Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Forsyth County grand jury indicts members of assisted suicide network

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

I want to inform people about the progress of the Georgia case.  This arraignment means we can start to question the basis for the charges, and examine any evidence and witnesses that the prosecutor has collected, so it is not a bad thing.  We still expect the trial to be in 2011.


With love and gratitude,



Forsyth County grand jury indicts members of assisted suicide network

By Rhonda Cook

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

6:13 p.m. Tuesday, March 9, 2010


A Forsyth County Grand jury said four members of the right-to-die group, the Final Exit Network, operated a criminal enterprise that helped people die.

An indictment returned Tuesday charges the Final Exit Network along with co-founder Thomas "Ted" Goodwin, 64, of Kennesaw and Punta Gorda, Fla.; Claire Blehr, 77, of Atlanta; and Dr. Lawrence Egbert, 82,  and Nicholas Alec Sheridan, 61, of Baltimore with violating Georgia’s RICO Act, assisting a suicide and tampering with evidence. The four are to be arraigned in Forsyth Superior Court on April 1.

The indictment – the first of its kind in Georgia – was returned more than a year after the four were arrested for allegedly helping John Celmer, 58, die by breathing helium pumped into a plastic hood secured over his head. The four also were allegedly involved in helping plan the suicide of an undercover Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who was claiming to have pancreatic cancer.

All four have been free on bond since the arrests on Feb. 25, 2009.

“There is a lot of information, so it took a long time for the GBI to complete its investigation even after the arrests were made and we had to … review all that,” District Attorney Penny Penn said.

She said Celmer’s death and the planned death of the agent were the basis for the racketeering charge.

A racketeering conviction could bring up to 20 years in prison, tampering with evidence has a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison, and assisting a suicide carries a five-year prison sentence.

Defense attorneys told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they are confident they will prevail.

“I think the prosecutor is misguided,” said attorney Bob Rubin, who represents Blehr.

The arrests of the Final Exit Network members last year sparked a spirited debate about the morality – and the legality – of assisted suicide in Georgia.

The Final Exit Network promotes on its Web site "our right to die a peaceful and painless death at the time and place of our choosing." The group describes taking one’s life as "self deliverance."

The group members claim there is a thorough screening of those asking for help “hastening” their deaths and only those who have incurable illnesses are accepted and issued an instruction book.

A tank of helium and a plastic hood leads to death by suffocation and the gas escapes, leaving no evidence that the death was intentional, according to authorities. An “exit guide” who is at the death bed offers emotional support and then takes away the tank and any other evidence of the suicide, leading family members and authorities to suspect the death was natural.

That pattern was repeated in Celmer’s death, according to authorities.

Though Celmer had cancer, his doctor said he was not dying. Still, his death was initially blamed on his health issues.

But his family found in his Cumming townhouse information about the Final Exit Network and notes of conversations Celmer had with at least one network member about "coordinating my demise." They found in his papers a receipt for two tanks of helium bought a few weeks before his death, according to an affidavit for the arrest warrant.

The affidavit also noted that Celmer was concerned about his appearance after surgeries to repair his deteriorated jaw and to graft over a hole in his lower jaw.

Once an investigation was opened, a GBI agent, posing as a Dawson County man dying of pancreatic cancer, applied for the Final Exit Network's help.

According to the charges, Goodwin walked the undercover agent through the steps that would have killed him. Goodwin allegedly demonstrated how he would hold down the agent’s hands to prohibit him from removing the "exit bag." That is when other agents came in and arrested Goodwin, according to the GBI.

Blehr, an "exit guide," allegedly was to have been there as well, but she had a car accident on the way and was detained.

Egbert, also a co-founder, was the group’s medical director, and he has said he signed off on more than 200 requests for help dying, allegedly including Celmer’s and the agent’s, before he was arrested last year. Sheridan was allegedly the initial contact Celmer and the undercover agent had when they called the Cobb County-based Final Exit Network.

Goodwin has said he personally witnessed more than a dozen deaths.

In December, Montana became the third state to allow physician-assisted suicides. It is also legal in Oregon and Washington.

In January, Wye Hale-Row pleaded guilty to assisting a Phoenix woman, who killed herself in 2007. Hale-Row was one of four Final Exit Network members indicted following the death of Jana Van Voorhis. The cases against the three other defendants are still pending.

Van Voorhis was found dead in her home on April 15, 2007 and an autopsy showed she died from helium asphyxiation. However, authorities say Van Voorhis was not terminally ill at the time and suffered from mental-health issues and depression.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report

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