King Con Returns
Adam Von Furstenberg remembers seeing the hypodermic needle taped to his right arm pop upright like a jack-in-the-box and knowing he was in big trouble. The machine that was supposed to be converting his blood from HIV-positive to HIV-negative had malfunctioned. Rather than returning ozone-treated blood to his body, the device was pumping ozone gas directly into his bloodstream, and the technician in charge of the procedure was nowhere to be found. For a full five seconds the bubble of gas pushed through his system, depriving his heart of blood and causing him to go into cardiac arrest. His right lung partially collapsed.
Von Furstenberg, a 32-year-old nurse from Melbourne, was one of twenty terminally ill Australians who had paid $3000 for what was billed as a life-saving four-week trip to an innovative clinic on the Philippine island of Cebu. What the patients had in fact endured since their arrival in late February, he says, was an unmitigated nightmare: The conditions at the "clinic", a small two-story home replete with cockroaches and open sewage drains, were squalid. The no-protein diet amounted to starvation by degrees. Most chilling, the machinery intended to cleanse patients' blood was so unsanitary that those who suffered from cancer were worried they might contract AIDS from HIV-tainted equipment. The meager staff didn't appear troubled about using unsterile tubing to transport blood into cancer patients. The magical ozone gas, clients were assured, would kill both ailments, anyhow.
"We lived in a place worse than the gutter," Von Furstenberg recalls. "A concentration camp, we took to calling it."
The day after his heart failure, Von Furstenberg watched a cancer patient hobble into the so-called insufflation room, where ozone was piped into her rectum. The woman, 22-year-old Jody Baker, returned looking ashen, her belly distended. Less than three hours later, she was dead.
The next day Von Furstenberg fled the Cebu facility, returning to Melbourne. Within a week news of the unlicensed clinic, which was subsequently raided by Philippines authorities, hit the Australian papers. A scandal was born. Headlines roared. TV anchors spoke in grisly detail.
On this side of the Pacific the fiasco would have been just another macabre tale for the tabloids, were it not for one strange circumstance: The man who invented the machine that came close to killing Adam Von Furstenberg, the man who championed the process that apparently killed Jody Baker, was none other than South Florida's con man supreme: Basil Earle Wainwright.
It was Wainwright who reportedly leased clinic operators two of his "Polyatomic Apheresis" machines for a total of $45,000. Wainwright who sent technicians to the Cebu clinic. Wainwright who advised that the terminally ill Australians be put on a no-protein diet. Wainwright who personally guaranteed a doubting Von Furstenberg that he would return from the Philippines HIV-negative. "I called him three times before I left for Cebu," Von Furstenberg says. "He kept pressuring me to buy one of his insufflation units for $2500." A unit similar to the one used on Jody Baker before she died.
The same Wainwright who in the past year has lured a handful of South Floridians into bankrolling his operations, all while he was under federal indictment. The same Wainwright who currently boasts to reporters of running seven "successful studies" with the devices.
The same Basil Wainwright profiled in an April 1992 New Times cover story. When that article was published, the 59-year-old British citizen appeared destined to spend the next dozen years in prison. Jailed in Florida in 1990 on state charges of practicing medicine without a license, he was also awaiting trial on federal fraud charges stemming from his sale of machines he claimed could cure AIDS.
But Wainwright, a chubby, blue-eyed inventor chased from England after being found guilty of 22 counts of fraud, theft, and forgery in that country, has always said he loves America for its "encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit." Where else can an ex-con allegedly launch yet another fraud from his prison cell?
That's precisely what Wainwright seems to have done last year. While serving his six-year state prison sentence at Florida City's South Florida Reception Center, he organized a new company called Polyatomic Apheresis Inc. (PAI), and enlisted J. Claybrook Lewis, a softspoken disciple, as his partner. Even as Wainwright consented to plead guilty to the state charges in exchange for his freedom, he and Lewis had laid the groundwork for PAI. Within weeks of his release this past May, he was back researching and marketing his revamped cure for AIDS.
And he had plenty of help. Not only was Wainwright aided by a cultish following of ozone believers, but also by a progression of federal judges who unwittingly fostered his activities by freeing him on a $100,000 bond and consenting to delay his federal fraud trial for nearly two years.
PAI's chief product was the Polyatomic Apheresis machine, which, according to the company's literature, uses ozone to cure AIDS. Unlike Wainwright's previous invention (the one that inspired the first round of charges), which piped ozone through a tube and into people's rectums, the new machine was designed to draw blood from patients, treat it with ozone, and then pump it back into the bloodstream.
Both processes rely on the curative value of ozone. The bluish gas, composed of three oxygen atoms bonded together, is best known as the atmosphere's fast-decaying protective layer. The Food and Drug Administration forbids its use on humans in the United States, unless the user is granted a waiver. In Europe, however, clinicians used ozone for decades to treat a variety of ailments ranging from yeast infections to cancer. Despite tomes of anecdotal evidence, the gas has yet to be scientifically proven as a cure for anything. In fact, because ozone is a powerful killer of cells, it can prove lethal in high dosages.
In recent years holistic practitioners in the States have looked to ozone as a miracle cure for the AIDS epidemic. They, along with greedy investors, have proved easy pickings for Wainwright's messiah charm and uncanny way with technobabble.
"Basil hit the ground running, that's for sure," says former associate Bill Delp. "He wasn't a month out of prison and he had his whole plan mapped out." That plan included setting up a storefront in a Pompano Beach strip mall, where Wainwright oversaw the assembly of his new apheresis machines and coordinated the leasing and sale of units to clinics worldwide. More important, he and Claybrook Lewis set about recruiting investors for the venture, which was detailed in slick promotional literature.
Delp, an electrical engineer specializing in health technology, met Wainwright through an investor and was quickly enlisted as an unpaid technician. Three weeks after meeting Wainwright, Delp traveled to Nassau to install apheresis machines at a Bahamian holistic health-care center. Over the next six months he would return to Nassau seven times and travel with Wainwright to Nevada to set up machines there. As in his former days as a self-proclaimed automotive guru, Wainwright apparently used the cash drawn from investors to fuel a lavish, jet-setting lifestyle. "We always went first class," Delp says.
Though Delp personally oversaw only a few installations, he says Wainwright claimed to have sent his machinery to more than a dozen clinics around the world, including San Francisco, Toronto, and Juarez, Mexico.
Wainwright himself refuses to speak with New Times "until the paper is prepared to tell the truth," as one PAI official phrased it. Lewis declined comment for the same reason. But his wife Mary, PAI's secretary and treasurer, insists that both her husband and Wainwright "are guilty of nothing," and affirms that PAI is involved in the Cebu clinic. "Some pretty good things are happening," Mary Lewis notes, "according to the press we get from over there."
Delp says he agreed to help Wainwright because he was compelled by the possibility that ozone could cure AIDS. "That was before I saw the lab results on Basil's patients." By October, data from the blood tests commissioned by Wainwright had made Delp leery. "I started to press Basil for more patent information, more technical, medical, and financial data," Delp says. "I started getting calls from investors who wanted to know if this guy was for real. Basil's response was always, 'We've got to fast-track this thing. I've no time for these questions!'"
Most unsettling of all was the inventor's religious manipulation of his minions. "Basil was constantly playing this whole martyr role," Delp recalls. "Clay Lewis and the others worshipped the guy. It reminded me of this cult stuff out in Waco. It was always, 'Basil's doing God's work.' The investors were like churchgoers as well. The 'God Squad,' I called them. And Basil knew his part by heart. I actually saw him make two investors feel guilty for taking time from his mission of saving lives to ask for something as mundane as financial information."
In December Delp began urging investors to ask for their money back. Wainwright countered by accusing his technician of trying to steal his technology. "He claimed I was a murderer, that I was running a clinic myself. He even threatened my girlfriend," Delp says.
At least one investor did lose faith in Wainwright. Susan Hilton, a senior citizen from Delray Beach, remembers being given a grand tour of PAI's tiny headquarters last November. The way Lewis and Wainwright told it, her $100,000 investment would return a healthy profit and earn her a place in Heaven. "I thought of the machines being sent to Africa," Hilton says. "After I wrote the check, I felt I'd done this wonderful thing. Basil said, 'God bless you, you've just helped humanity so much.' I must have had a big sign on my forehead that read SUCKER."
Hilton says she was told her money had purchased stock worth four percent of PAI. But over the next two months, PAI officials ignored her demands for more detailed financial statements. In February, at Delp's urging, she went to state authorities. On Friday, March 12, police arrested Wainwright and Lewis on four counts apiece, including grand theft and fraudulent sale of unregistered securities. Though still awaiting his fraud trial in federal court, Wainwright posted bail in state court and again went free. Lewis also posted bail and is currently residing at his home in Plantation.
Despite the arrests, many PAI followers maintain Wainwright and Lewis are the victims of a nefarious conspiracy hatched by the big pharmaceutical companies to keep ozone from assuming its rightful place as a wonder drug. "I think Wainwright's honestly trying to help people," says William Cave, a Fort Lauderdale man who manufactures a machine he says destroys cancerous tumors with microwave heat. "Why don't you write an expose about the American Medical Association?"
Billy Austin, who loaned $10,000 to PAI's cause this past June, agrees. "I've used Wainwright's machine on animals and I've seen the results with my own eyes," the South Miami veterinarian insists. "But of course I'm concerned I won't get my money back. Especially if the government doesn't let Wainwight do his work."
One Coral Gables pediatrician, who says he routinely uses ozone to treat patients, believes Wainwright's most recent arrest is merely evidence of the powerful forces aligned against him. The doctor, who put $50,000 into PAI in July, threatened to sue New Times if his name appeared in print.
Delp contends investors aren't the only ones Wainwright has duped. "Basil used to laugh about how he has fooled the doctors into believing he has a bad heart," Delp recalls. "He got himself appointed a free lawyer in his [federal] fraud case by claiming he was indigent. Indigent? He's got a $50,000 speedboat that costs $300 a month just to dock."
Indeed, the federal government is proving to be Wainwright's choicest rube. Thanks to judicial dawdling, the defendant, who was indicted two years ago, has yet to stand trial on the ten pending federal counts of fraud, which could send him to prison for twenty years. Wainwright's voluminous court record shows that he has been granted half a dozen new trial dates by four different judges. On two ocassions, federal prosecutors endorsed the delays. The case has languished for so long that one of the government's primary witnesses has suffered a relapse of her cancer, which caused yet another postponement.
Faced with the embarrassment of Wainwright's most recent arrest, federal prosecutors did finally haul him back into custody at a March 19 bond revocation hearing. The inventor sighed pitifully as Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Herzog presented Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages with credit card records that documented his trips to California, Texas, Nassau, and beyond. Loyal investors might have been intrigued to learn that the American Express bills averaged more than $10,000 per month. Wainwright, Herzog added, was more than two years overdue on his tourist visa.
Unrepentant, the tortured inventor insisted that he never knew his bond agreement forbade him to leave South Florida A a stance he maintained even after Herzog showed him his very own signature on a form detailing the conditions of his bond.
"I don't think there's much of an argument," Ungaro-Benages said. "The defendant's claim of ignorance in this situation is a little disingenuous. Bond is remanded."
Wainwright made one last, gasping effort: "I swear to you, your honor! I swear by Almighty God I had no idea!"
The judge cast him a tired look, as she banished him to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons. "I would suggest to you, sir, that this is willful ignorance," she announced. "If it's ignorance at all.
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