Four members of the Final Exit Network
, a volunteer organization which helps terminally-ill members "hasten their death," were arrested in Georgia and Maryland Wednesday on charges of helping a 58-year-old man commit suicide.
Now authorities have search warrants to investigate members of the Final Exit Network in seven other states -- including Missouri.
The St. Louis chapter of Final Exit held its first organizational meeting earlier this month, and one of the national board members, Dalton Baker, lives here.
Baker has given many speeches about Final Exit and its mission and also serves as an "exit guide." Exit guides counsel members about how to prepare for their "final exits" and sit with them during the act.
"Final Exit Network does not 'assist' suicide in any way, nor do we encourage individuals to
hasten their deaths," the organization's president, Jerry Dincin, said in a statement Thursday.
In a speech to the St. Louis chapter, Dincin noted that the mission of the group is to relieve suffering. He said it is not illegal to be in the same room with someone who is committing suicide and that members are free to change their minds at any point in the procedure.
Nonetheless, local group members are concerned about the implications of the Georgia case.
"It could be big trouble for the organization if the charges are legitimate," says Ann Mandelstamm, president of the St. Louis chapter. "If [the four arrested members] are convicted, it could shut down the organization. Dalton is very shaken up."
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation
began looking into the Final Exit Network after the June 2008 death of John Celmer, a 58-year-old Georgia man who was suffering from throat cancer. A GBI agent posed as a terminally-ill pancreatic cancer patient, paid the $50 membership fee and began taking the steps to end his life.
A Georgia medical examiner provided "proof" that the agent was, indeed, terminally ill in the form of a letter, which was vetted by Final Exit's medical expert, Dr. Lawrence Egbert of Baltimore.
Two exit guides, Thomas "Ted" Goodwin and Claire Bleher, visited the agent at his home and advised him on where to obtain two tanks of helium and a plastic hood. Final Exit recommendeds helium inhalation because it is a relatively painless way to commit suicide and leaves no traces.
An estimated 130 people have "exited" this way since the organization was founded four years ago.
GBI agents and police burst into the agent's home just as Goodwin was allegedly demonstrating how guides hold down members' hands so they don't try to pull off the hood. (Dincin later told the Associated Press that this is not a standard part of the final exit. "We just hold their hands," he said.)
Goodwin and Bleher were arrested on charges of assisted suicide, tampering with evidence and for violating Georgia's anti-racketeering laws. Police in Baltimore arrested Egbert and Nicholas Alan Sheridan, Final Exit's regional coordinator.
Goodwin and Bleher were released on bond Thursday night. Egbert and Sheridan remain in police custody.
In St. Louis, members are bewildered by Wednesday's events.
"I think it's truly scary because somebody posed as a member of the group who wanted to exit," Mandelstamm says. "I don't know how it was OK'ed."
Mandelstamm also believes the GBI agent's "exit" did not follow normal procedure.
"Before the final exit," she explains, "exit guides bring the member a form that they're supposed to sign saying they're exiting on their own free will, then they take the letter back. In this case, no one signed the form because the police arrived on the scene."
With the search warrants and resulting seizure of computers and cell phones, communication between members of the network has been cut off, Mandelstamm says. She thinks, however, that authorities are targeting national board members first, then the 58 exit guides. Mandelstamm is not an exit guide herself.
Final Exit has anticipated legal problems for its entire existence. In 2006, Goodwin, then the organization's president, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
: "We feel there will be a prosecution based on political reasons. It's
pretty dicey business. We try to stay under the radar screen. But we
are willing to take that risk to do the compassionate work that needs
to be done."
Whatever happens, Mandelstamm thinks Wednesday's arrests will change Final Exit forever.
"If Final Exit did wrong," she says, "we'll face up to it. We'll see. We could be shut down. Or it could get people talking about end-of-life issues. When I was young no one mentioned cancer out loud. There's a secret phase, and then a scary phase and then it's out in the open."