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DCSO played key role in death case

Undercover sting led to arrests here

POSTED: March 4, 2009 4:00 a.m.

Dawson County Sheriff's investigators played a key role in the recent sting that led to the arrests of four suspected members of a right-to-die group, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent said.

  

"I confided with John Cagle (commander of the sheriff's criminal investigations division) on a lot of aspects on this case," said Special Agent Mitchell Posey.

  

"He provided insight and experience, especially in undercover operations, that was invaluable to the case, and he helped us work out the best way to plan and handle a seven state, multi-jurisdictional raid."

  

The GBI arrested two members of the Marietta-based Final Exit Network as the result of an undercover operation Feb. 25 in Dawson County. A GBI agent posing as a pancreatic cancer patient gained the group's trust and learned its methods.

  

Posey said Cagle, who retired from the GBI last spring, and his local investigations team set up a phony post office box and found a house that could be used to stage the undercover operation.

  

They also staged surveillance and were in on the arrests of Thomas Goodwin, 63, of Kennesaw and Florida, and Claire Blehr, 76, of Atlanta.

  

They, as well as two other group members from Maryland, have each been charged with assisted suicide, tampering with evidence and violation of the Georgia Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act.

  

The charges stem from their alleged role in the June 20 death of a 58-year-old Cumming man. Authorities said Goodwin and Blehr were present when the organization helped John Celmer commit suicide.

  

It was Celmer's death that prompted the now multistate investigation into Final Exit, a national nonprofit founded in 2004.

  

Information about the group was found in Celmer's home, GBI spokesman John Bankhead said.

  

Authorities said that when Goodwin arrived at a home in Dawson County on Feb. 25, he thought he was meeting a man suffering from pancreatic cancer who wanted to end his life.

  

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." It says the group will "never encourage you to hasten your death."

  

Goodwin, who until his arrest was listed as the network's president, was taken into custody after he demonstrated the events that would have ended the man's life, authorities have said.

  

Bankhead said Goodwin also told the man he would hold down his hands if he tried to remove the "exit bag" on his head. 

  

Cagle said the undercover sting revealed that helium inhalation was the method the group uses to assist in the suicides. 

  

According to Bankhead, a person pays $50 for a Final Exit Network membership and is assigned an "exit guide." 

  

The member is then instructed to buy two helium tanks and a specific type of hood as an "exit bag."  On the day of the event, the member is visited by the "exit guide" and a "senior exit guide." 

  

The senior exit guide instructs the member through the process, Bankhead said.

  

"After the member succumbs, all evidence is removed from the scene by the 'guides' and discarded, as evidence indicated happened in the Cumming case," Bankhead said. 

  

Georgia's code on assisted suicides states that anyone who publicly advertises, offers, or says they would actively assist another person in the suicide is guilty of a felony.

  

Following the arrests, law enforcement in seven states executed search warrants and raided the homes of several Final Exit Network members.

  

More than a dozen law enforcement agencies participated in this investigation. Other arrests are possible.

  

Cagle also said charges are possible in Dawson County against Goodwin, who was found in possession of a firearm when he was arrested on the felony charges.

  

The trial, which is believed to be Georgia's first assisted suicide case, likely will unfold in Forsyth County.

  

If convicted, the suspects could face maximum sentences of 20 years for the RICO violation, five years for assisted suicide and three years for the tampering charge.

  

Under the RICO act, Posey said, all charges in connection to the alleged crimes could be transferred to Forsyth County for prosecution.

  

"With RICO, the case in Phoenix could even come to Forsyth," he said, referring to an investigation into the April 2007 death of Jana Van Voorhis by the Phoenix Police Department.  

  

E-mail Michele Hester at michele@dawsonnews.com.

 

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