What is believed to be Georgia’s first assisted suicide trial likely will unfold in Forsyth County.
Forsyth County District Attorney Penny Penn said her office will prosecute the case of a 58-year-old Cumming man whose death authorities contend was the result of help from a right-to-die organization.
The suspicions of Forsyth County Coroner Lauren McDonald and others arose shortly after John Celmer’s wife found his body June 20 in his Jasmine Court home.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested two of the suspects Wednesday in Dawson County as the result of an undercover operation.
According to a 29-page affidavit filed in Forsyth County Superior Court, a GBI agent posing as a pancreatic cancer patient gained the group’s trust and learned its methods.
Claire Blehr, 76, of Atlanta and Thomas E. Goodwin, 63, of Florida and Kennesaw have been charged with assisted suicide, tampering with evidence and violation of the Georgia Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act.
Blehr and Goodwin were released from the Forsyth County Detention Center on Thursday night after each posted $66,000 bond.
Authorities in Maryland, with GBI assistance, have also arrested and charged Lawrence D. Egbert, 81, and Nicholas Sheridan, 60, for the same offenses. Both are from Baltimore. More arrests could be made.
Goodwin is president of the Final Exit Network, according to the organization's Web site. The other suspects are believed to be members of the Marietta-based right-to-die group.
Penn said Egbert and Sheridan have waived their right to extradition and will have to turn themselves in. She said she expects they will be able to make bond.
She said the suspects, if convicted, each face maximum sentences of 20 years for the RICO violation, five years for assisted suicide and three years for the tampering charge.
Authorities said the arrests were the result of the investigation into Final Exit that was triggered by Celmer’s death.
The affidavit said the cause of death was ruled asphyxia suffocation as a result of inhaling helium. The document said the manner of death was ruled a homicide.
Penn said the warrants on all four suspects originate in Forsyth County, where they will be tried.
“Other states may decide to open investigations on Final Exit, but those would be their cases,” she said.
Penn said the case is a first for her and for Georgia.
“I am not aware in all of my years of being in criminal law of an assisted suicide case in the state,” she said.
The GBI released a statement Wednesday crediting McDonald, Cumming police and Celmer’s family in the case.
In addition to his wife, Celmer's obituary said he was survived by his mother, three children, eight grandchildren and other relatives.
Attempts to reach family members have not been successful.
McDonald said Celmer, who ran a dry cleaning business and lived in a condominium a street away from his wife, had suffered from cancer but was not terminally ill at the time of his death. Celmer's wife took care of him.
He said Celmer’s death was made to look natural, but his body was “almost too perfect.”
According to the GBI report, authorities learned the method used in the Cumming assisted suicide involved helium inhalation.
The report explained that after paying $50 and completing an application process for the network, a member is visited by an “exit guide.”
According to the report, the member is told to buy two helium tanks of a specific size and brand and a hood known as an “exit bag.”
On the day of the planned death, an “exit guide” and a “senior exit guide” visit the member to take him or her through the process.
According to the affidavit, Blehr told the undercover agent that she and Goodwin, the senior exit guide, “would prevent him from pulling the hood off his head.”
Information published on Final Exit’s Web site shows that the volunteer organization is “dedicated to serving people who are suffering from an intolerable condition.”
The site goes on to say that Final Exit volunteers offer counseling, support and guidance to “self-deliverance at a time and place of your choosing, but you always do the choosing.”
The site says the group will “never encourage you to hasten your death.”
The affidavit said Celmer’s wife found Final Exit paperwork on his computer when cleaning his room after his death. Final Exit books also were found in his room.
She also discovered a typed letter, dated May 1, which indicated Celmer 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 Final Exit, the affidavit said.
Celmer also assured the organization that if members didn't help him he would pursue other measures.
The affidavit provides details of Celmer’s medical history as well.
Details of an interview with Celmer’s oncologist show that he previously had neck and head cancer, but was free of it at the time of his death.
He was also making a “remarkable recovery” from two recent surgeries to repair his deteriorated jaw and a skin graft.
The document said the surgeries left Celmer concerned about his appearance and his doctor had arranged for him to meet June 23 with a psychiatrist.
The affidavit also cites as part of the investigation conversations one of Celmer’s children had with Goodwin and Blehr after the death.
Through the conversations, investigators learned that within 20 seconds of putting the bag over his head and turning on the helium, Celmer was unconscious. Twelve minutes later, he was dead, the affidavit said.
“Ted Goodwin also stated they held John Celmer’s hands,” the affidavit said. “Ted Goodwin and Claire Blehr stayed with John Celmer for another 15 or 20 minutes and then removed the helium tanks and hood from the residence.”