Faith, Hope & Fraud : Desperate Cancer Victims Say Jimmy Keller Is a Miracle Worker. The Government Says He’s a Con Man.
The first time patients saw St. Jude’s International Cancer Clinic in Tijuana, it was a wonder they didn’t turn around and leave. The clinic was in a decrepit two-story building in a desolate hillside neighborhood. The finish stucco had fallen off the facade in places, and some of the windows were covered with plastic and tape. To reach the clinic offices, you went down a long, dark-paneled hallway opening into a small, four-room suite. And nearly anytime between 9 a.m. and dusk, that’s where you’d find the director, Jimmy Keller, a small, slightly-stooped man with longish gray hair, a salt-and-pepper beard and thick glasses that always hung at a precarious angle across his face.
That was a result of his cancer. Twenty-three years ago, he lost his left ear, part of his neck and his major facial nerves to radical cancer surgery. The left side of his face sagged. His eyeglasses had nothing to hook onto--the spot where his ear used to be was a round, gray traumatic scar, the size of a saucer, with a little black hole in the middle for his ear canal.
But none of this mattered to the people who drove up the steep, potholed streets to St. Jude’s, lining the curb with their cars and vans and U.S. license plates. Once their oncologists had pronounced the death sentence--"I’m sorry. There’s nothing more I can do"--they went to Keller. And Keller was unique. He had a presence. His easy southern drawl inspired trust. “You feel intensely cared about,” said one Redondo Beach family therapist treated by Keller for cancer of the stomach, cervix and breast.
People would walk in the front door and see a long hall lined with people sitting in chairs under amino-acid IV drips, laughing, talking and welcoming the newcomers. “You have cancer?” they’d burble. “Oh, really? What kind?”
It was Keller who set the tone. He was always touching people, putting his arms around them, telling them he loved them.
“Is this part of the treatment?” a woman asked him once.
“Yes,” Keller said.
He gave everyone hugs and kisses. Men, too. People would come to his clinic and wonder what they were getting into--his clinic was full of cancer patients singing songs.
Then on March 18, 1991, the singing stopped.
At 9 in the morning, while Keller was examining patients, men with guns burst into the clinic. “Who are they?” asked Keller, looking up in surprise. That’s when they pulled him out the door to a waiting van.
“Jimmy has just been kidnaped by four thugs,” a patient screamed into the telephone. “My God! What are we going to do?”
There was nothing they could do. The men were from Mexican immigration. After taking Keller back to their office, they disappeared, and six other men in dungarees and blue work shirts, who declined to identify themselves, entered the room, seized him and walked him across the border to San Ysidro.
There he was arrested by the FBI and arraigned on 12 counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud (specifically that he or someone working for him made telephone calls across interstate lines to attract people to his Mexican clinic). Keller was flown to Brownsville, Tex., where bail was set at $5 million cash. Then, in August, the judge moved the proceedings 50 miles up the Rio Grande to McAllen, Tex.
Keller’s trial had begun.
Although his friends were shocked and appalled at this dramatic turn of events, Keller himself was not totally surprised. People had been trying to put him in jail for the past 15 years. As he saw it, there was too much money at stake for the “cancer industry” to sit idly by while “alternative practitioners” increasingly took their clients away. “I had the most successful clinic that’s ever been run,” he maintained. “They didn’t punish me for being unsuccessful but for being too successful.”
Ridiculous, responded William Jarvis, head of the Loma Linda-based National Council Against Health Fraud. What people like Keller do, Jarvis says, is exploit desperate, alienated and guilt-ridden cancer victims, infusing them with their own paranoia until these people start to believe that “the FDA is the enemy and that the National Cancer Institute is involved in this giant conspiracy to withhold these wonderful cures.” Keller wasn’t a healer, Jarvis contended--he was a transparent fraud who dispensed worthless secret serums and misdiagnosed cancer victims with pseudo-scientific machines. “Those are so fraudulent on their face it’s hard not to judge Keller as a pathological liar.”
McAllen, Tex., a flat, languid farm town of 90,000 people (16% unemployed), is not an ideal place to spend the summer. Cloudbursts hit without warning in the middle of the afternoon, and at night warm winds rattle the palm fronds, bang screen doors and otherwise fray the nerves. The federal marshals in U.S. District Court Judge Filemon Vela’s courtroom were on edge in August for reasons that went beyond the weather. Seventy-five friends, relatives and former patients had shown up in McAllen for Keller’s trial, and the marshals at first thought they were dealing with some health-fanatic religious cult.
The prosecutors, too, were confounded by the intensity of support for Keller. Because they started with the assumption that Keller was the worst and most obvious kind of fraud, they couldn’t explain the fierce loyalty of Keller’s patients except by postulating that he had a charismatic hold on them--which to Keller’s patients was absurd. Far from being some kind of cult leader, Keller was actually rather shy. He was deferential, easily moved to tears and, as one man put it, so “profoundly self-effacing” that he found it difficult to ask patients to pay their bills. It wasn’t Keller’s alleged charisma that made him so beloved by his former patients, said Redondo Beach family therapist Ruth Kerhart; it was his care. “We are dying when we come to him. We have given up. We are headed for death, and all of a sudden we’re going in the other direction.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mervyn Mosbacker didn’t see it that way. A graduate of the University of Texas Law School, he was 37 years old, with a pale, smooth face, a dogged manner and, most important, perhaps, a righteous conviction that Keller belonged behind bars.
As Mosbacker painted Keller, he was a quack, a con man who’d treated people with an expensive and allegedly potent wonder drug, Tumorex, which he’d claimed was a “live-cell polypeptide” smuggled out of West Germany. In fact, it was mainly water and L-Arginine--a common, everyday amino acid that, Mosbacker said, had no efficacy whatsoever in the treatment of cancer. Although Keller claimed he’d had an 80% to 90% success rate with people whose immune systems had not been compromised by surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, his alleged cures, Mosbacker said, were nothing but delusion, fantasy and outright fraud. The FBI did a study of the 135 or so patients Keller had treated during the nine months covered by the indictment (from March though December, 1983). Of the 103 the FBI was able to locate, 91 were dead, nine were alive but still had cancer, and three were cancer-free.
The case, as the prosecutor hammered it home to the jury, was really very simple: Keller claimed he could cure cancer and had the chutzpah to charge cancer patients $3,000 for three weeks’ treatment with a watered-down amino acid, and, in the end, his patients all died anyway.
As Jimmy Keller sat in the courtroom day after day,the story of his life that the prosecutor told seemed so alien and twisted that when old friends drove out to see him at the Hildago County Jail, he’d seize their hands and burst into tears. There was far more to his story than the judge or prosecution ever dreamed, he said. “If they knew what I knew (about how to stop cancer), they’d dismiss the case.”
I am, on this warm Saturday night in late summer, talking to Keller in one of the jail’s small administrative offices at the end of a long corridor next to an unlocked outside door. If Keller had wanted to, he could have taken three steps, turned left and fled unnoticed into the humid, bug-filled night. Instead, he leaned back and began his story in his low-key, casual way, the same way he always tells it, starting with that fateful summer of 1968 when he developed a black mole, as big as a golf ball, in his left ear, pressing on his earlobe. “My doctor said if I had immediate radical surgery, I had a 50-50 chance of living. This mutilation was the price I had to pay to get rid of my tumor.”
Although the operation was successful, it left Keller bitter and depressed. He owned a thriving water-softener business in Baton Rouge, but with his left ear gone and left-side facial nerves severed, he felt “hideous,” “a monster.” “I was scaring people,” he recalls. On top of everything else, within two months, cancer nodules grew back in his neck, arms and groin. This time, his doctors recommended the same kind of radiation treatment they had previously told him wouldn’t work.
Unwilling to undergo radiation or further surgery, Keller fell into despair. He began to drink. By December, 1968, he was “in real bad condition. I had lumps all over me. I was in pain. I had no appetite. My parents were making novenas to St. Jude.”
Then one day his parents got an unsigned letter about an alternative cancer clinic in Dallas. “And so to please my mom and dad, I went to Dallas and started on (an herbal anti-cancer) treatment.”
To Keller’s amazement, after three months his tumors softened and disappeared, his weight returned to normal and he became an alternative-treatment zealot. “I was on fire to tell people about other treatments. I was going into the hospitals to tell other people but no one was listening.”
It was just as well. The government closed the clinic in 1969, leaving Keller and the others with no place to go for treatment, so Keller’s modest house in Baton Rouge became by default the center of an informal self-help society where patients gave each other Laetrile shots and chelation therapy. For the next seven years, Keller openly practiced medicine without a license, giving injections and megavitamin IV drips, hanging the bottles on clothes hooks, treating as many as 20 people a day from all over the country.
In the process, Keller also became an outspoken advocate for alternative health care, giving talks and TV interviews, running letter-writing campaigns and, as state chairman of the Committee for Freedom of Choice in Cancer, lobbying the Louisiana Legislature for three straight weeks in the mid-'70s to legalize Laetrile (an anti-cancer drug derived from apricot pits). The bill passed 91 to 1 in the House, 34 to 0 in the Senate, and got the governor’s fast-track signature in only three days.
When the Georgia Legislature decided to hold hearings on a similar bill, Keller showed up to announce that he was “going to commit suicide before the Georgia House of Representatives.” This was in response to early medical testimony that eating six apricot kernels and half-a-dozen 500-milligram Laetrile tablets could cause a person to die from cyanide poisoning. When it was Keller’s turn to speak, he first ate half-a-dozen apricot kernels and Laetrile tablets. “It took me five minutes to chew them up. I was chewing and chewing.” There was total silence in the packed galleries.
When it became clear that Keller wasn’t going to drop dead, pandemonium broke out. Members of the audience started shouting: “They’ve been lying to us!” “The enemy is the FDA! That’s the real enemy!” Keller said that before he left, every member of the committee approached him to thank him for exposing the federal government’s bias.
Such tactics didn’t endear him to the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, which had been trying without success to shut him down for the previous three years. In those days, Keller used to walk around with a .357 magnum on his hip and let it be known that “if anyone tried to stop us I would take that as a threat on my life.” More significant, there were by then lots of important people among Keller’s clients, including the executive secretary to the governor of Louisiana (who used to show up at Keller’s clinic in an official state car) as well as several friends of the district attorney of East Baton Rouge parish. “The D.A. wouldn’t prosecute me,” Keller said. “I was appearing on TV. I was just as arrogant as ever.”
Then in March, 1983, the State Board of Medical Examiners, having failed to get anywhere with a criminal case, finally reversed field and filed a civil suit against him for practicing medicine without a license. A judge issued an injunction and shut Keller down. It was the end of the line in Louisiana, and, organizing a caravan of cancer patients, Keller moved his operation down to Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Tex.
For people used to traditional medical care,Keller’s operation came as quite a shock. Because he believed that poor eating habits weakened the immune system’s ability to fight cancer, he put all his patients on a strict diet of foods such as whole grains, fresh vegetables, fish, fertile eggs and chicken breasts. He urged patients to avoid aluminum pots, red meat, canned goods, alcohol, coffee, white flour and salt. Not only was he suspicious of the radiation used in cancer treatment, but he also avoided computer screens, microwave ovens and even battery-powered watches, which, he said, upset the body’s natural energy flow.
Keller deliberately tried to keep his clinic looking as little like a hospital as possible. “I always wore just plain old clothes,” he said. He didn’t merely give injections; he would hold people’s hands and pray with them. A firm believer in the power of positive imagery, he put a plaque above the mantel: “I do not have cancer. Therefore I am going to live.” At the end of the day, he’d call everyone in to say the words together.
Not surprisingly, some people were put off by Keller. They’d come to Mexico to be cured of cancer by cutting-edge medical science unavailable in overcautious U.S. clinics and instead found themselves being treated by a one-eared shaman with a southern drawl who was dressed in casual old clothes, praying, hugging his patients and telling them he loved them.
“He doesn’t look like a doctor,” one woman told her son the first time she saw Keller.
“Mom, he isn’t a doctor,” her son said. “He’s a healer. That’s why we’re here.”
But even healers have their failures, and in 1981, Keller’s biggest failure was with himself. A tumor on his neck had began to grow and get hard again. But this time, his regular remedies seemed powerless to control it. Then at the annual meeting of the National Health Federation in Dallas, he bought a supply of Tumorex. When he injected the amino acid solution intravenously, he was astonished. “I felt a tingling in my tumor areas. They got softer. It was phenomenal.”
Keller became a believer. The instant he gave an injection, people would start feeling heat in their tumors (a thermometer placed on the tumor, Keller said, showed a temperature rise of one to two degrees). There was a pulling, tingling, grabbing sensation. One patient said it felt like a thousand little fingers pulling at her tumors. People with brain tumors heard popping and cracking sounds as if fireworks were going off in their heads. Tumorex didn’t always work with everyone, but when it did, Keller said, the results could be spectacular. Within hours, patients reported, tumors began to soften and shrink, and within days they began to disappear. “On open tumors,” Keller said, “you could actually see bubbles.”
Visitors to the Keller clinic were astounded. They’d come back and tell stories about having seen people who would come to the clinic near death, and who, after a few days or few weeks of treatment, would be back on their feet again, walking, shopping and ready to resume their normal lives. Dr. George Eisberg, an Albuquerque family physician who testified at Keller’s trial, told of escorting a dying friend to Keller’s clinic. “I wheeled him in in a wheelchair. He couldn’t swallow.” But as soon as Keller put him on the IV drip, the patient’s chest pain subsided so much that for dinner that night he went out and ordered a lobster and a pina colada.
Dr. David Steenblock, an El Toro osteopath, testified that he saw dozens of patients with metastasized cancer make the trip to Keller’s clinic--and when they came back, no cancer was visible on the bone scan. “He has a lot more success with cancer patients than I have,” Steenblock said.
Joel Wallach, a comparative pathologist from San Ysidro, testified that Keller worked wonders with people’s immune systems. “They come home, gain weight, their T-cell level comes back up to normal and they go back to work.”
But the best advertisements of all for Keller were his former patients, people like Bonnie Cayer of Huntington Beach, Olga Quijano of Torrance, Eleanor Dominquez of Culver City, Libby Hodges of Newport Beach, Rosaline Raz of Tustin, Maxine Bachich from Malibu and Ruth Kerhart of Redondo Beach--all of whom testified that when they first went to see Keller they were suffering variously from cancer of the breast, brain, stomach, cervix or uterus. Keller, they claimed, had stopped their pain, shrunk their tumors and kept them alive and well for as long as eight years. “I have talked to people who spent $150,000 on doctors and been told to go home and die,” Hodges said. “I spent $5,000, and he saved my life.”
Although much of what Keller did (administering injections, ordering transfusions and prescribing vitamins and diets) fell well within the realm of conventional medical practice, his use of the Digitron D Spectrometer to diagnose and treat cancer dwelt in another realm entirely. This was a kind of automated biofeedback machine (common in Europe) that, according to Keller, operated on the body’s “energy field.” As he explained it, “Every disease has its particular frequency.” By having the patient hold an electric coil and dialing in the right numbers, he could, he asserted, diagnose cancer without the need for biopsies, blood tests, CAT scans or X-rays.
Not that it was any simple matter. Operating the Digitron was a calling that required a kind of intuitive skill, a sixth sense, even a kind of grace. “Truly, he is a born healer,” said Quijano, a Torrance grandmother. “There are times I have felt such healing energy.”
And that was another thing Keller’s patients liked about him. He didn’t simply dispense serums and vitamins on some predetermined schedule; he used the Digitron to test every person every day to determine what kind of therapy or serums were needed at that moment and in what amounts. He would make the diagnosis even if the patient wasn’t physically present. A mere Polaroid photo would suffice. Nor was the Digitron limited only to the treatment of cancer. Keller also used it to test Tumorex and even five-gallon jugs of bottled drinking water. If he got a bad reading, he’d send them right back.
Keller wished he could do as much with the FBI, which, on Dec. 7, 1983, sent agent Claude Hildreth and Texas attorney general investigator Nora Dominguez to Keller’s Matamoros clinic with a hidden tape recorder. The two claimed claiming to be the parents of a sick boy. But Keller got suspicious when they specifically asked him how he “cured” leukemia, and he refused to be drawn into a discussion.
The FBI wasn’t the only institution with an interest in Keller’s alleged ability to successfully treat cancer. On Dec. 14, 1983, the Brownsville Herald ran a major investigative piece on Keller’s clinic, prompting the Matamoros Health Department to temporarily seal the front door (flexible, as always, Mexican authorities left the back door open). Frantic, Keller called his U.S. patient representative and contact person, Maxine Lowder.
“Have you seen anything in the newspapers about us up there?”
“It’s in the newspapers and on TV that we have a quack clinic and we’re robbing people.”
That wasn’t the half of it. The Brownsville Herald story (based in part on confidential investigative reports provided by state authorities) concluded that Keller’s clinic was an out-and-out fraud that robbed terminal patients of both their money and their dignity. It described Keller’s sales pitch as “so ridiculous” as to be “funny” and reported that the Baton Rouge district attorney who protected Keller all those years was under investigation by a federal grand jury for taking bribes.
As soon as Maxine Lowder got off the telephone with Keller, she called a CIA agent who had been treated at the clinic.
The agent, who lived in Florida, urged that Keller be sent to him immediately. “I’ll get him out of the country,” he said.
Keller left that day for Florida, slumped down in the back seat of car. But by the time he got to Baton Rouge, Keller had a change of heart. You couldn’t just start patients on Tumorex and suddenly leave them high and dry.
“Jimmy, you got to get out of there,” Lowder told him.
“I can’t. I can’t.”
“Jimmy, you can’t help them if you are in jail.”
It was no use. Keller flew back to Texas, where he finished his patients’ treatment in a Brownsville motel.
“It was a mistake to go to Matamoros,” Keller said after closing the clinic. “People weren’t used to us. We were sitting ducks.”
By early 1984, Keller was back in operation again,this time on the water at Rosarito Beach. According to Keller, the U.S. attorney in Brownsville wanted to extradite him, but it was impossible under Mexican law--nothing Keller was doing was illegal in Mexico (officially, Keller was simply the director of a clinic that employed Mexican doctors).
Then, over the Easter weekend, 1984, two FBI agents, Scott Weigmann and Walter Lamar, in the company of Mexican police officials, showed up at his clinic in flowered shirts, straw hats and sunglasses. While the FBI raided his clinic, Keller hid in a cottage nearby. Knowing that it was just a matter of time until someone found him there, Keller and his nurse casually walked out the door, past the clinic and up the beach, laughing and cutting up, as if they were lovers. Keller later heard that the FBI had been hunting for him all over Baja.
Although Keller decided to stay in Mexico, the rest of 1984 turned out to be a disaster. He was forced to abandon his clinic. Maxine Lowder was convicted of failure to report a felony (she subsequently spent 19 months in the federal prison at Pleasanton, Calif.), and without his contact in the United States, Keller lost track of all his patients.
In late 1984, Keller set up his clinic again. This time he located it in a poor hillside neighborhood in Tijuana. Although temporarily beyond the reach of the FBI (one senior Mexican police official had, according to Keller, warned the FBI that if he caught agents harassing Keller in Mexico again, he’d throw them into jail), Keller was hardly home free. Because of the now well-advertised indictment against him, and the fact that his clinic generated large amounts of cash, he had become a walking target of opportunity.
In the fall of 1985, two Mexican policemen picked up Keller and his nurse, Junie Douglas, and literally tried to push them across the border (Keller gave them $2,500 to let them go). Two years later, he was attacked by men carrying a machete and a nightstick. There was so much blood on the walls that a rumor went around that he had been beheaded. And in 1989, Keller was kidnaped and robbed by two Mexican police officers, one of whom carried a pistol and the other a sawed-off shotgun. Finally, on March 18, 1991, Keller was dragged out of his office by Mexican immigration and turned over to the FBI to stand trial on the wire fraud charges.
To head his defense team, Keller hired Gerald Goldstein, a highly esteemed, curly-haired San Antonio attorney who, only days before the start of the trial, had been named Lawyer of the Year by the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers. A virtuoso when it came to illegal-search cases, he had recently persuaded a Colorado judge to dismiss five felony counts of sexual assault and drug and weapons possession against gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson. Afterward, a grateful Thompson described him in Rolling Stone as a “maestro of motions.”
The easiest part of Keller’s defense was disproving the government’s contention that the L-Arginine serum used by Keller was “ineffective as a cancer treatment.” To refute that assertion, one of Keller’s attorneys (he had five) put several health researchers on the stand. They testified that computer searches of the standard medical databases showed some 20 to 25 articles, several of which were done at the National Cancer Institute itself, demonstrating that L-Arginine either prevented cancerous tumors in the first place or, in the case of existing tumors, made them significantly shrink or disappear entirely. The papers ranged from a 1943 study showing that in 83% of the animals tested, rat tumors disappeared within two to three weeks when injected with L-Arginine, to a 1991 Lancet study showing that when human volunteers were injected with large doses of L-Arginine over a three-day period, their “natural killer-cell activity rose a mean of 91%.”
If L-Arginine is so good for treating cancer, asked the judge, why don’t more doctors use it?
It was a good question, and one answer, suggested Bryan Smith Finkle, a pharmacologist-toxicologist from the University of Utah Medical Center who led the successful development of human growth hormone, was one of economics. FDA approval of a new cancer drug traditionally took seven to 10 years and cost the manufacturer $80 million to $120 million.
This is why the drug companies don’t want to have anything to do with L-Arginine, Keller later said. “They have to make a profit for their stockholders. So they go after the things that are profitable.” No drug company is going to jump the hurdles of FDA approval for a common amino acid you couldn’t even get a patent on.
Before the trial started, Keller supporters had been alarmed by Judge Vela, a heavy-set, round-faced man with thinning, slicked-back hair and large Lyndon Johnson ears that gave him the look of an unreconstructed south-Texas cracker. In fact, he was a genial, grandfatherly Latino with an open, fair attitude and unabashed curiosity. As the trial progressed, he became so interested in alternative-health-care issues that at times he would interrupt the attorneys and question the witnesses himself.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mosbacker was fuming. The defense put on a Stanford professor of engineering to testify that the Digitron machine was a “radionics” device that worked like “instrumented prayer” in “another dimension” using “subtle energy” at the “level of the mind.” And yet when Mosbacker objected to letting what he regarded as drivel into the trial record, the judge hushed him with a wave and leaned over his bench to chat with the professor in a friendly, informal way, the two of them talking like a couple of old codgers sipping root beer on a wooden bench outside the general store.
Bill Moore, an longtime Savannah lawyer who handled the examination of the witnesses regarding L-Arginine and radionics, was elated. “This judge lets in triple hearsay. We’ve got a golden window of opportunity.”
Other people were not so sure. The prosecution was careful to keep the focus of the trial narrow and limited to specific charges of fraud: Keller promised people a cancer cure, took their money and then failed to deliver (“All his patients died”).
And the defense had to admit that the great majority of Keller’s patients from those early Matamoros days had, in fact, died by the summer of 1991. Not that anyone (except, maybe, Mosbacker) really blamed Keller. By Keller’s reckoning, perhaps as many as 95% of the patients were terminal by the time they first walked in the door. That’s the reason they had gone to Mexico in the first place. Their own doctors had given up on them. They’d had so much radiation and toxic chemotherapy that their immune systems were shot, their inner organs destroyed. Of course, Keller couldn’t save such people; no one could. What he could do was reduce their tumors, relieve their pain and, as in the case of Brenda Laughlin, make their remaining days more rewarding.
Laughlin had originally come to see Keller expecting to live just another few weeks. In fact, she lived 2 1/2 years, and had a baby in the interim. When she did die, it was from pneumonia, not cancer. Most people would have gladly paid thousands of dollars for a chance to bear a child and live an extra 2 1/2 years. “I never charged her anything,” said Keller. Although Mosbacker portrayed him as a money-grubbing fraud, perhaps as many as one-third of his patients never paid anything at all, Keller said, and many more paid less than the standard charge of $3,000 for three weeks. Keller gave food to some patients and even allowed people to stay in his apartment so they wouldn’t have to rent a motel room. Once, when he accidentally overcharged a woman, he mailed her a refund. “Let’s face it,” Goldstein told the jury. “Do con artists send money back? When was the last time you got a refund from a doctor?”
As for the notion that all Keller’s patients died, the evidence presented by Mosbacker appeared to the defense as, at the very least, highly selective. Among the 20 people whose death certificates were introduced into evidence were people who died from a gunshot wound, a stroke and chickenpox. Besides, these were people Keller had treated eight years ago, some of them elderly people who might have been expected to die even without cancer. “In conventional medicine,” Goldstein said, “if you have a patient live five years, they call it a cure. Yet his patients are expected to live forever.”
The toughest defense issue, however, was whether Keller had promised a cure. The prosecution had put on a dozen witnesses who said Keller had told them (or their now-deceased relatives) they were “cured” or “cancer free” or that “the poison has left your body.”
In response, the defense put on nearly two dozen other vigorous, healthy former patients, mostly from Keller’s Tijuana years, all of whom stoutly denied that Keller ever used the word cure, as well as Keller himself who said: “I bless (the prosecution witnesses), and I hope God blesses them. I sure tried to help them. I didn’t say cure. I said the (Digitron) machine had ‘zeroed out.’ ”
Well, what about all the witnesses who said you had promised them a cure? Mosbacker asked. “All these people are lying?”
“No,” said Keller, “they are good people.” It was just that when people are desperate, they tend to hear what they want to hear.
As prosecutor, Mosbacker got the final word at the trial. And on this occasion he made the most of it. He readily conceded that many patients felt better for a brief period after they went to Keller, but that had nothing to do with Keller’s ability to do anything about their cancer. Keller, Mosbacker said, was simply giving them blood transfusions to invigorate them, medicine to mask their pain and diuretics to shrink their tumors.
“If Keller has treated thousands of persons, why can’t he bring you in one person he has cured?” Mosbacker asked. Then he answered his own question: “There aren’t any.”
Forget all the extraneous stuff about Digitron mind machines, subtle waves and the alleged ability of L-Arginine to shrink tumors in rats, Mosbacker told the jurors, and instead take a last, hard look at Keller’s numbers. “Out of 103 patients, 91 are dead, three claim to be cured, and the rest have cancer. (The defense) didn’t even bring in a single person who was cured.”
Sitting at the defense table, Keller was practically apoplectic. How could the prosecutor get away saying that he couldn’t produce anyone who was ever cured when the witness room was full of them? The prosecutor had contended that they didn’t count, that they hadn’t had biopsies to prove they were better. But no doctor did biopsies on obviously healthy patients, Keller said. And besides, Keller’s son, Jimmy Jr., would later say, in many cases the tumors had disappeared. “What are you going to biopsy? The place the tumor used to be before it went down?”
The case went to the jury at noon Sept. 2. The judge’s instructions to the jurors, mostly young Latinas, were stunningly favorable to the defense (“awesome,” actually, Goldstein would later say). Among other things, the judge told them, it didn’t matter if Keller’s treatment didn’t actually help anyone. If he merely believed he was helping people, he wasn’t guilty of fraud.
Even so, it was hard to predict what the jury would do. Frequent peals of laughter spilled from the jury deliberation room as Keller’s friends and family waited anxiously in the courtroom nearby. No one knew what the laughter meant; there was no way to interpret it.
After three hours, to everyone’s astonishment, the jury announced that it had reached a verdict. Goldstein was hopeful as the individual jurors filed into the courtroom. Many were smiling, and some even looked him in the eye. Then the clerk started to read the verdicts--"Count number one--guilty! Count number two--guilty! Count number . . . .”
“Oh no!” gasped one of Keller’s former patients. Jimmy Jr. and his wife, Suzanne, fell weeping into each other arms, and Guy Keller, Jimmy’s frail and elderly father, stumbled out of the courtroom in a daze: “Something is radically wrong.”
The jurors left the courtroom immediately after delivering the verdict, ran to their cars and--tires squealing--shot out of the parking lot. The one juror I was able to catch said she’d based her decision on the “uniformity” of the testimony. One after another, the prosecution witnesses all said Keller had promised to cure them, she said. “Where would they all get that,” she asked, “if he hadn’t told them?”
Later, back at their hotel, Keller’s family and friends stood around in small stunned knots wondering why not even a single juror found any merit to Jimmy’s side of the story. “The jury doesn’t know what they’ve done,” said one patient. “They’ve condemned hundreds of people to death.”
For his part, Keller assigned most of the blame to his attorney, Gerald Goldstein: He didn’t attack the prosecution witnesses; he delivered a far less impressive summation than his reputation might have warranted; he wasn’t familiar enough with the facts to effectively counter the prosecution’s case. “If I had defended myself, I would have done a lot better,” Keller said. “I couldn’t have done worse.”
Goldstein would later take strong exception to the notion that he hadn’t done his homework or otherwise earned his fee (The total bills for all five defense lawyers, plus expenses, ran to $500,000--Keller’s life savings plus a defense fund). The real problem, Goldstein said, was that the jury “never got on board. They were watching a different movie.” Then there was the near insurmountable problem of having to explain the Digitron machine. “Two weeks is not enough time to convince a south Texas jury that you can cure cancer at a distance with a Polaroid photograph.”
Keller’s sentencing was scheduled for last Thursday, Dec. 12. He was looking at 55 years--five years apiece on each of 11 counts--a fact that appalled former patients such as Olga Quijano. The people who went to St. Jude’s weren’t duped, she said. They’d had conventional therapy and it hadn’t worked. They went to Keller of their own free will. “We have freedom of choice in abortion,” said Quijano, whose own therapy had been cut off by Keller’s arrest. “Why can’t we have freedom of choice in cancer therapy, too?”
“Choice is only half the story,” answered quackbuster William Jarvis a few weeks after the trial. “What about accountability? Practicing medicine is not a right. It’s a privilege. To allow incompetent or untrustworthy people to practice medicine would be irresponsible. We don’t do it with plumbers or auto mechanics or anybody else. Why should we do it with health care?”
It was a reasonable question, and perhaps the most eloquent response came from another of Keller’s former patients, Selma Meyers, one morning at a breakfast table in the deserted lobby of McAllen’s Compri Hotel.
Meyers is a regal-looking woman of 68 with smooth, pink skin, a sharp aquiline nose and a slow, dignified way of moving her head that is reminiscent either of a great stage actress or someone who is in very deep pain.
“Five years ago,” she said, “I came down with inoperable breast cancer.” Her doctor had scheduled her for a double mastectomy at Kaiser, Woodland Hills only to change her mind at the last minute. She’d taken Meyers’ case to two different cancer review panels, and they both agreed: The cancer had metastasized; surgery wouldn’t help. Let the woman die in peace.
Having nothing to lose, Meyers went St. Jude’s in Tijuana. After three weeks’ treatment, the tumor disappeared completely and stayed in remission for four years. Then, two years ago, the cancer came back on the other side: a purple, bleeding tumor, seeping pus. It was more difficult this time, but Keller slowly shrunk that one till it disappeared as well. But last February, for the third time, a tumor came back. Meyers called his clinic to make arrangements for additional treatment, but it was too late. Four thugs, Olga Quijano told her, had just dragged Keller out the door.
All the time Meyers and I were talking, she had been holding herself perfectly still. Suddenly she stiffened--head erect, eyes closed. It was then that I noticed a small, red stain spreading on her blouse above her left breast.
Meyers’ husband, Sam, was sitting with us. “This is too important to be modest about,” he told her.
Slowly, Selma unbuttoned the top of her blouse and carefully pulled the corner back. There on the chest wall above her left breast was a big red and yellow, cracked and pus-encrusted mass. The technical name was infiltrating intraductal carcinoma--but it looked as though someone had just taken a pound of raw hamburger, made a crude ball and pressed it against her chest. Even as I stared, a trickle of blood began seeping from a fissure in the top and running down the side.
As the tears welled up in her eyes, Selma Meyers gingerly covered the tumor with a napkin and rebuttoned her blouse. There was nothing the doctors could do, she said. “We’ve been told we are dying. Jimmy is our only hope.”