On November 19, 2016, Johnny Asia died in his home in Phoenicia, after ingesting brandy mixed with a variety of medications. His wife, Solane Verraine, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
The charge was later downgraded to manslaughter and assisted suicide. She was kept in the Ulster County jail without bail for over a year as law enforcement investigated and the court pondered her fate. Solane was finally offered a plea bargain by Ulster County Supreme Court Justice Don Williams. She pled guilty, and Williams sentenced her to two to seven years in state prison, shocking observers who expected she’d be released, based on time already served. The next day, he reversed his decision, after spending the night wrestling with his thoughts about the case. Solane was released on February 22, 2018. After staying with friends, she returned to Phoenicia and is now living alone in a small, neat apartment.
My husband, Sparrow, and I live in Phoenicia and were friends with Johnny in the early 2000s. For two summers, he used a patch of our garden to grow vegetables. At a couple of parties at our house, he played long, dazzling solo guitar improvisations. We drifted away from the relationship several years before he met Solane. In 2014, the couple asked Sparrow to perform a marriage ceremony for them —not a legal one, but it served to make their vows public. A year later, Sparrow presided over a second ceremony, renewing their vows.
On September 24, six months after Solane’s release from jail, she and I sat in her apartment and talked about her years with Johnny and her life since his passing. On the living room wall is a white guitar that belonged to Johnny. Small tables, draped in white or purple cloths, hold candles, feathers, a rosary, a Bible, a chunk of amethyst, a statue of the Buddhist goddess Kwan Yin. Among the several photos of Johnny is one with words written at the bottom: “May 23, 1951 – November 19, 2016 / Missing you today, remembering you forever.”
Let’s start with where you grew up and the family you grew up in.
SOLANE VERRAINE: I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, the eldest of four children. My dad was a design engineer who worked at Ford Motor Company and later as a consultant. My mom was a homemaker but was very involved in local politics and community activities. She was a Girl Scout leader, and she was on the school board for a while.
I was a very good student, graduated, and went to Michigan State University. I got degrees in social work and child development and went on to an advanced standing graduate program and received a masters in social work.
You lived in the Southwest for a while, didn’t you?
SV: I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for almost 30 years. I worked as a social worker and did private counseling. In 1993, I became very involved with my first spiritual teachers, Gangaji and Eli Jaxon Bear. I was part of their organization and was like a teacher/mentor in Eli’s Leela Foundation, combining social work and the spiritual offerings I received through them. I went there because of my second husband. I also worked with my second husband as the office manager and co-owner of a newspaper he ran.
How did you meet Johnny?
I met Johnny online.
When did you move to Phoenicia?
We knew right off I was going to be here. I had a bad car accident in 2012, and things got delayed. I had a lot of repair, therapy, this and that, and was involved in a lawsuit that finally got mediated. I had a lot of injuries.
There was some back and forth starting in 2014, but all my stuff completely got here in early spring of 2015.
What drew you to Johnny?
We were supposed to be together. [Tears come to her eyes.] The obvious. Anybody who meets Johnny, it’s obvious what’s wonderful about him. He’s amazingly good-looking, intelligent, creative, spiritual. I recognized right off, he had the capacity to love. A huge, huge, massive capacity to love.
It sounds intense.
Oh, my goodness. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s putting it mildly.
What did you like to do together?
Before I got here, we were on Skype for pretty much 24/7, from the beginning of 2012. When I got here, he was sick. Sicker than people knew. He wasn’t in a lot of personal contact with many people, especially by 2013. People noticed a downhill turn, from what I heard. On Skype even. [Takes a deep, shaky breath and pauses.]
I used to see you out walking together.
SV: When he was well enough, we loved to walk. There were therapeutic reasons why he needed to get up and walk. As badly as he felt, it was hard. But we loved to walk. We enjoyed nature very very much. We loved sharing healthy meals. He couldn’t cook, only maybe a couple of times in the whole time could he be up long enough to cook. For a period he could be on the Internet for a little bit. Sitting was extremely painful for the back condition he had. We loved to listen to music. I’ve always loved music, but he opened my music world.
What kind of music did you listen to?
All kinds. Most every day he’d choose a special love song for me.
You were his nurse at that point.
I was his nurse, wife, secretary. Our wedding day was last time he could actually get up and take a shower. I bathed him after that. A couple times he could shave himself, but mostly I shaved him.
We loved to play card games. Occasionally it would be a little competitive, but we liked to help each other win. “Oh, you need this card? Well, I have this card.” We used to say “cookie.” “You need this cookie?” He was very sweet.
That must have been hard for you as he was declining.
[Long silence.] Before we go on, I have to take a little break. This is more intense than I expected. I had no expectations. Blessedly, I didn’t think too much about it. [Leaves the apartment for a few puffs of a cigarette, then returns.]
I had every feeling you can imagine. Anxiety, fear, sadness. He was actually admitted to the hospital eight times within two years, for anywhere from three weeks to three or four days. At times they wouldn’t admit him because they said they wouldn’t deal with structural issues. There were times when I called, and he said, “I’m not going.” There were times when I had to scream at the doctors to get him admitted. I’d swear at them. When they wouldn’t admit him, they said he needed to go to a specialist. With a huge amount of resistance on his part, I finally demanded he go to the specialist, the back doctor. He got MRIs and some diagnosis. He had several back conditions. If there’s going to be surgery with spondylolisthesis, you need six months to one and a half years of physical therapy before the surgery. He also had an enlarged disc and spinal arthritis and spinal stenosis. That’s just in the back, and there were so many other issues, a progressive degenerative condition he was born with, arthritis, systemic Lyme disease.
Each time he’d go in the hospital, we’d get excited, maybe he’d get a fresh start. They also detoxed him from the alcohol each time, which he’d had longer than people know. He was drinking a lot, progressively more and more because they gave him a few doses of pain med, but it’s a narcotic, addictive, and he did overuse them. I would take them, and he would sneak them, and so he’d run out of them. It was a whole bind, how can we get to the doctor without pain medication?
Two or three times I made an appointment for the pain management clinic, and he would refuse to go. He’d look online and look at the options they had there. He’d say, “I’ve tried that, the patches, the physical therapy.” Twice I got him a prescription to go to physical therapy in Boiceville, and he would not go. He was not what you would call a compliant patient.
Was he still playing guitar?
Not much at all. His last public concert was in the summer of 2012. There were several opportunities. He got invited to New York City to play. He said, “I don’t have it any more.” He was in a very deep depression. Later, on top of the depression, was an inability to sit long enough.
Did he play at all at home?
A little. Toward the end, with enough beer, he could get pain-free enough to play for an hour. When he was well, he said, he would practice six hours a day. I wanted him to play, and there was tension between us at those times. He was also forgetting a lot of his own music, from the depression and the alcohol. His brain was not functioning, and that was painful for him. too. But he tried. Till he just couldn’t try any more. [I] always had to gauge, ok we want to go for a walk, you have this much energy, practice guitar, work a little in garden. Had to make a choice. He was so tired all the time.
How did you cope? It seemed like a 24/7 crisis.
That’s exactly right, a 24/7 crisis. People saw us out enjoying [a walk], but I was always on edge. How far could he go without being down for three days afterwards? When he could, he would push the limits. Okay, is he going to fall in the middle of nowhere? We went hiking in the woods a few times. It was profoundly beautiful and profoundly stressful.
When he started — I’m sorry to have to ask you this, but it’s — when did he start talking about wanting to die?
May 2012. It was pretty much ongoing, on and off from them.
And when did he start asking you to help him die?
[Gets up and walks into bathroom, panting slightly, then returns.] It seems so cold to put this down in a newspaper. I thought I was ready for this. I didn’t expect to have that strong a reaction.
We could skip to jail.
Jail was not that bad. It just was not.
Even though you were being arrested right after your husband died.
I was in shock. There had been discussion between Johnny and I — I’m not ready to tell the whole thing. As it finally came down to, he said, “You know you’re probably going to be in trouble.” And I said, “I’ve been in tough places before — I’ll manage.” I knew that, but I was in denial that I could be in trouble. I really thought people could just hear what happened and…
So you weren’t surprised.
I was surprised. Watching your husband die, and what kind of state you’re in at that point. I read a lot in jail. I remember reading a book called Ahab’s Wife. One character lost a child, and the women in the family gathered around her. She could throw herself off the rocks at this point, and I thought, they get that kind of loss. When you lose something dear to you, you don’t….I was surprised when I got arrested.
But once you got to jail…
I went back and forth. It’s a hard place to grieve. I couldn’t decide…I was in such grief, it was better I didn’t have to deal with going and getting food, I just had to eat. I did not have the grace of a formal ceremony. I did have some pictures, but can’t put them on the wall. I didn’t have any of his clothes — it would’ve been nice to just…but jail was not bad. It’s not what you think — at least it wasn’t for me. I was treated very well. Amazingly well. Awesomely well.
How did you feel during the ongoing process when the court was deciding what should be done?
I knew right off the murder charge wouldn’t stick. I was extremely relieved when the assisted suicide charge came from the grand jury. My lawyer said just hold on, there’s nothing here, just a process they have to go through, don’t worry.
Still, it was quite a long time you were in jail.
Quite a long time. Except…[Long pause.] Someone, an inmate, made the comment, “You’re in jail, but not you’re not in jail, are you?” I said, “No, I’m not in jail.” She said, “I’d like to be where you are.”
How did you feel when you were sentenced to two to seven years?
I was ecstatic. Everyone else around me was disappointed. I have so much respect for Judge Williams. I could see his point he made. It was not capricious. I could see how well thought-out it had been. I was in awe of him. I said to somebody, “I feel like I’m in church right now.” His point was, “I’m not a legislator.” If spending some time in prison will help legislate, I’m happy to do it. It’s about more than just me and Johnny. Bringing attention to the issue [of assisted suicide] could change things in a larger way.
Everybody in jail was like, “You don’t belong here.” They said that within the first week. Everyone said, “You’re a good inmate, you’ll get the lower end [of the sentence].” I’m fairly intuitive, and I said, “I think I’m going to get the middle.” There are these things between me and Johnny, knowings, signs. On the way to the sentencing, I knew it was going to be all right.
And the next morning the judge changed his mind. What was that like?
I was happy. Grateful is a better word. Extremely grateful. There were a couple of people who had said, when you’re done, you can stay here until something opens up for you. I was blessed. The system does fall short for many people that aren’t as blessed as I am to have the support. Some people, if they don’t have a ride, they’re given their little bag and [waves good-bye].
Tell me how it’s been since then.
There’s been challenges. But I’ve been supported in amazing ways.
How has the whole experience changed you?
That would take a book. Meeting Johnny was the most blessed thing that’s ever happened in my life.