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S&M death raises questions of legal responsibility for dangerous sex

    LYNN, Mass — Adrian Exley was wrapped tightly in heavy plastic, then bound with duct tape. A leather hood was put over his head with a thin plastic straw inserted so that he could breathe, and he was shut up in a closet.
    That, apparently, was the way Exley liked it. But the way it ended — with Exley suffocating — was not what he had in mind when he traveled from Britain for a bondage session with a man he had met through a sadomasochism Web site.
    Exley’s body was discovered in the woods last year, two months after he was bound up in the bondage ‘‘playroom’’ Gary LeBlanc had built in the basement of his suburban Boston home. LeBlanc, a 48-year-old Gulf Oil sales executive, detailed his responsibility in the fatal bondage session in a five-page suicide note, just before he put a gun to his head and killed himself.
    Now the question is: Since Exley consented to the sex play, can LeBlanc be held responsible for his death?
    Exley’s family is suing LeBlanc’s estate for unspecified damages, claiming wrongful death. Many bondage enthusiasts are watching the case closely, seeing it as lesson in where to draw the line of responsibility on consensual but dangerous sex.
    ‘‘There’s definitely the whole spectrum of thought on what really happened — whether it was a consent issue, or negligence or misunderstanding,’’ said Vivienne Kramer, a board member of the New England Leather Alliance. ‘‘Everybody has their own ideas on what should have happened.’’
    Exley and LeBlanc met through an online forum for gay men into rubber, leather and bondage. Exley, a 32-year-old stripper, used the screen name ‘‘Studpup,’’ while LeBlanc called himself ‘‘Rubrman’’ and built a chamber with rubber mats on the floors and walls, chains, leather restraints, rubber suits and a hospital gurney.
    Exley arrived at LeBlanc’s house in Lynn in April 2006 after the pair had exchanged e-mails in which they discussed plans for LeBlanc to play the ‘‘master’’ and Exley his ‘‘slave,’’ according to the lawsuit.
    John Andrews, a lawyer for LeBlanc’s estate, said Exley knew the risks going in. ‘‘What occurred was an act or actions between two consenting adults, both of whom knew what they were doing, and it had a tragic end,’’ he said.
    The lawsuit describes a three-day bondage and discipline session that ended when a third man, Scott Vincent, discovered Exley was not breathing. Exley had been put in a closet while bound in plastic up to his neck and left alone for several hours, according to the lawsuit.
    In his suicide note, LeBlanc admitted that Exley at one point had trouble breathing. But he said that after ‘‘cooling him down,’’ Exley improved. LeBlanc said that he went to sleep about 3 a.m. but was woken up a few hours later by Vincent, who told him Exley was not breathing and was turning blue and cold.
    LeBlanc said he panicked, and he and Vincent drove to Rhode Island, where they buried the body and threw away Exley’s clothing and identification.
    The Rhode Island medical examiner determined that Exley suffocated. Vincent said in a sworn statement that the straw had fallen out of his mouth in the closet.
    Vincent, a flight attendant who is also being sued, is charged with failure to report a death in Rhode Island. But he has not been charged in Massachusetts.
    In his note, LeBlanc said he was ‘‘responsible for a horrible tragedy,’’ adding: ‘‘Had I dealt with the first crisis responsibly, he would likely have returned home safely.’’
    Lawyers for Exley’s estate acknowledge that Exley wanted to participate in a bondage session, but say he did not know about LeBlanc’s reputation as an ‘‘extreme edge player’’ in the world of bondage and sadomasochism.
    ‘‘Just because you are agreeing that you will allow someone to tie you up temporarily as part of role-playing doesn’t mean that you are consenting to be killed or to be left alone or to be abused,’’ attorney Randy Chapman said.
    Several people who came forward after Exley’s death told police that LeBlanc had restrained them and left them alone for long periods, or ignored their requests that he curtail a bondage session.
    Both actions go against the bondage protocols, which say participants must stop if their partner uses a prearranged ‘‘safe word’’ or ‘‘safe signal’’ and must not leave anyone who is bound alone, said Susan Wright, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom.
    Brian Plant, a bondage and sadomasochism practitioner from Kansas, said: ‘‘Nobody goes into these things saying, ‘Oh, well, I’m going to die because of it.’ You reach a point when the line is crossed, and it is no longer consensual.’’
    Kathy Jo Cook, a lawyer who specializes in wrongful death cases, said that when you take away the sensational details of the Exley case, the claim being made by Exley’s estate is the same made in many other wrongful death cases.
    ‘‘The law says if a person causes the death of another person by an act which is either negligent or reckless, that person is liable,’’ Cook said. ‘‘You have a duty to behave reasonably. I think it’s the same thing here, albeit a very strange set of facts.’’
    It was Exley’s mother, Maggie Horner, who decided to sue LeBlanc’s estate.
    ‘‘We decided that we didn’t want Gary’s last wishes being granted when Adrian’s couldn’t be,’’ she said. ‘‘Why should Gary be able to kill my son, bury my son, shoot himself and still get his own way?’’

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