A grand jury has indicted a Marietta-based organization on charges of helping a Cumming man end his life.
The indictment, filed Tuesday in Forsyth County Superior Court, accuses the Final Exit Network, as well as four of its members, with each offering to assist in the commission of a suicide and tampering with evidence.
They are also charged with violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act.
Thomas Goodwin, 64, Claire Blehr, 77, Nicholas Sheridan, 61, and Lawrence Egbert, 82, each face a maximum of 35 years in prison if convicted on all charges.
Goodwin, who lives in Kennesaw and Florida, and Blehr of Atlanta were arrested in February 2009 in connection with the assisted suicide of 58-year-old Thomas Celmer of Jasmine Court.
Sheridan and Egbert, both of Maryland, were also arrested in connection with Celmer’s death on June 20, 2008.
The indictment identifies Goodwin as a founder, member and president of Final Exit.
It describes Blehr as a member and “exit guide,” Sheridan as a member and Southeast regional coordinator and Egbert as a member and medical director for the organization.
Each defendant has his or her own attorney.
Blehr’s attorney, Bob Rubin, said he is reviewing the indictment.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this,” he said. “I know our clients have been waiting a long time to see if this case was going to get indicted and what the indictment was going to look at.”
Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn said arraignments for each defendant are scheduled for April 1.
Penn said she was not sure if the case would go to trial by the end of the year.
“That’s going to depend on what motions they file,” she said. “I don’t know.”
Penn also said funds seized by the state in connection with the arrests have been released.
Forsyth County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley ruled in October that the state had to return $330,000 taken from the network and World Right to Die Societies because the prosecution took too long to file its complaint against the defendants.
Penn said she did not know if the groups have received the money.
The case, believed to be Georgia’s first involving assisted suicide, has launched a nationwide investigation into the group’s activities.
According to a 29-page affidavit, Celmer’s death was ruled asphyxia suffocation as a result of inhaling helium and listed as a homicide.
The indictment maintains Celmer was in remission from cancer in April 2008 when he called the organization using a number advertised for providing “exit guide” services.
It goes on to say that after talking with Sheridan and paying a $50 membership fee, Celmer e-mailed part of his medical records and a “written statement of his desire to hasten his death” to Sheridan.
That following May, Egbert allegedly “approved [Final Exit] in assisting Celmer to commit suicide,” but did not conduct a physical or mental exam, nor did he meet or speak with Celmer, the indictment shows.
According to the indictment, Blehr met Celmer at the man’s home and had him sign documents entitled “Request for Volunteer Exit Guide Support” and “Statement of My Decision After Medical Advice.”
An ensuing discussion of security concerns reportedly included Celmer’s relationship with his wife and “her potential interference” with the group’s assistance.
Celmer bought two helium tanks at a store in Cumming, the document shows.
On June 19, 2008, Blehr and Goodwin went to Celmer’s house. According to the indictment, the "exit hood" was connected to a helium tank and put over his head.
The indictment continued, “The helium tank was turned on and Claire Blehr and Thomas Goodwin held Celmer’s hands while he inhaled helium through the hood.”
It also contends that Blehr and Goodwin stayed for 15 minutes to make sure Celmer was dead, then removed the hood, tanks and Final Exit documents from his home.
However, the affidavit shows that Celmer’s wife found Final Exit documents on his computer and Final Exit books in a room in his home.
She also found a typed letter dated May 1, 2008, indicating he wanted to pursue a “helium-induced methodology for the purposes of coordinating my demise.”
The letter was addressed to Sheridan and appeared to seek help from the organization, the affidavit said.
Information published on Final Exit’s Web site no longer lists Goodwin as the group’s president.
The site also shows that the group and its members do not “encourage anyone to end their life, do not provide the means to do so and do not actively assist in a person’s death. We do, however, support them when medical circumstances warrant their decision.”