2 accused of roles in suicide network

The Baltimore Sun

A Johns Hopkins-affiliated physician and a legislative aide to a Maryland lawmaker belonged to a wide network of volunteers who helped dying people commit suicide, according to Georgia authorities.

Dr. Lawrence D. Egbert, 81, and Nicholas Alec Sheridan, 60, were arrested in Baltimore on Wednesday in an eight-state probe of a Marietta, Ga.-based assisted suicide organization known as the Final Exit Network. Egbert, an anesthesiologist, is an unpaid visiting assistant professor at Hopkins but does not treat patients there. Sheridan, the former owner of a catering company, is a part-time aide in the General Assembly.

Authorities with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation say the pair played an integral role in connecting 58-year-old John Celmer of Cumming, Ga., to the network, which aided in his death in July.

A hearing is scheduled for this morning in Baltimore Circuit Court in which Egbert and Sheridan must decide whether to waive their rights to an extradition hearing. Both men were being held at Central Booking and Intake Center and could remain there for several weeks if they request an extradition hearing, according to Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office.

Egbert, Sheridan and two associates from Georgia were arrested by Baltimore police in conjunction with Georgia law enforcement officers on charges of assisted suicide, tampering with evidence and violating that state's anti-racketeering law. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation launched an undercover probe after relatives of Celmer notified local police, suspecting his death was an assisted suicide. Georgia agents are investigating cases in Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Montana and say that other arrests are possible.

Egbert's wife, Ellen Barfield, confirmed her husband's role in the Final Exit Network but called the racketeering charges "absurd" and maintained that he is a "very caring and compassionate person." She said her husband's speeches on behalf of the group informed people about end-of-life choices.

"His involvement is in the idea that one could have a role in their end of life and, if they chose to - to end it," she said. "It's a matter of choices. We should have the ability to decide what happens to our own minds and our own bodies." Authorities said the arrests were the first they knew of for aiding suicide in Georgia, and other observers said the sweeping investigation was unusual.

"It's surprising," said Valerie J. Vollmar, a professor at Oregon's Willamette University College of Law who writes extensively on physician-assisted death. "To my knowledge there has never been anything like this in the United States."

Egbert, who lives in Hampden, is alleged to be the group's medical director. His responsibilities included determining if a person met the guidelines for membership into the organization, which meant they would receive help committing suicide, according to an affidavit. Egbert was also present for their deaths, the affidavit says.

In addition, he traveled giving speeches and training sessions on behalf of the network. A newsletter on the network's Web site says Egbert described suggested suicide methods at a recent training session.

A person seeking help from the Final Exit Network pays $50 for membership. After an application process, an "exit guide" visits the person and instructs them to purchase two helium tanks and a hood known as an "exit bag," said John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The person then inhales the helium, causing asphyxiation.

The newsletter says Egbert "demonstrated the method of helium inhalation that we recommended." The newsletter describes other "hands-on" training among guides and notes that "rehearsals were with real helium, real exit bags and real dialogue."

Sheridan, a part-time legislative aide for Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, was known as the "case coordinator" for the Exit Network and was responsible for managing the administrative paperwork for someone to start the process of an assisted death, according to the affidavit.

McIntosh said she wasn't aware of any involvement in assisted suicide but knew that Sheridan has been interested in the issue of dying with dignity and that he had helped to lobby for legislation related to counseling services for the terminally ill.

McIntosh said Sheridan also has been active over the years on civil rights and started working in her General Assembly office several years ago as a volunteer. He later became a paid aide two days a week during the 90-day session, she said, making $200 a week or less. She characterized Sheridan as a friend she has known for more than 30 years.

"He's a very caring father and a very caring and active man in his community," she said.

Relatives of Sheridan, who lives near the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in North Baltimore, could not be reached yesterday. But records show he has served a number of different roles throughout the city, founding the Cuisine Catering business in 1984 after working as a city planner and marketing executive, according to a profile of the business.

Sheridan, a native of England, sold the company a few years ago and has been active in peace demonstrations and speaking out against President George W. Bush as a member of the anti-war group Citizens for Peace.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she has known Sheridan for years and considers him a close friend. He catered both of her daughters' weddings, and she said that at one time he was active in community work in the Waverly area. Clarke said she was working yesterday to make sure he had legal representation for today's hearing, though she had not been able to speak with him.

"I'm extremely upset about the whole thing," Clarke said. "The Nick I know would never do any harm to anyone."

From 2000 to 2001, Egbert was given an "observer" appointment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, allowing him to observe but not interact with patients, according to a Hopkins spokesman. He has had a courtesy appointment as a visiting professor since 2001. From 2002 through last year, Egbert also served as an unsalaried member of the Health Professions Committee at the university.

But Barfield characterized her husband's connection with Hopkins differently, saying he taught an ethics class that was scheduled to meet yesterday. A Hopkins spokesman could not confirm that relationship.

Egbert received a bachelor's degree from Hopkins and a medical degree from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Barfield, herself a peace activist, said Egbert has been active in progressive causes such as Doctors Without Borders and Physicians for Human Rights and recently oversaw the Baltimore chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which advocates for ending nuclear weapons and reversing global warming.

Jim Baldridge, a fellow member of Veterans for Peace, said Egbert was a World War II and Korean War veteran. "I was flabbergasted," Baldridge said of Egbert's arrest. "He is a highly moral, ethical and humble person."

Vollmar said Final Exit is part of an expansive worldwide network of advocates for assisted suicide for the dying. The organization takes its name from the 1991 best-seller Final Exit by Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, a right-to-die group.

The Hemlock Society has spurred organizations such as Compassionate Choices, which has been active in legal movements for assisted suicide, Vollmar said. Compassionate Choices also helps families in Oregon, where physician-assisted suicide is legal, with support and resources.

Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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