LIBBY - It was an act of love, Darryl Anderson said, an act of compassion and caring and bullets and arson and it didn't have to be that way.
"Basically," Anderson said, "it was a mercy killing, to end the pain. They were good people, but there was terrible pain."
William "Ted" Hardgrove used to visit Anderson - Lincoln County's sheriff - at work, showing off his inventions or detailing his own detective work on the latest unsolved case. He'd stay and chat and sometimes harangue, Anderson said, "and I thought he was just a super old guy."
Hardgrove was 81, just like his wife Swanie. She was known for her baking, and her gardening and her lace-making, and for the fact that she had cerebral palsy as well as other crippling medical problems. In recent weeks, the increasing pain had completely overwhelmed her medication.
On the last Saturday in August, Ted Hardgrove stopped the pain. He moved their valuables out of the Libby-area house and into the garage, then left a note explaining this final, desperate act of love.
He took the household chemicals from the home, took the hunting ammunition and anything else that might explode or burn too hot. Anderson figures Hardgrove was protecting the firemen he knew would come.
Then Hardgrove went back inside, shot his wife, set their home afire and shot himself.
"It was a very carefully planned thing," Anderson said. "He left that note, said he was tired of seeing her suffer so badly, and there was a better place."
But there was also, perhaps, a better way.
"What we want people to know," said Steve Hopcraft, "is there is help and information out there."
Hopcraft works with a nonprofit called Compassion and Choices, a group that offers free end-of-life planning, counseling and options.
"We believe that these tragic and violent deaths are 100 percent preventable," Hopcraft said. "It's a matter, really, of getting the information out."
Information such as the fact that Montana is among three states - Oregon and Washington are the other two - where doctors are allowed to provide what's known as "aid in dying." They can prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients, who can then choose whether and when to use the pills.
Voters in Oregon and Washington approved such measures, which come with safeguards and careful case reporting. In Montana, no such structure exists. Instead, the state Supreme Court ruled last New Year's Eve that no public policy here prohibits aid in dying, so it's legal but largely unregulated.
It's also largely unknown, which is what Hopcraft hopes to change.
"Talking about death can't kill you," he said, "but it can help you have the peaceful death that everyone wants."
His group provides counseling, and help with wills and advance directives. They lay out options, such as hospice, and involve entire families. And they do it for free.
"It's just a phone call," Hopcraft said. A toll-free call to 1-800-247-7421. "You can call any time, at each step along the way. Most of us are total amateurs when it comes to approaching death. We don't know what the options are, or where to get information. Call us; we'll help you understand what's available, so you can make choices."
Most of all, he said, Compassion and Choices helps people communicate. Doctors and patients, patients and family, family and physicians. "Because too often," he said, "failure to communicate ends in less than optimal care."
Or, more tragically, in an anguished couple choosing the only option they think is available.
"No one, no matter what their condition, should feel they have to resort to violence when confronting advanced illness," said Stephen Speckart, retired Missoula oncologist. "Patients need to feel safe talking with their doctors about unbearable symptoms and their feelings of desperation and desire for a peaceful death."
Sheriff Anderson understands, in an abstract kind of way, why his friends chose their end. He does not, however, understand why they chose that end.
"Why the fire?" he wonders. "I don't know. Maybe it was to wipe out everything and leave it clean. We'll never know."
And that, Hopcraft said, is precisely the problem. The friends and family will never know, because no one knew to sit down and consider all the options.
"We all want the same thing," Hopcraft said. "We want to die peacefully, at home, surrounded by the people we love. We want the chance to tell people goodbye."
Ted and Swanie Hardgrove didn't have that chance. Her body was found in an upstairs bathroom, his in the basement. A gun was at his side, the home still smoldering.
"It didn't have to be that way," Anderson said. "I think a lot of people wish it had been different."
Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.