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Judge sides with group

Final Exit could get money back

POSTED: October 21, 2009 4:00 a.m.

A judge has ruled the state must return funds seized from a group accused of helping a Cumming man end his life because it has taken too long to file a complaint against the organization.

  

Forsyth County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey S. Bagley signed an order last week directing Georgia to return $330,000 seized in February to the Final Exit Network and World Right to Die Societies.

  

Final Exit is a Marietta-based right-to-die organization.

  

Don Samuel, attorney for the group, had argued in court last month that the state’s Georgia Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, Act, required a hearing about two weeks after the money was seized.

  

“It’s what we asked for,” Samuel said of the judge’s decision. “He gave us all the relief that we requested and, obviously, I’m in complete agreement with what he said.”

  

The money has not yet been returned, he said. Assistant District Attorney James Dunn, who is handling the case for Forsyth County, could not be reached for comment. Samuel said, however, prosecutors may appeal.

  

“I’ve talked to them a little bit about it, but I don’t know what they’re going to do ultimately,” he said.

  

The case, believed to be the first in Georgia involving assisted suicide, launched a nationwide probe into the group’s activities.

  

In February, authorities arrested Claire Blehr, 76, of Atlanta and Thomas E. Goodwin, 63, of Kennesaw and Florida in connection with the assisted suicide of 58-year-old Thomas Celmer of Cumming. Authorities have said Blehr was a Final Exit volunteer. Information posted on the group’s Web site said Goodwin is a former president.

  

Alleged members Lawrence D. Egbert, 81, and Nicholas Sheridan, 60, both of Maryland, were also arrested in connection with Celmer’s June 20, 2008, death at his Jasmine Court home.

  

All four suspects were charged with assisted suicide, tampering with evidence and violation of the RICO Act. They have not been indicted on the charges.

  

The District Attorney’s Office still has not filed a complaint to take the money from the group as a result of its activity.

  

Dunn has said previously the state’s complaint against the group will be filed by December.

  

He said the prosecution still had more than 30 boxes of evidence to sift through and that he had not received the complete case file from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

  

He also argued that the state left $300,000 to $400,000 of Final Exit’s money untouched and that the group remains operational.

  

Dunn said prosecutors planned to show the money was “realized and derived from a pattern of racketeering.”

  

According to the order, “the seven-month delay in filing a RICO forfeiture complaint was not reasonable and therefore further retention of these monies by the state would be unlawful.”

  

It goes on to say the state failed to file a complaint for forfeiture “within a reasonable time from the seizure date.”

  

A 29-page affidavit filed in Forsyth County Superior Court shows Celmer’s death was ruled asphyxia suffocation as a result of inhaling helium. It also said his death was ruled a homicide.

  

According to the document, after Celmer’s death, his wife found Final Exit paperwork on his computer and Final Exit books in a room in his home. She also discovered 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 Final Exit, the affidavit said.

 

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