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Faith, Hope & Fraud : Desperate Cancer Victims Say Jimmy Keller Is a Miracle Worker. The Government Says He's a Con Man.

December 15, 1991|Paul Ciotti | Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer

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."

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