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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

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."

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