Four members of an alleged assisted suicide ring were charged Wednesday with helping a 58-year-old north Georgia man end his life, authorities said.
Investigators in eight other states are also probing the Final Exit Network, an organization whose Web site said it is "dedicated to serving people who are suffering from an intolerable condition."
Group members Thomas E. Goodwin, who was identified as the organization's president, and Claire Blehr, a member, were both arrested Wednesday at a home in the northern part of the state, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said. The arrests came after a sting operation in which an undercover agent posed as a member of the group.
Maryland authorities arrested the organization's medical director, Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert, 81, of Baltimore. A fourth suspect, Nicholas Alec Sheridan, a Baltimore man who is a regional coordinator for the group, has been charged but remains at large.
The four were charged with assisted suicide, tampering with evidence and a violation of Georgia's anti-racketeering act.
Their charges stem from the June 2008 death of John Celmer after he inhaled helium in an assisted suicide in Cumming, about 35 miles north of Atlanta, said GBI spokesman John Bankhead.
Authorities also were executing search warrants in Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Montana as part of the investigation, the GBI said. Arizona police also planned to release details of an investigation at a news conference Wednesday.
Bankhead said new members of the group pay a $50 fee and are vetted through an application process. Those seeking to end their lives are assigned to an "exit guide" who instructs them to purchase two new helium tanks and a hood, known as an "exit bag."
When ready to commit suicide, Bankhead said, the member is visited by the "exit guide" and a "senior exit guide" to lead them through the process.
The group's vice president said it supports those with irreversible illnesses who choose to end their lives, but its volunteers don't actively participate in the life-ending procedures. The group started in 2004 and has 3,000 dues-paying members.
"When they choose to exit, as we call it, we just hold their hand. That's about it," said Jerry Dincin, who's also a clinical psychologist in Chicago.
He said members are given a book, "The Final Exit," that outlines how they can end their lives. He said volunteers never encourage the members to commit suicide.
"Assisted suicide means that you help people to do it. We don't do that," he said. If convicted on assisted suicide charges, the four could face prison charges of up to five years under Georgia law.
The state code defines assisted suicide as anyone who "publicly advertises, offers or holds himself or herself out as offering that he or she will intentionally and actively" assist a suicide.