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."