ATLANTA – A wide-ranging investigation into an alleged suicide assistance ring led to charges against four people and raids in nine states as authorities looked into how many deaths might have been involved.
Four members of the Final Exit Network were charged Wednesday with helping a 58-year-old Georgia man end his life by inhaling helium. The group assigns those seeking to end their lives a guide who instructs them to purchase two new helium tanks and a hood, known as an "exit bag," the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said.
It wasn't immediately clear how many deaths were being investigated by law enforcement agencies that include the FBI, but authorities in Arizona were looking into whether a death there involved the group.
Group members Thomas E. Goodwin, who was identified as the organization's president, and Claire Blehr, a member, were both arrested Wednesday at a home in northern Georgia, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said. The arrests came after a sting operation in which an undercover agent posed as a member of the group.
Maryland authorities arrested the organization's medical director, Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert, 81, of Baltimore, and Nicholas Alec Sheridan, a Baltimore man who is a regional coordinator for the group.
The four were charged with assisted suicide, tampering with evidence and a violation of Georgia's anti-racketeering act.
Their charges stem from the June 2008 death of John Celmer in an assisted suicide in Cumming, about 35 miles north of Atlanta, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead.
Betty Celmer, the man's mother, said her son had suffered for years from cancer of the throat and mouth and that he had undergone extensive surgery with several more rounds to go.
"I know he was depressed, he called me every single Sunday," said Celmer, who is 85. She said she was suspicious of his death, but his siblings have denied it could have been suicide.
She contended that the group shouldn't face charges if they helped her son.
"If they helped John to die, that is what he wanted. I would never find them guilty for helping him," she said.
Authorities were executing search warrants at 14 sites in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Montana, according to the GBI and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in Arizona. Included in the searches were a group office in Georgia and a company in Montana that authorities said supplied items used in suicides.
Also raided were the homes of group volunteers in the other seven states.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said Arizona detectives are investigating whether the group assisted in a Phoenix woman's death.
Bankhead said new members of the group pay a $50 fee and follow an application process. When ready to commit suicide, the member is led through the process by two guides, he said.
The group's vice president said it supports those with irreversible illnesses who choose to end their lives, but its volunteers don't actively participate in the life-ending procedures. The group started in 2004 and has 3,000 dues-paying members.
"When they choose to exit, as we call it, we just hold their hand. That's about it," said Jerry Dincin, who's also a clinical psychologist in Chicago.
He said members are given a book, "The Final Exit," that outlines how they can end their lives. He said volunteers never encourage the members to commit suicide, but support them if that's their choice.