By Kathleen Gilbert

PHOENIX, Arizona, February 27, 2009 ( – Police have arrested four members of a nationwide assisted suicide group known as the Final Exit Network (FEN), after linking the group to the death of a Georgia man.

Four FEN members, including its president and its medical director, were arrested Wednesday and charged with assisted suicide in the death of 58-year-old John Celmer last June.  Two of the members were arrested in Georgia, and the two others, who were arrested in Baltimore, will travel to Georgia to face charges.

Celmer, who once suffered from throat cancer, had made a “remarkable recovery” before the suicide, according to doctors, and was no longer seriously ill. 

Authorities in Georgia arrested the FEN president Thomas E. Goodwin and member Claire Blehr.  Investigators told the Associated Press (AP) that Goodwin and Blehr were with Celmer when he died, and afterward cleaned up the scene by removing the suicide instruments.

Maryland authorities arrested FEN medical director Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert and regional coordinator Nicholas Alec Sheridan. Investigators said Egbert and Sheridan evaluated Celmer and gave the go-ahead for his suicide.

The members are expected to go before a magistrate judge today.

The crackdown comes as part of a nationwide investigation into the low-profile network’s suspected illegal activity.  FBI and police in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri and Montana, are investigating the organization’s role in as many as two hundred deaths nationwide. 

Helping someone who is not terminally ill commit suicide is illegal in every state in America.  Suicide assistance in the face of terminal illness was legalized by voters in Oregon and Washington, while a judge legalized euthanasia in Montana at the end of last year.

FEN membership reportedly costs $50 to become a member, and $500 for a lifetime membership.  Members of the Network are encouraged to commit suicide by wearing a plastic “exit hood” and inhaling from a tube connected to helium tanks.  The group reportedly prefers helium because it is difficult to detect in an autopsy.

Final Exit literature describes the network as “the only organization in the United States willing to help individuals who are not ‘terminally ill’- six months or less to live – hasten their deaths. No other organization in the U.S. has the courage to make this commitment,” according to a Phoenix New Times report.

Assisted suicide advocates reacted to the arrests with defiance.

“The laws relating to assisted suicide in America are a hodge-podge of ancient legal snippets with no relationship to the real world of dying in these modern times,” stated a press release from the Board of the Euthanasia Research and Guidance Organization (ERGO).

Bioethicist Wesley Smith commended the arrests, saying, “This isn’t compassion or the facilitation of liberty.  Participating in serial assisted suicides is crass abandonment of the vulnerable to fulfill one’s own obsessions.”

A day before the East Coast arrests, District Attorney Andrew Thomas of Phoenix, Arizona announced that police had linked FEN with the death of Jana Van Voorhis, in April of 2007, and would soon be executing search warrants. 

Van Hooris, 58, who suffered from mental illness, is believed to have committed suicide thanks to the guidance and encouragement of two FEN members.  

Frank Langsner, one of the network’s so-called “exit guides,” told investigators last year that he helped Van Hooris die because she had severe physical problems and was estranged from her family.  Frank Langsner allegedly said in a taped interview with a homicide detective that, to help Jana succeed, “You help get them in a frame of mind that they want to do it.”  Langsner’s lawyer denies the comment was made.

Family said that Van Hooris had frequent delusions about her health, which was not seriously compromised according to medical records, and expressed devastation and outrage that no attempt had been made to contact them.

“My sister had problems from early on, but her family loved her, and she knew it,” said Van Hooris’ sister Viki Thomas. “For anyone to say otherwise is just wrong. I can’t imagine how Jana felt in her head. But we think that if these people [Final Exit Network] hadn’t come into her life, she wouldn’t have done what she did.”

See related coverage:

Suicide Group Secretly Aids Death of Woman Without Informing Loving Family


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