The last time Sue Celmer saw her husband alive, he was hungry. John was always hungry. It was June 18, 2008, and they’d just been to the drugstore to get more pain medicine. He was still recovering from a twelve-hour surgery a month before—the latest in a series of operations that had removed all of the cancer from his mouth but left a half-dollar-sized hole in his jaw. Although doctors had patched the hole with skin from his chest, his face was still severely swollen. On the way home from the drugstore, John asked Sue to stop by McDonald’s for a cheeseburger. Because of the swelling and the difficulty of chewing, all his food had to be blended like a milkshake. At home, she put the cheeseburgers in the blender, without the buns, and John drank the liquefied meat. A hungry man, she thought, is a man who wants to live.
| Photograph courtesy of Sue Celmer |
During the phone call, John said he’d be fine. He always said he’d be fine, whether he was or not. Lately he’d been in a bad state of mind, staying at home alone. Sue called him again that evening, while she was out, to see if he wanted her to stop by. “Just go home,” he told her. A while later, he called to make sure she was there. Then he hung up the phone and turned to the two strangers who were sitting on his couch, across an Oriental rug, in his living room. Their names were Ted Goodwin and Claire Blehr and they were there, as they would later acknowledge, so fifty-eight-year-old John Celmer could kill himself.
Goodwin and Blehr are members of the Final Exit Network, a national group then based in Marietta that John had contacted in the final months of his life. FEN advises the terminally ill—as well as those who are not dying but who suffer unrelenting physical pain—on how to commit suicide. According to Goodwin, the group’s president at the time of John’s death, FEN members have attended the deaths of almost 200 people since its founding in 2004, instructing them in the mechanism of their demise and often witnessing their last moments on earth.
Not surprisingly, the group is a flash point for controversy. Its work exposes America’s own unresolved attitude toward suicide. In 2005, a Pew Research Center poll found that almost half of Americans approve of laws permitting doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives. But only three states make such allowances, and Georgia is not one of them. Indeed, in 1994 the state enacted a law forbidding the “direct and physical involvement, intervention, or participation” in a suicide. Celmer’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, ultimately led to the arrests of Goodwin and Blehr for allegedly violating that law.
Almost a year after their arrests, Goodwin and Blehr still have not been indicted, although Forsyth County prosecutors say they expect to bring the case to a grand jury this month. Emboldened by the delay, Final Exit Network members, after temporarily suspending their operations following the arrests, have resumed advising the afflicted on how to kill themselves.
It is still unclear whether a Georgia court will determine if advising someone and perhaps even holding his hand as he intentionally inhales a lethal quantity of helium is a criminal act. No court in Georgia has ever addressed this specific question, or the more philosophical one: What, exactly, does it mean to help someone die? And what, for that matter, does it mean to help someone live, to give them everything you have, and fail?
Sue Celmer sees no ambiguity. “In God’s eyes,” she claims, “John was murdered.”
Sue was thirty-two and a shy, cautious mother of three when she met John at the Red Carpet Restaurant in Buffalo, New York, where she was a waitress in the spring of 1981. He was a hungry, outgoing loan officer with a broad chest and strong shoulders. He was also stubborn: about the quality of his stereo speakers, the crispiness of his oven-broiled pasta, and the soundness of his conservative politics. One of his favorite expressions was “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” John never quit pursuing Sue, and they married in August of 1984. Her children became his to help raise. The youngest, Tammy, understood him best. She called him a “chocolate volcano.” His outside was hard—his stubbornness could turn antagonistic—because the inside was so soft and sweet. It needed protection.
In July of 2004, John moved into a small, gray brick townhome in Wyngate, a new subdivision in Cumming. Business had brought him here from Buffalo, as it had Sue, a customer advocate for a medical software company. His place was a little dark and bare, but he had a good sound system. He also had 400 alphabetized CDs, six acoustic guitars, and a pewter hockey figurine commemorating his goalie days. Sue was around the corner, just a three-minute walk away. They didn’t live with each other anymore: John drank, Sue didn’t. But they talked almost every day—about the kids, the weather, God—and they attended a small Methodist church in Cumming together. By his mid-fifties, with Sue’s support, he’d become a believer.
John soon became friends with Wyngate’s president, Thomas Baumgartner, a sixty-six-year-old pest control specialist from Atlanta. Both men loved God and beer, which they drank on John’s stoop. When it was warm enough, they played guitar and sang together by the community pool—church songs when they were feeling holy, Buddy Holly and the Eagles when they just wanted to rock.
I was still legally his wife, and I stood by him. A lot of people who have problems in their marriages just give up, get divorced, don’t do anything for each other. But I lived around the corner from John. I brought him protein shakes every morning when he was sick. I took him to his doctor’s appointments when he couldn’t drive. There was nothing for me to gain—he left me with debt when he died. I paid for his medical insurance. I paid for almost everything that was in his house, too—not because I have anything, but because I was dedicated.
So what bearing does it have that we didn’t live together? That doesn’t speak to what our relationship was. There wasn’t a day that went by that if I was late coming home from work, he didn’t at least call to check: “Just wanted to make sure you got home okay.” When I went out of town, he drove me to the airport and picked me up. Once he moved down here, I really feel like things were changing and I think that more changes would have come. I think we would have been married forever.
John went through some hard times in his forties and fifties. He lost a high-end audio business, a setback that almost broke him. Then he bought a taxi franchise and sold that. And so it was that the man who’d been a loan officer when he first met Sue went into dry cleaning, delivering the clothes himself. People loved him, though. He always had Tootsie Rolls in his pockets. He’d give one to each customer or staple it to the tag. “Ten years ago,” he told his wife one day, “I would have been ashamed to tell anybody that I was in dry cleaning. But I don’t really care. It’s an honest living. I love being outside. I love being with people.” Then one August day in 2006, when the world had finally started feeling okay again, John opened his mouth and found something inside.
He was sitting on the porch, and he said, “I’ve got something to show you.” And he lifted up his tongue and showed me the spot underneath it. He said, “What does it look like to you?” I said, “It looks like you need to get to a doctor as fast as you can.”
It was a spot under the tongue, a growth with some gray areas. He’d already done all the investigation online, of course, and he handed me all the pictures—that’s how he was. He studied things.
It was devastating, but we moved forward. What else could we do?
It was oral cancer, on the floor of his mouth and under his tongue, likely caused by years of smoking. In September of 2006 John had his first surgery. They cut the skin along his throat from ear to ear and pulled his face up. They removed the spot from under his tongue and much of the floor of his mouth. Then he was released. For most of that fall, John underwent radiation treatment five days a week, which damaged his jawbone severely. By early 2007, a hole had appeared in his lower jaw, below his chin. He cut his mouth on exposed jawbone. He lost teeth. Traces of cancer remained.
He still had Sue and the kids, and for as long as he could work, he had his laundry job and the customers and neighbors he made smile. He had faith, too, which is no small thing. But he didn’t have the same body he had before he went into the operating room. Instead, he had a body he barely recognized, with a whole new set of seemingly intractable problems. He took the morphine and codeine he was prescribed. He self-medicated with nicotine and beer. In October of 2007, John found the website of the Final Exit Network, an end-of-life advocacy group that believes it is fighting the last great civil rights battle: the human right to a death with dignity. He clicked the site’s icon that read “Exit Guide Services” and, from that moment on, began actively pursuing his own death. This, FEN officials say, is what he wanted. He never mentioned it to his wife.
The surgery was his hope. And he thought, “I had the surgery, and now I have all these other problems.” He didn’t realize that when you wake up from surgery, you don’t feel better; you feel worse. Patients are discharged from hospitals with assumptions that they understand the expectation for recovery and how to take care of themselves. He was having trouble. He had a hole in his jaw, and a suction machine that was breaking down, and an arthritic hip. I was paying all the bills instead of staying with him. He wasn’t in a very good frame. He didn’t think it had turned out right. Maybe he was depressed. He couldn’t see the light of day, and it was right around the corner. So here’s a guy drowning, and they push his head underwater.
A former executive recruiter from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Ted Goodwin sits in the office of his lawyer, Bruce Harvey, in Downtown Atlanta. Goodwin, sixty-five, is talking about dying, as he does almost every day. He tells Harvey, a criminal defense attorney who parks his Harley at the foot of a spiral staircase and has a tattoo snaking out from his cuff, that, looking at him, he sees “only a man who will die.” This may or may not be a joke, as that may or may not be a smirk on Goodwin’s face. Harvey laughs uncomfortably.
Goodwin grew up in a middle-class home, son of the county’s director of child welfare. Both parents were civil rights advocates. He earned a scholarship to West Virginia University and became a public school teacher. He couldn’t support his family on a teacher’s $5,200 salary in 1967, though, and he landed in Atlanta, running an executive recruitment firm. Ten years later he invested in a company in the medical screening field and ran the company until 2008. His unpaid advocacy work, however, is what has consumed him.
In 2001, Goodwin moved in with his father, who was dying of emphysema. The disease takes you down in stages, as your lungs turn into something like cardboard. They can’t absorb oxygen, and you’re left gasping like a fish out of water. After one terrible episode, Goodwin called the doctor four times to get morphine for his father, but the doctor didn’t respond. Ten days later, his father was dead. At that moment, Goodwin—who hopes to die “with my shoes off, my family there beside me”—made a vow to himself that no one else would suffer so at the end, “if I could help it.”
The right-to-die community is the product of boldly negative thinkers who prepare, at all times, for the worst possible outcomes. In 2004, a few members of the now-defunct Hemlock Society—America’s first physician-assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia advocacy group—were frustrated by its legislative agenda that, they felt, left current sufferers helpless. Seeking a bolder, more immediate approach, the breakaway members created the Final Exit Network, which would actively counsel people with diseases such as Alzheimer’s and muscular dystrophy. Indeed, FEN is the only right-to-die organization in the U.S. that will advise people with intractable pain—but who aren’t necessarily dying—on precisely how to end their lives, while also being present at their deaths. The founding board wanted to avoid the way Jack Kevorkian had operated: as judge, jury, and, at least once, executioner. “We’re governed by a board of directors,” says Goodwin, one of the founders. “We have a medical review committee. We wanted many heads to make decisions.” The group now has 3,000 members, and in the spring of 2005, Goodwin became their national president.
Oregon, Washington, and Montana are the only states that currently allow assisted suicide, and then only by a physician. In Oregon, a lethal cocktail may be prescribed to mentally competent adults who are terminally ill. FEN supports this method, but until it’s available nationally, the group endorses what they call “self-deliverance.” Opponents call it assisted suicide.
If the right-to-die movement has a bible, it would be a 220-page book first published in 1991 and now in its third edition. Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying was written by Derek Humphry, a British-born journalist who founded the Hemlock Society in 1980. Humphry’s book contains twenty-seven chapters that are by turns funny (“How Do You Get the Magic Pills”), cryptic (“The Cyanide Enigma”), deadly serious (“Self-Starvation”), and unnervingly matter-of-fact (“Self-Deliverance Using a Plastic Bag”). Final Exit was the twenty-ninth-most-banned book of the 1990s in America.
Humphry, who now lives in Oregon, currently advises FEN, and his book is required reading for Final Exit Network members. In the twenty-third chapter, “A Speedier Way: Inert Gases,” Humphry explains that helium, argon, neon, and nitrogen can be used quickly and painlessly to cause one’s death. The balloon gas, he concludes, is best.
| Photograph by Andrea Fremiotti |
Then there’s the “exit bag.” It’s clear plastic, approximately twenty-two by thirty-six inches, with a four-foot piece of thin plastic tubing that connects to the helium tank. An elastic headband secures it. “Ugh! The plastic bag! Agreed. Not very aesthetic,” writes Humphry, “but not so bad with a little prior practice to become accustomed to it.” One size fits all, ordered by mail from a California company.
While Humphry’s tone is at times glib, the reader learns that the seventy-nine-year-old has helped three family members die: his wife, brother, and father-in-law, who suffered from cancer, brain damage, and heart failure, respectively. “The right to choose to die in a manner and at a time of one’s own choosing,” he says, “is the ultimate personal and civil liberty. In fifty years, assisted suicide will be a forgotten subject, confined to the books on social history.”
After joining FEN, John Celmer privately mulled his options, which were, simply, to live or die. In a typed letter dated May 1, 2008, addressed to his “case coordinator” at FEN, John revealed his conclusion. John wrote that he wished to use a “helium-induced methodology . . . for the purposes of coordinating my demise.” He continued, “If, however, for some imaginable reason(s), you do not feel comfortable in the continuance of your involvement . . . rest assured that I will have no other choice than to pursue any and all alternative sources of available means of helium inducement including pathetically taking measures into my own hands.”
He continued to walk around bandaged up, and everything he ate continued to fall through the hole in his jaw. He brushed his teeth and looked in the mirror and could see the sink through the hole. Working was too difficult, and embarrassing, to continue. He wouldn’t let it get any worse.
Because indictments against Goodwin and three other FEN members are still a possibility, they won’t talk specifically about much of what John Celmer told them. But if FEN followed its protocol with John, as in the other reported exits in which the group has been involved, the end of his life would have been set into motion this way: A case coordinator would have contacted him to discuss why he wanted to end his life. This is what Goodwin refers to as “the whiff test.” John then would have been handed off to the “first responder,” who gathers a detailed personal and medical history, including facts of diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment. This individual’s completed form is sent to the case coordinator.
Next, John’s medical records would have been reviewed to confirm what Goodwin calls “a real, physical medical condition.” These, along with the two sets of notes already taken, would have been sent to FEN’s medical director at the time, Dr. Lawrence Egbert, an eighty-two-year-old physician who teaches part time at the Johns Hopkins medical school in Baltimore and who says that he’s “never felt more like a doctor” than while advising FEN. By the time medical records of applicants arrive on his desk, around a quarter of cases are already screened out.
“Generally, Dr. Egbert didn’t talk to them unless he had a specific question that couldn’t be answered by the medical records,” says Goodwin. “But he would look at the medical records, the evidence, the opinions of two different people and make a determination as to whether or not they would be provisionally approved.” John would have then been assigned an “exit guide,” who would be in touch regularly by telephone and, at least once, in person. John’s guide was a woman named Claire Blehr, with whom he likely would have discussed, among other things, his family: whether they should be involved, how they might react. Family members are involved only if the exiting individual wishes them to be. They are not contacted otherwise. (Goodwin estimates that family members are present at the point of exit slightly more than half the time.)
Blehr, according to a police affidavit filed so investigators could search her house, judged that it was “a secure situation” where the possibility of arousing suspicion or outside interference was minimal, and that John wasn’t what Goodwin casually calls a “loony tune.” The case wasn’t declined for medical reasons, which happens perhaps one in fifty times—as when Egbert thinks an individual hasn’t exhausted his pain management options—and John was not referred to one of FEN’s three affiliated psychologists. John signed a sheet of paper more than once saying he’d exhausted his medical options, didn’t want further treatment, and was choosing this end himself.
If the guide agrees with the others, as Blehr allegedly did, the group offers provisional acceptance into the exit program. John would choose when to die, coordinating with his exit guide and a senior exit guide—in his case Ted Goodwin—who would also be present. He would buy the exit bag and helium tank, which he would activate himself as the guides watched and, if he desired, held his hands. They would throw the tanks and bag away after he was gone. They would leave, if possible, no trace of their presence. It would appear to be a natural death.
“I never did know quite what to call them,” says Blehr. “Clients? Patients? Friends?” Her lawyer, Robert Rubin, makes a joke: “Consumers.” She quietly admonishes him and continues, “Depending on how close I got to the person, after it was over there was a mingled sense of sadness and relief. In one case, I didn’t know her long, and I wished I had known her forever. I send blessings. I send prayers for them. I’m not religious, but I am a spiritual person.” After a pause: “We did what John wanted.”
Blehr, seventy-seven, is a former contractor for Georgia Quick Start, a state agency that provides free training to qualified businesses. She volunteers to teach the elderly how to navigate health benefits, disaster preparedness, and consumer fraud. She has a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Despite all this, she says she’s easily intimidated. When other FEN members learned that she attended the Unity Church of “practical Christianity”—she has also tried out the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Jewish faiths—their skepticism was intimidating. So was being in the presence of her senior exit guide, Ted Goodwin, whose “bearing and experience” awed her. A trial, too, would be intimidating. Blehr never saw her arrest coming. On her computer she has a note that says, “Charges are dropped.” Her church, she says, teaches the importance of positive thinking. She is one of the dozens of foot soldiers who have done FEN’s work.
On May 6, 2008, according to the affidavit, John Celmer sent a letter and a $60 check to a company called the Gladd Group, which sells exit hoods. The following day, he purchased two helium tanks. During the previous six months, despite the pain, he’d been helping a man around the corner learn to read and had been fixing up a 1969 Honda Classic motorcycle. He was browsing the Internet one day and saw it: the same motorcycle he’d owned when he was young. He bought it, but it hurt too much to ride. Still, he cleaned it constantly, telling Sue that once he was better—this little word, once, giving her hope—he’d show her how to ride. They bought brand-new helmets.
He even consented to another surgery. Given John’s condition—he’d lost more than fifty pounds since the first operation—and the complexity of the procedure they had in mind, doctors said he had a roughly 30 percent chance of emerging cancer-free this time. Over the course of twelve hours on May 23, doctors removed his partly disintegrated jawbone and reconstructed it using bone and tissue from his leg and skin grafts from his thighs. In June he returned to have skin grafted from his chest over the hole in his jaw. The patches left by the harvested chest skin were, in turn, covered by thigh skin. A man only has so much skin, or patience, for cutting. But it was a success: John’s doctors declared him cancer-free.
Still, he walked with a crutch. He couldn’t eat or speak normally. The pain was unrelenting. In weak moments, Sue later thought, when you look into your circumstances and you take your eyes off the Lord, that’s when you become vulnerable. At times, John seemed to be losing hope.
On June 18, John smoked a few cigarettes and drank some beers, against his doctor’s orders, in the chair outside his door. Baumgartner drove by around 2 p.m. and said hello. “He seemed okay,” Baumgartner says. “Just sitting there, same as always.”
The next day, four days before he was scheduled to see a psychiatrist, John wrote an e-mail to Blehr saying that he was unhappy with his surgeries and was seriously considering “my plan (you know what I mean by that).” According to the affidavit, he thanked Blehr for “reinforcing that I can count on all of you to cooperate in assisting me with it should it come to fruition.” She was ready if he was.
According to Blehr, as outlined in the affidavit, John wanted to die at 11 p.m. that day. And he did not want Sue to know about his plan. “He didn’t use the term ‘meddlesome,’” says Goodwin, “but that was the gist of it. She was over there every day checking up on him. He didn’t want her involved because she did not agree with this. He said, ‘She’ll cause problems.’ Boy, was he right.”
It was a hot day, even for June in Georgia. Goodwin and Blehr arrived at John’s residence around 10 in the evening. The three talked for about an hour. John, who had trouble speaking—Dr. Egbert, who never met him, later described him around this time as “walking the streets with his head half gone”—told them about his love of the guitar and his belief in God. “If I’d have known then what I know now,” Goodwin recalls John saying, “I would never have let them operate on me. I would have gone into hospice and allowed nature to take its course.”
Much of the rest of their conversation, to Goodwin, is a blur. “It’s embarrassing, but if I were to store every nuance of all of this stuff in my head, it would make me crazy,” he says. “What still sticks in my mind was the fact that John—a very sweet man—looked at me and said, ‘Thank God you’re here. Without you, I would have to shoot myself.’”
According to Goodwin, shortly after 11 the three of them went upstairs to John’s bedroom, where he lay on his bed and put his head in a plastic bag filled with helium. Goodwin says he and Blehr held John’s hands until they went limp. As he asphyxiated, there was no involuntary reflex of the hands or body, a phenomenon that occurred with maybe half of those Goodwin has watched die by helium inhalation. In other words, he did not struggle. “He just lay there and very peacefully, you know . . . he knew that we were there for him and he was happy. I could see his face through the bag, and I know that he was very content.” Though he died thirty minutes before midnight, the official date of John’s death is June 20, 2008, when his wife found his body.
Goodwin, who’d not met John until that day, says the man was unconscious within twenty seconds and dead in twelve minutes, according to the affidavit. He and Blehr stayed with John for fifteen or twenty minutes afterward to make sure he didn’t wake up, as Goodwin says, “brain-dead like Terri Schiavo.” Then, following standard FEN protocol designed to protect the deceased and the guides, they removed all visible FEN paperwork—which, according to the affidavit, included a suicide note written by John. However, Goodwin and Blehr deny he left a note. Says Goodwin: “It was important to him to have his death look ‘natural,’ so as to not upset his family and friends.” According to the affidavit, Goodwin and Blehr collected the helium tanks and exit bag, turned off the lights, and closed the garage, where Goodwin’s car had been covertly parked. They threw the tanks and bag into a Dumpster in Acworth. This was the third exit Goodwin and Blehr had guided together, and they didn’t spend much time talking about how it felt, as they had after the first time in early 2007. “Afterward we just try to decompress,” Goodwin says. “There was this allegation that we go out and celebrate after the event. That’s just malarkey. There’s no high-fiving. It’s a traumatic thing for us, frankly.”
Sue lay awake down the street, not knowing. Nine days later, according to the affidavit, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would know what she found in his townhome: the copies of Final Exit, the e-mails to members of FEN on his computer and notes about meeting them on his calendar. And a sample suicide letter, allegedly written by Blehr, dated almost five months earlier.
I don’t hate those people. They’re not responsible to me for what they did. But they are responsible to God. Life here is a blink. Eternity is a long time. He was on the road to recovery. He just couldn’t see it. He wasn’t a dark, depressed person. He was full of life, just momentarily not dealing. Given what he’d lived through the previous year and a half, that was understandable. What he needed was somebody to help him. Somebody other than just me. If you buy [FEN’s] premise, then why, as a culture, do we bother educating psychiatrists? Why don’t we just let all the depressed people in the world kill themselves? Why help them?
Three months after John’s death, a man named Richard Sartain joined the Final Exit Network. Blehr met him in his Dawson County home on January 8, 2009, to rehearse his planned exit. Blehr, the affidavit states, explained that once Sartain put the exit hood on his head, she and Goodwin would let the helium tanks run for twenty minutes after his pulse stopped. One of the guides would stand beside him and the other would be on the bed, holding his hands down to ensure that he didn’t pull the bag off, which could result in him being “in worse condition than he was before he started,” according to the affidavit. Sartain’s exit would have been Goodwin’s fortieth and Blehr’s fourth, had Sartain truly been terminally ill, or, for that matter, a man of that name. In fact, Sartain was the alias of an undercover agent working for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Goodwin and Blehr were arrested on February 25, 2009—Ash Wednesday, as Blehr recalls—for their alleged assistance in John’s suicide. Along with codefendants and fellow FEN members Nicholas Sheridan (allegedly Celmer’s “case coordinator”) and Dr. Lawrence Egbert, they are “The Georgia Four.” They contend—citing the First Amendment—that they merely passed along information to John, which he used to deliver himself as Goodwin and Blehr watched quietly and, as they acknowledge, held his hands. They are also charged with violating Georgia’s RICO Act and tampering with evidence, crimes that together could fetch up to twenty-eight years in prison.
Defense attorneys believe that prosecutors won’t be able to prove that Goodwin and Blehr did more than hold John’s hands as he died using a method that FEN recommended. Prosecutors, however, may argue that this was criminal assistance enough. Penny Penn, the Forsyth County district attorney, told Atlanta magazine she expects indictments this month.
Thomas Baumgartner, whose Wyngate community was the focus of headlines and police attention and gossip in the days and weeks after John’s death, is still in a state of disbelief. “We’ll never know what possessed him to do that,” he says. “What possesses anyone to do that?”
How do you think it felt to find him like that? Every day I went to work, came home, checked his mail, went through that dark house. I was the only one here to take care of it. They think they’ve got a case about compassion, but they weren’t harmed. John’s life was ended and mine was devastated.
I can tell you that he loved the Lord. That’s contrary to what occurred, but it doesn’t wipe the other out. John was more than the circumstances of his death. So I said, I’m not going out like a ragpicker. I’m putting on a dress and I’m going to bury him with honor because he is a child of God. I will not dishonor him in his death.