Atlanta – As authorities try to determine how many deaths nationwide may be linked to an alleged assisted suicide ring, members of the group known as the Final Exit Network are defending a mission they call “self-deliverance.”
The network’s president, its medical director and two other members were charged Wednesday in the death of John Celmer, a 58-year-old Georgia man who suffered for years from cancer of the throat and mouth. They each face up to five years in prison if convicted on assisted suicide charges.
Members bristle at the term assisted suicide, saying they don’t play an active role in a person’s death, but rather support and guide those who decide to end their lives on their own. Authorities say new members pay a $50 fee and are vetted through an application process.
Those seeking to end their lives are assigned a guide who instructs them to purchase two new helium tanks and a hood, known as an “exit bag.” Authorities say it’s consistent with the way Celmer died – suffocation due to inhalation.
When the member is ready, authorities said, he or she is visited by the exit guide and a senior exit guide to lead them through the process.
“We’re just there to help,” said Jerry Dincin, vice president of the 3,000-member Final Exit Network, who was not among those arrested. “People insist upon it. They want to do what they want to do. They’re suffering, and if they have intolerable pain, then they want to sometimes get out of that intolerable pain.”
Celmer’s mother, Betty, said he had undergone extensive surgery and had several more rounds to go. She contends group members shouldn’t face charges if they helped her son.
“If they helped John to die, that is what he wanted,” she said. “I would never find them guilty for helping him.”
A search warrant filed in DeKalb County said that agents interviewing Celmer’s doctor were told he was cancer free at the time of his death and that he was making a “remarkable recovery.”
Agents were told he was still in pain due to arthritis, but it could have been lessened if he took his medication properly and stopped drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, according to the warrant.
The network is at the center of a wide-ranging investigation that led to raids in nine states this week.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many other deaths are being investigated. Authorities in Arizona said they were looking into whether the group helped a Phoenix woman die in April 2007.
Authorities there and in Georgia said search warrants were executed at 14 sites in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Montana.
Group members Thomas E. Goodwin, identified as the organization’s president, and Claire Blehr were arrested Wednesday at a home in northern Georgia in connection with Celmer’s death in Cumming, about 35 miles north of Atlanta, 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.
The pair were scheduled to make a first court appearance Friday. 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. They were scheduled for an extradition hearing Friday.
In addition to assisted suicide, the four were charged with tampering with evidence and a violation of Georgia’s anti-racketeering act.
In an interview, Dincin called the arrests “ridiculous” but acknowledged he could be next. He said network members are encouraged to order “The Final Exit,” a best-selling book that outlines how they can end their lives through “self-deliverance,” described as the practice of taking one’s own life to escape suffering.
“This method does not involve any other person directly, although a loved one or friend should ideally be present,” an excerpt read. “It is legal in all respects, and widely accepted ethically.”
But Georgia authorities say the group violated Georgia law, which defines assisted suicide as anyone publicly advertising or offering to “intentionally and actively assist another person.”
Dincin said his group will fight the charges in court.
“We just hold their hand,” he said. “We’re there for them for support – they read the information, they purchase the materials if that’s what they want to do.”
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