Basil Wainwright

Basil Earle Wainwright slumps forward, stubby fingers pressed at the temples, head drooped to reveal strands of hair combed across bare scalp. A bottomless sigh whooshes through his lips, completing the pose he has carefully crafted to suggest a withering martyr: Jesus, perhaps, spared the cross and sent into the desert of middle age, paunched about the belly, neck flesh hanging like a turtle's, blue eyes radiating penitence.

With a little less betrayal, Wainwright says, humankind could have had it all: autos that run forever, an end to world hunger, eradication of toxic waste. His latest innovation - no less than a cure for AIDS - offered a miracle to dwarf the loaves and fish. Instead, authorities in South Florida branded the 58-year-old Englishman a quack and a con man and threw him into a prison on the edge of nowhere.

For more than a year he's been left to rot, most recently in the Dade Correctional Institution, his health deteriorating, his heart close to seizing up and calling it quits a dozen times. All for sticking a tube up people's rumps and piping in a bit of magic ozone gas. For this he pleaded guilty to state charges of practicing medicine without a license.

Today he's facing fraud charges in federal court. But the ten-count indictment doesn't begin to trace Basil Wainwright's legacy, a tangled web spun from tantalizing myths, guru charm, and a seemingly endless skein of techno-babble. From his earliest scams in England to his arrest in Pompano Beach on October 11, 1990, Wainwright left a trail of rubes littered across two continents, and frittered away millions of their dollars.

To the self-divined inventor/scientist/humanitarian and his cabal of supporters, money is hardly the issue. His fraud trial, slated to begin this month, will be a shot at resurrection. He plans not only to beat the rap, for which he faces up to sixteen years in prison, but to show the world that his ozone therapy can defeat AIDS and the world's other "incurable" diseases. "This is a conspiracy which, I dare say, is probably worse than Watergate," Wainwright hisses. "I've been seen as an embarrassment to certain entities and someone who's got to be stopped, which is a terrible shame because a lot of people will probably certainly die without our process being available.

"All I want is for the truth to come to light. The truth," he says, and for a moment Wainwright's use of the word renders it utterly, gloriously meaningless.

"Old Basil always talked a good game," remarks Dermot McCann, the no-nonsense detective who led the British investigation into Wainwright's dealings. "I'd listen to him go off in court and he was like a preacher or something, come to save the world. People believed him. A lot of people. That's the sad thing. He didn't just steal people's money, he stole their bloody hope."

Basil Wainwright was born a charmer. The youngest son of a prominent automotive engineer, he grew up in the town of Swindon, a tow-headed kid doted on by the family. "He was the sweetest little guy," recalls his sister, Audrey Richards, who lives in Kentucky. "Everyone loved him. I remember taking Basil to the circus when he was just five or six, holding his warm little hand in mine. When I moved to the States, he was the one I missed the most."

Wainwright was seven when World War II began, and he recounts a childhood straight out of the film Hope and Glory. "We had a lovely little home by the Great Western Rail Works, and so as children the sirens were constantly going off," he remembers. "We had a shelter at the bottom of our garden and Dad used to usher us down there. Mum was always terrified, but after a while we got a bit blase about it. We used to come up and my brother and I would climb the fence above the garden and watch the old dogfights going on." When he was ten, the family moved north to war-scarred Birmingham, where he would arrive at school some days to find that one of his little schoolmates had been "smashed to bits by the bombing."

A zeal for science blossomed early. He remembers tinkering with circuits and light bulbs as a kid, and listening spellbound as his father, a novice inventor, delivered training lectures to Allied flyers. Wainwright claims he was ready for college at age fifteen but dropped out after a motorcycle accident cracked his noggin. Instead, he studied at home, becoming - as his curriculum vitae notes - "completely auto-didact."

Despite intellectual proclivities, Wainwright spent his young adulthood chasing decidedly frivolous dreams. During the Fifties he rode with a motorcycle racing team and drummed in a series of jazz bands, including the Basil Wainwright All-Stars. He also amassed a rap sheet for crimes ranging from receiving stolen goods to obtaining credit by fraud.

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Steven Almond