"We get occasional people who want to commit suicide and try to fake us out," says Egbert. "I read very carefully what the doctors and first responders say, and then I make the decision. If I'm uncomfortable, I call someone for a psychological point of view."

But Egbert rarely rejects a patient. Most applicants have given much thought to their decision to end their lives well before calling the network. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to distinguish between a patient who is clinically depressed and one who is depressed because of illness.

"Everybody with cancer gets depressed," Egbert says. "The question is: Is the depression dominant or is the cancer dominant? Sometimes patients just aren't getting enough care."

James Hoggard, an exit guide and former Baptist minister, with his companion, Julia Peggs.
Jennifer Silverberg
James Hoggard, an exit guide and former Baptist minister, with his companion, Julia Peggs.

Says Dincin: "There are plenty of people who don't want to die. Look at Stephen Hawking. He's still living his life. It's not a life I would want to live, but he wants to do what he's doing. Do I have to live that way? The answer to that is no. My life is my life."

On the afternoon of February 25, in Dawson County, Georgia, some 50 miles northwest of Atlanta, Final Exit's clandestine ways finally caught up with the group.

That day, an exit guide named Thomas "Ted" Goodwin, the network's founder and former president, visited a client named Richard Sartain. In the past four years, Goodwin had assisted in 35 deaths, most of them in the southeast.

This was to be Sartain's "death event." He'd bought the exit hood and helium tanks, and Goodwin began to walk him through the exit procedure. He showed Sartain how to put the hood over his head and how to attach a hose to the helium tanks and run it up into the hood.

Then, according to court records, Goodwin climbed on top of him to demonstrate how he would hold Sartain's hands down to keep him from removing the hood. Goodwin later maintained that he only held Sartain's hand to comfort him and let him know he wouldn't die alone.

Sartain did not, as he claimed, have pancreatic cancer. In fact, he was in perfect health. "Richard Sartain" was the alias of an undercover agent for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). For the past eight months, the agency had been looking into the June 2008 death of a man named John Celmer.

Celmer was 58 years old and living in Cumming, Georgia. He'd lost part of his face to jaw cancer. His doctors claim he was cancer-free at the time of his death. Still, by some accounts, he was depressed by his appearance and could no longer swallow. His estranged wife found Final Exit pamphlets among his things and called the police.

Goodwin's death rehearsal, says the GBI, is what it will need to prove in court that exit guides helped facilitate Celmer's death.

As soon as Goodwin finished showing the undercover investigator how he would die, agents burst into the house and arrested him. Goodwin was charged with assisting Celmer's suicide, racketeering and tampering with evidence.

The GBI also arrested Claire Blehr, the other exit guide in the Celmer case. In Baltimore, meanwhile, police apprehended Egbert and Nicholas Sheridan, Final Exit's southeast regional coordinator. All four were released on bail, but under the condition that they have no contact with any network member.

After the Georgia sting, search warrants were issued at fourteen locations in nine states, including Missouri, Florida, Arizona and Colorado. GBI agents and local police seized computers and cell phones belonging to members of Final Exit's executive board. They wanted evidence that Final Exit had assisted in other deaths.

Baker says the GBI and St. Louis police broke into his south St. Louis home while he was out and took his computer and files. "I just missed them by ten minutes," he recalls. "I was mad as hell. I refused to talk to them about the network. They called and asked me for my computer passwords. I thought it was kind of strange, because they wanted me to help make their work easier."

Kathleen O. O'Sullivan, a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman, confirmed that the incident occurred.

On March 2, one week after the Georgia arrests, National City Bank in St. Louis — where Baker kept all the organization's funds — froze Final Exit's checking account when a Georgia judge issued a warrant to classify the network as a "criminal conspiracy" under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

"The RICO law is supposed to counter drug trafficking," Baker says. "This is an inappropriate application of that law."

Without money, Final Exit's operations ground to a halt.

"It's unfortunate," says Dincin, who suspects the network will never see its money again. "The GBI is using some tactics that would be better applied to the Hell's Angels and the Mafia and Colombian drug lords. They froze our assets without appearing before a judge. We had $550,000 in the bank. Now we have no money for legal defense. They declared us guilty before the trial even started."

This was not the first time Final Exit's tactics had gotten the group in trouble with the law.

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