Four members of an alleged assisted suicide ring were charged Wednesday with helping a 58-year-old Georgia man end his life, and investigators in eight other states were looking into whether the group was involved in more deaths.
The FBI is 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." It wasn't immediately clear how many deaths were being investigated.
On Wednesday, investigators raided the homes of the group's volunteers in seven of the states, a group office in Georgia and a company in Montana that authorities said supplied items used in suicides, according to a news release from authorities in Arizona, where another death was being investigated.
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 northern Georgia, 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, and Nicholas Alec Sheridan, a Baltimore man who is a regional coordinator for the group.
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.
Betty Celmer, the man's mother, said her son had suffered for years from cancer of the throat and mouth and that he had undergone extensive surgery with several more rounds to go.
"I know he was depressed, he called me every single Sunday," said Celmer, who is 85.
She said she was suspicious of his death, but his siblings have denied it could have been suicide.
"I thought sincerely that John may have taken his own life — but I never thought he had the courage to," she said.
Authorities were executing search warrants at 14 sites in Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, and Montana as part of the investigation, according to the GBI and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office in Arizona.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said detectives there are investigating whether a Phoenix woman's death involved assistance from the group.
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, but support them if that's their choice.
"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.
The Georgia man's mother, Betty Celmer, contended that the group shouldn't face charges if they helped her son.
"If they helped John to die, that is what he wanted. I would never find them guilty for helping him," she said. "If someone helped him, I think that was in God's hands."