-husband of the victim sent letters of support on Mr. Houck’s behalf.”
Karen Ziegelman was a friend of Houck’s and considered Conrad a stepsister because Ziegelman’s father had a relationship with Conrad’s mother that lasted 30 years.
Ziegelman wrote to the judge, “I hope you understand that Linda was eventually going to take her life one way or another. … I believe he did what he felt he had to do to help end her suffering. … Nothing is going to bring Linda back, and she would be devastated to know what Thom is going through.”
‘Needed a way out’
Houck called 911 at 2:20 a.m. on Aug. 16 and told the dispatcher that he awoke in the middle of the night to find his wife had “euthanized herself,” according to the criminal complaint.
When police arrived at the home in the 18200 block of Cascade Drive, they found Conrad dead and a handwritten note nearby. It said she “could not endure any more pain and needed a way out of the pain,” the complaint read.
Neighbors said they had not seen Conrad leave the home in the four or so years since she and Houck were injured in a crash, Conrad more seriously than her husband.
Conrad had medical problems ever since she was a child, said Tim Conrad, who married her in 1987 and remained a close friend since their divorce in 2006.
“She basically went for the last three weeks without a meal,” Conrad’s former husband said at the time Houck was charged. “It was snowballing. … But [doctors] wouldn’t give her any pain medication because of the opioid crisis.”
Houck admitted helping his wife research various suicide methods and assisted her as she took her life, according to the complaint.
On the day before her death, they went to a store together and bought supplies, then he discarded the receipts.
After Houck assisted Conrad in the act, he checked for her pulse. Nothing.
Later, Houck drove to a nearby store and threw away the gloves he had on. He called 911 several hours later.
“She wanted a way to get out of her body,” said Tim Conrad in his presentencing letter to the judge. “I believe Thom deserves praise for a job well done and nothing less.”