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THE STATE

Victim's Resolve Brings Down a Star of Science

August 20, 2006|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

The girl set the showdown for the oak-shaded lawn in front of the South Pasadena public library, a lovely spot for an ugly encounter.

She was a high school student with a painful secret that surfaced on her wrists, scarred where she had cut herself.

He was William French Anderson, world-renowned scientist, the father of gene therapy and a martial arts expert with law enforcement connections from the FBI to the chief of his hometown police department in San Marino.

But he couldn't handle the girl.

"God damn it, you're like whining!" she barked.

He said he was sorry, again and again. "I will love you forever," he told her. He was 67; she was 17.

"I just did it -- just something inside me was something just evil," he said.

"Why did you molest me?" she demanded. He said he didn't know.

The girl challenged him. "Are you guilty enough to turn yourself in, huh?"

No. That would damage, he said, "all the people who ironically look up to me as a model of the right way to live, people in Oklahoma [his native state]."

These words, captured by a police wire the girl wore during that 2004 encounter, were part of the evidence that helped convict Anderson on child molestation charges in July.

In her first media interview, the girl described how, after years of denial, she got herself to take on -- and eventually take down -- one of the biggest stars in medicine.

"I realized he could repeat what he did to me. He could do it to somebody else," the girl, now a college student, told a reporter last week in the office of her lawyer, Mary Fulginiti. She spoke on condition of anonymity.

She said she told herself, "If you can't find the strength to do it for yourself, then do it for someone else."

Anderson is in custody and could not be interviewed for this story. His lawyer, Barry Tarlow, said he would comply with the judge's order not to speak to the media about the case.

During his trial, Anderson testified that he might have emotionally abused the girl by pushing her too hard to do well in school and sports, but he said the sexual abuse claims were a vicious lie. He had cared deeply about her, he said. Defense lawyers argued that the girl's mother, Anderson's employee, wanted to usurp the scientist's position as chief of a gene therapy lab at USC.

*

Anderson had a difficult childhood, which in some ways paralleled that of the girl.

Born in Tulsa, Okla., to an engineer father and journalist mother, Anderson was an unpopular stutterer a year younger and inches shorter than his classmates, according to a 2003 biography by Bob Burke and Barry Epperson titled "W. French Anderson: Father of Gene Therapy."

As he recalled in the book, he obnoxiously pointed out his superior intelligence.

A few elders, including his grade school principal and the head of a summer boy's camp, helped him improve his speech and social skills. By high school, he was a top middle-distance runner and a star in debate and drama as well as academics.

He was admitted to Harvard, where he flourished. Only a pulled hamstring kept him from the 1960 Olympic trials as a runner, his biography states. Academically, he did well enough to win a university scholarship for graduate study at Cambridge, where he met Kathryn Dorothy Duncan, a British undergraduate, in an anatomy class. They married on her graduation day and moved on to Harvard for medical school.

Photographs from the period show a strikingly attractive young couple. Kathy looked like Grace Kelly playing a doctor; her charm offset French's lingering traces of awkwardness.

His wife called him "socially underdeveloped," according to his biography. When they entertained at their home, "French played in the pool with the children while the adults chatted," the book noted.

The Andersons told biographers they decided within a few years of their marriage to devote their lives to medicine instead of having children. Kathy became a pediatric surgeon, while Anderson, in 1965, joined the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Genetic engineering was in its infancy, and the thought of using it to cure human diseases was seen more as science fiction than as science by many.

Anderson nevertheless worked feverishly on first establishing its credibility, then making genetic therapy a reality. Each half day, he charted how he spent his time and gave himself a score: two points for research, one point for speeches and journal reading, zero points for administration or non-science.

In the late 1980s, Anderson and his collaborators performed an experimental implant of a harmless bacterial gene into a human. In their 1995 book "Altered Fates: Gene Therapy and the Retooling of Human Life," journalists Jeff Lyon and Peter Gorner compared that scientific achievement with jet airplanes breaking the sound barrier.

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