Did assisted suicide group wipe scene clean?

Monday, March 02, 2009

By GREG BLUESTEIN, Associated Press Writer



Members of Georgia-based assisted suicide ring at the center of a growing investigation went to great lengths to hide evidence of their work, authorities say, donning latex gloves, destroying paperwork and bringing along grocery bags to trash items.

The leaders of the assisted suicide ring have never been shy about their mission. The group, known as the Final Exit Network, openly advertises its services online and its former president, Ted Goodwin, even pondered in a newspaper interview about possible prosecution before he was arrested last week.

Yet the organization managed to avoid prosecution since it started in 2004 in part, Georgia authorities say, because its members adhered to strict guidelines to hide the evidence.

The group was compromised by an undercover Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who inflitrated the network. The investigation led to the arrest of four members, including its medical director, who were charged last week with assisted suicide in the death of 58-year-old John Celmer at his home near Atlanta.

The group helps people commit suicide by sending two "exit guides" to show you how to suffocate yourself using helium tanks and a plastic hood. Then, court documents say, the guides are instructed to trash any evidence "to protect the identity of the member and the exit guides."

The helium tanks and other equipment should be thrown in a Dumpster _ preferably a commercial one _ and guides should park in a garage, shielded from inquisitive neighbors. And, authorities say, members are routinely asked to destroy paperwork such as training documents.

Jerry Dincin, who took over as president after Goodwin's arrest, said Monday that the scene is sometimes cleaned as a favor to members who "do not want their family to think of it as a suicide." He also acknowledged that part of the policy is designed to escape scrutiny.

"We've always realized there are prosecutors who would like to come after us. There are plenty of religious prosecutors, people who think this idea is a bad idea," said Dincin. "So we don't drive up and plant a flag on the law saying we're hastening a death."

Georgia authorities say the organization may have been involved in as many as 200 other deaths around the country and that the group's painstaking efforts signal it knowingly violated the state's assisted suicide laws.

"They were trying to avoid detection to make it look like a natural death," said Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead.

The arrests came after an eight-month investigation in which an undercover agent posing as someone bent on suicide infiltrated the group, which bases its work on "The Final Exit," a best-selling suicide manual by British author Derek Humphry.

Humphry said Monday he was leading a fundraising campaign for what he called the ultimate "test case" for the right-to-die movement.

"We're liberal do-gooders. And we're open and above the board. We're not famous, but we're genuine. And we're law abiding," said Humphry, who lives in Oregon. "Yet we were assailed as if we were criminals."

The group's remaining leaders say the charges have had a devastating effect. The group has some $500,000 frozen in state accounts, and can't pay for attorneys _ or even postage, Dincin said.

The Final Exit Network's leaders bristle at the term assisted suicide, saying they don't actively aid suicides but rather support and guide those who decide to end their lives on their own.

Celmer's mother said he had long suffered from throat and mouth cancer, but his doctor told investigators he had made a "remarkable recovery" and was cancer-free at the time of his suicide. Authorities said he may have been embarrassed about his appearance after jaw surgery.

"There was no case linked to them in Georgia until Celmer's death," Bankhead said. "Once it was, an undercover agent was able to infiltrate the network and gather evidence."

Authorities arrested Goodwin, Dr. Lawrence Egbert, the group's medical director, and members Claire Blehr and Nicholas Alex Sheridan. Along with assisted suicide charges, which carry a 5-year prison sentence, they were also charged with tampering with evidence and racketeering.

Goodwin said in a brief interview Monday, "I am innocent."

Egbert and Sheridan were booked Monday, and each was released after posting $66,000 bond.


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