Four members of the Final Exit Network, an organization that helps terminally ill members "hasten their death," were arrested in Georgia and Maryland on Wednesday, February 25, and charged with 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 in February. One of the group's 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.
Still, 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 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.
Two exit guides visited the agent at his home and advised him on where to obtain two tanks of helium and a plastic hood. Final Exit recommends 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.
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 OKed."
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."
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."