Five years ago, 57-year-old Doreen Dunn killed herself after living in pain for a decade. After consulting with Final Exit Network, she used helium and a plastic bag to end her life while sitting on the couch of her Apple Valley home.
On Monday, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom announced his intentions to present evidence before a grand jury to seek indictments against the Georgia-based non-profit and a few of its members, accusing them of breaking state laws against aiding a suicide and interfering with a body.
Prosecutors claim the group helped Dunn end her own life by flying in volunteers to help her do it and then conceal the evidence.
"In many cases, Final Exit Networks 'exit guides' -- who are present at the time of the suicide -- come and go undetected and take with them all evidence of the true nature of the death, thereby deceiving not only our law enforcement officials and medical examiners but, even more importantly, deceiving the spouse and children that the deceased has left behind."
Dunn's family had no idea she died from helium asphyxiation until years after the fact. Prosecutors say the volunteers who helped her likely threw away the evidence on their way back to the airport as instructed by their training manuals.
The investigation began when investigators looking into a suspicious death in Georgia executed a search warrant on Final Exit Network and uncovered 25,000 pages of evidence that included names and case files of hundreds of people who had taken their own lives -- including Dunn.
The network insists it never recommends anyone commit suicide, and says its volunteers are not breaking laws since they don't provide equipment or physically participate in suicides. Instead, the group claims it only offers information and support -- sometimes by being present during the suicide.
"We do give explanations of how to do it," said Robert Rivas, a Florida attorney for the Final Exit Network. "We don't advise anybody to do it."
The network largely operates online and via telephone as a way to receive requests from people across the country who want to arrange an "exit."
Dunn made her "exit request" through a hand-written letter in January 2007, writing she was "living with unbearable, excruciating chronic pain that has spread throughout my whole body since 12/96."
Included with the letter was a note from her doctor -- released partly by the network on Monday, which confirmed that she was completely disabled and suffered from numerous painful conditions. Some of those conditions stemmed from a medical procedure she underwent in 1996.
In her final letter, Dunn said she had fought the good fight for 10 years while trying to get better, but said she now believed those efforts were "futile."
Dunn wrote that without an exit, she would "be left in some nursing home in unbearable pain for who knows how many years."
"She had sought every form of treatment that medical science could provide and was told that she had really no choice but to live with these conditions," Rivas said.
Rivas says Final Exit Network requires documentation before providing an "exit guide." A person must be found mentally competent and deemed to be suffering from an incurable and chronic -- though not necessarily terminal -- condition first. However, Backstrom said the group's determination doesn't have legal bearing.
"There was no effort made by anyone to determine if Doreen Dunn was competent to make this decision or not," he said.
The grand jury indictment says Dunn paid $50 to Final Exit Network and had her case reviewed by staff before being "accepted" by its medical director. She was then assigned an "exit coordinator" and given an exit guide. Meetings with volunteers who will attend -- but not assist in -- a suicide can also be requested, and two people were present for Dunn's death.
"Nobody likes to die alone," Rivas explained.
Rivas confirmed that two volunteers from the Final Exit Network traveled to Minnesota on the day Dunn died, but said he did not know whether or not they were with her. He did say that Dunn did not want her family or her estranged husband to know of her plan.
Dunn did not pay the people who were present for her death, but they were reimbursed by the non-profit.
An autopsy conducted by the Dakota County medical examiner found Dunn died of coronary artery disease, and it also noted she had suffered from chronic pain.
Dunn's passing put Minnesota the center of a national debate over assisted suicide, and Backstrom's efforts mark the third time prosecutors across the nation have taken on the group through the court system. Final Exit Network successfully fought off high-profile criminal charges in Arizona and Georgia.
Now, Final Exit Network -- including three of its officers and a volunteer -- must answer 17 counts of violating Minnesota's assisted suicide law and interfering with a death scene.
On Monday, the president of Final Exit Network, Wendell Stephenson, said Dakota County is wasting taxpayers' money in prosecuting the group and its members.