Enquirer Herald

Was killing mercy or cowardice?

YORK -- Mildred Hartner needed 18 medications to keep her 90-year-old body alive. Her husband of 43 years, 73-year-old Gus, gave her each one. Mildred's dementia, heart, lung trouble and more took up Gus' life.

And Gus, the Marine he always was, even after he tried to fish drowning Marines from a Parris Island swamp in 1956 and was treated for depression forever after, bathed her, fed her, helped Mildred clean herself up after using the bathroom.

So much love, that after a night in which Gus said his wife suffered, Gus took action. Court testimony Thursday showed he gave his wife an Ativan pill for her pain. She lay down in the bed to sleep. Gus took a .25-caliber pistol and shot his wife in the back of the head.

Then Gus took pen to paper. He wrote these words: "I have tried everything I could. No one cares. Mildred has suffered enough. God forgive me. I am sorry."

Then Gus Hartner took more than 80 pills, according to court testimony, and tried to kill himself. Then he called the hairdresser who did his wife's hair every Friday.

But Gus Hartner did not die. The hairdresser called 911. Medical miracle workers, just like other medical miracle workers who have made lives longer but not figured out how to make long lives better, sucked the poison from Gus's stomach. He survived to talk to the cops the next day, admit what he had done, tell them, "I am a coward," then get charged with murder.

What remained was the real world where the law does not have the word "love" written into it. A judge would have to decide if Gus blowing off the back of his suffering wife's head was to keep her from having to endure any more pain, or to allay his own pain of caring for her.

What happened Thursday in court was an easy guilty but mentally ill plea deal where charges were dropped down from murder to voluntary manslaughter. Voluntary manslaughter is called in regular-guy terms a "heat of passion" killing. A judge had no trouble finding Gus Hartner, whom a psychiatrist testified had many ailments and psychiatric treatment for more than 50 years after the Marines incident, both guilty and mentally ill.

But what remained for Gus, after killing his wife and being so remorseful about it, is, "living with that hell for the rest of his life," said his emotional lawyer, Harry Dest.

Dest is the York County chief public defender, almost 20 years defending people accused of death over dope, sex, money, greed, avarice, sloth, hate, meanness. But this was what Dest called a "mercy killing." Never before had Harry Dest had to justify bullets over too much love.

Gus Hartner came into the court in a wheelchair. In Dest's words, a "sad, broken man," guilty of "loving someone too much." Gus would likely not survive prison, Dest told the court.

Yet police and prosecutors said this was no mercy killing. Willy Thompson, deputy solicitor, is an old pro with more than a decade as a prosecutor of the worst cases imaginable. Thursday, Willy Thompson fought tears as he said this was a killing, but mercy for Mildred wasn't part of Gus pulling the trigger. Gus got mercy from taking care of her, he said.

Gus sobbed in that courtroom Thursday. He read a note to the judge he had written himself, just like he wrote his own suicide note after he killed his wife.

Gus read how his wife will always be "on my right shoulder." He read that they met 43 years ago and she would coo to him right to the end, "Tell me a story, sing me a song."

He would sing her a lullaby. She would be sad, and he would ask for her smile. Gus read how four or five times every night, "she would say to me, 'Please don't let them take me away.'"

Gus read, "I know her suffering ended. I know she hears me and has forgiven me. I don't know what I will do without her."

Then Alex Wallace, the detective who arrested Gus -- a cop who spends his life trying to help other people and keep them from getting bullets in the head -- told Judge Larry Hyman Jr., a visiting judge from Horry County, about Gus admitting he was a coward. Wallace agreed.

"I believe he proved it," Wallace said. "He didn't turn the gun on himself. He took away the last years of his wife's life. He deserves to spend the last years of his life in prison."

So now Gus Hartner, wife dead, sat in a wheelchair in a silent courtroom to hear what Hyman the judge would do. The law allows anything from two years to 30 for voluntary manslaughter, but judges can give probation for deaths that are what Hyman called "the least egregious."

Hyman said Gus's love was clear, that his heart told him Gus acted wrongly but honorably, yet men are not "the finger of God."

Hyman stated in court the future of us all. That as medicine advances, people will live longer. But those people who are feeble, and the spouse is feeble and fed up and tired and as destitute as Gus Hartner was after years of care, will multiply until one snaps: "I fear we will see similar acts more often," Hyman said.

Hyman said Gus Hartner, guilty of love and gunshots, should serve seven years in prison.

Gus Hartner did not sob. His lawyer, Dest, grabbed the handles of the wheelchair. Gus, his hands cuffed together, who already lived in "hell" for killing his wife, tried to wave to crying neighbors in the courtroom. Then, Dest pushed Gus forward toward the holding cells, to a near certain death sentence of his own making.