Source: Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, July 31, 2001 pK7014.
Title: Scientific gadfly weaves intricate tapestry of deceit.(Chicago
Author: John Crewdson
Full Text COPYRIGHT 2001 Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service
When the House subcommittee on investigations held daylong hearings on human
cloning in March, Avi Ben-Abraham was seated in the first row, directly in
line with the television cameras. According to subcommittee aides, Ben-Abraham
appeared unexpectedly, in the company of the principal witness, former
University of Kentucky fertility researcher Panos Zavos, politely offering to
help answer the subcommittee's questions.
Three weeks before, the multimillionaire founder of a Chicago-area biotech
company turned up at the University of Rome, where the Italian Society for
Reproductive Medicine was sponsoring a conference on human cloning. Although
not on the conference program, Ben-Abraham began introducing himself to
reporters as a member of the scientific team, led by Zavos and Italian
gynecologist Severino Antinori, that claims it will clone the first human
being within two years.
It was merely the latest incarnation for 43-year-old Ben-Abraham, who has
spent the past two decades surfacing, disappearing and resurfacing in the
company of presidents, prime ministers, Hong Kong billionaires, European
royalty, Hollywood moguls and members of the Kennedy family. Although he
failed to win election, Ben-Abraham, a political neophyte, gained a coveted
place two years ago on the ruling Likud Party's slate of candidates for the
Israeli parliament through the personal intervention of then-Prime Minister
Ben-Abraham has used his relationships, however ephemeral, with the high and
mighty to forge connections with the friends of friends and acquaintances. His
purported credentials as a child-prodigy physician have lent Ben-Abraham an
aura of expertise on such urgent public health issues as cancer and AIDS,
affording him unparalleled access to important political figures, the media
and wealthy investors on three continents.
"He has this ability to talk about anything and everything," said one man
whose family befriended Ben-Abraham for several years. "He is one of the most
charming, one of the most amusing, one of the most entertaining, believable
people. He can cry in a split second. He can seem as solemn as the pope. The
next second he can be cheerful and show you the best time. He's a genius.
Everyone felt they were dealing with an exceptional intelligence."
Ben-Abraham's own account of his life, as recorded in the piles of news
clippings he carries in his personal portfolio along with photographs of
himself with the rich and famous, is remarkable by any measure: able to read
and write at age 2, mastered Einstein's theory of general relativity at 7,
graduated from high school at 13, performed advanced research in medicine and
physics at 15, participated in open-heart surgery at 16, played a key role in
the discoveries that underlie the Strategic Defense Initiative, nominated for
the Nobel Prize at 23. "I am awake," he once told The Boston Globe, "and most
other people are asleep."
But there is an unseen side to Avi Ben-Abraham as extraordinary as his public
Title due to errors
His claim to the title, at age 18, of the world's youngest MD -- an
achievement recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records -- turns out to
rest on nothing more than a string of bureaucratic errors and
misunderstandings. His claim to have provided the inspiration for "Doogie
Howser, M.D.," the TV show about a teenage boy who becomes a doctor, is
dismissed by the program's creator, Steven Bochco, who wrote the Chicago
Tribune that "I never heard of Mr. (Dr.) Ben-Abraham." Ben-Abraham purports to
have been named "Israel's Man of the Year in Science and Medicine," an honor
that does not exist.
Indeed, almost nothing about Avi Ben-Abraham is as it appears, including the
non-existent AIDS vaccine for which he raised millions of dollars from
sophisticated investors, who subsequently forced his ignominious exit from the
leadership of the company he founded, BioSante Pharmaceuticals of
Even Ben-Abraham's most recent claim, that he will play a key role in the
human cloning project, is dismissed by Antinori, who said, "He is not part of
When Ben-Abraham's veracity is challenged, prominent personalities leap to his
defense, among them a powerful member of the Israeli Cabinet who hints at
shadowy relationships between Ben-Abraham and unnamed intelligence services, a
legendary Israeli spymaster, and Harvard University law professor Alan
Dershowitz, who is Ben-Abraham's attorney.
On several occasions, Ben-Abraham informed the Tribune through his attorneys
and other intermediaries that he would provide details and documentation to
resolve questions about his life story and business activities. The promised
interview was canceled after Gen. Meir Amit, who headed the Israeli
intelligence service during the 1960s, informed the Tribune in a letter that
he had "instructed" Ben-Abraham not to answer the newspaper's questions.
But more than 100 other interviews in this country and abroad, and hundreds of
pages of documents obtained by the Tribune, illuminate the story of the son of
an Iraqi immigrant in a working-class suburb of Tel Aviv and came to be feted
by the world press as a "human wonder" and a "monster of intelligence" with an
IQ "too high to be measured."
Within weeks of Ben-Abraham's graduation from the University of Perugia in
Italy in 1976, the largest-circulation newspaper in Israel reported that
"world-renowned scientists have taken an interest in the young man and
requested to have him join their research institutes."
Already, said the newspaper Yediot Ahronot, the 18-year-old Ben-Abraham had
attended an international cancer conference in Helsinki, Finland, and
"published articles about cancer side by side with well-known professors in
this field, in scientific publications published around the world."
"The goal of my life," Ben-Abraham told the newspaper, was to find the cure
for cancer "and put an end to human suffering."
That goal appears to have been short-lived. No cancer research articles by
Ben-Abraham exist in any medical database. Nor do they appear on Ben-Abraham's
In 1981, when Ben-Abraham surfaced in Geneva at the wedding of the daughter of
a multimillionaire commodities trader, he was quoted by the Israeli newspaper
Ma'ariv as telling other guests he had abandoned medicine for "secret research
on a subject that will in the future revolutionize the world," something about
creating energy from black holes that had some connection to the U.S. Central
For someone with government connections, Ben-Abraham had a considerable amount
of trouble trying to obtain an American visa for his older brother, Chaim, at
the U.S. Embassy in Oslo in spring 1982.
According to a U.S. government document, the brothers made "a nuisance of
themselves" at the embassy by "harassing Norwegian citizens." Both brothers
"claimed to be medical doctors with extraordinarily high IQs. They also
claimed to be very well-connected throughout the U.S., and even indicated that
they had been invited to the U.S. by the director of the CIA."
The document pointedly adds that "the Israeli government advised that Ben
Abraham had no connection with their government or intelligence service. The
USG [U.S. government] advised that Ben Abraham had no connection with their
government or intelligence service."
Hanging around Berkeley
When Avi Ben-Abraham surfaced a few years later, it was in the San Francisco
Bay area, where one of his three sisters lived with her well-to-do husband.
Soon after arriving, Ben-Abraham began making headlines again.
In April 1989, The Saturday Evening Post declared that "Dr. Avi Ben-Abraham's
research on low-temperature medicine at the University of California,
Berkeley, may lead both to lower-risk surgeries that require no transfused
blood and to a cancer treatment that targets specific organs."
Although the article included a photograph of Ben-Abraham standing in a
laboratory dressed in a white coat, the University of California said
Ben-Abraham has never held a faculty or research position there, or been
employed in any other capacity.
One researcher does recall, however, that Ben-Abraham "used to hang around"
Berkeley scientists who were experimenting with freezing and thawing animals.
"He just kept on showing up," Paul Segall said. "Maybe he'd hand us something
if we needed it, a pair of forceps or some ice. He did manage to get his name
on one of our papers, though. He'd been hanging around, and we sort of said,
`Well, what the heck.' We thought he was some visiting scientist from
somewhere. He said he was a physician who had done research in Italy. In
retrospect, he shouldn't have been on the paper."
The paper, "Interventive Gerontology, Cloning, and Cryonics," appears on
Ben-Abraham's resume -- without the names of any of the other authors.
Ben-Abraham hadn't been in California long before he encountered the American
Cryonics Society, a San Francisco-area group that freezes its dead members in
cylinders of liquid nitrogen until science figures out how to cure whatever
In choosing Ben-Abraham as its president, the society saw a chance to put
itself "on the map," recalled Jackson Zinn, a San Francisco lawyer and
longtime member. "I was very impressed," Zinn said. "He had this Guinness Book
of Records article there, you know -- youngest MD in world history. I thought,
`Jeez, this guy could really give us a boost.' So we all welcomed him with
The society's journal, with a cover featuring a picture of Ben-Abraham with
Ronald and Nancy Reagan, reported that, based on his "estimated" IQ of 250,
the society's new president had been identified "as one of the 100 most
intelligent people in history."
Well-dressed, articulate and engaging, Ben-Abraham had a talent for making
Shortly after the death of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos,
Ben-Abraham reportedly called his wife, Imelda, and offered to freeze her
husband. Appearing on the Joan Rivers show a few weeks before the gulf war,
Ben-Abraham announced that representatives of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein
had telephoned to ask about freezing samples of Hussein's semen and cells for
the cloning of a future Hussein. "He wants to be immortal," Ben-Abraham
"He certainly looked good in a suit and could on television do lots of sound
bites," said Steve Bridge, head of a rival cryonics firm, Alcor, of
Scottsdale, Ariz. "But anybody I ever talked to with much cryonics knowledge
that actually had a conversation with him found out that his knowledge about
cryonics was not very deep."
According to Zinn, who subsequently became disillusioned with Ben-Abraham, "He
would call people that were prominent, and then when he got a return call he'd
say they'd made an inquiry about cryonics. For example, he called over for
Hussein -- as if they're going to put him on. Somebody called him back, from
some bureaucracy somewhere. So then he said that Hussein had made an inquiry
about being frozen."
Even so, the attention generated by Ben-Abraham produced the first real
publicity in the cryonics society's history, including long articles in the
Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. But the most effusive article appeared
in a Bay-area newspaper, the now-defunct Peninsula Times Tribune, which was
owned by Tribune Company, also owner of the Chicago Tribune.
Ben-Abraham had spent his early 20s "delving into theoretical physics with his
brother Chaim," the Times Tribune reported. But he was "reluctant to discuss
his physics work, which he said is top secret. The results, which he said laid
the foundation for the Strategic Defense Initiative technology, led to the
brothers' nominations for Nobel Prizes in physics and peace."
As important to the cryonics society as its new president's media savvy were
the political connections he had begun to build. According to the Bay-area
society pages, Ben-Abraham often used his brother-in-law's palatial home in
Los Altos Hills, south of San Francisco, to hold political events that
attracted such luminaries as Ethel and Joseph Kennedy Jr., Kathleen Kennedy
Townsend, actors Elliott Gould and David Soul, and Muhammad Ali, who later
toured the nearby facility where cryonics society "clients" were receiving
"long-term cold care."
Ben-Abraham's political contacts won him a seat on the California State Bar's
Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, which rates the fitness of
candidates for judicial appointments, and on the board of directors of a local
biotech company, Genetic Sciences. Soon the walls of the cryonics society's
office were adorned with photographs of Ben-Abraham with Ronald Reagan, Jimmy
Carter and Brooke Shields.
On weekends, Ben-Abraham commuted to Los Angeles to see a girlfriend, Jennifer
Thaw, whom he had met at an L.A. disco. Although the cryonics society's
presidency was an unpaid position, Ben-Abraham appeared quite prosperous to
Thaw, inviting her to stay with him in exclusive hotels and escorting her to
During their yearlong relationship, Thaw said she never thought to question
the source of the money Ben-Abraham spent so freely.
A possible answer arose with the cryonics society's discovery that Ben-Abraham
had used an American Express card intended for society business to run up
about $10,000 in personal expenses.
"Avi was supposed to pay the bill," Zinn said. "He never paid anything on it,
so American Express was a little bit upset. As soon as he got sued, that
caused him to really panic. Ben-Abraham finally coughed up the money, in
installments. But the scandal caused his departure from the cryonics society."
When Ben-Abraham moved away from the San Francisco Bay area, court records
show, he left behind other outstanding judgments totaling nearly $20,000:
$4,000 to Visa, $5,443.75 plus interest to Nordstrom's (for unpaid charges by
"Rabbi Avi Ben-Avraham") and $12,170 in back rent and damages to the
Ambassador Royal in Mountain View, where he had been living with his brother,
Chaim, in a $1,000-a-month apartment.
According to Kay Tealer, who managed the apartment complex, Ben-Abraham was
invariably late with the rent, "and when he did pay, the check usually
bounced." Tealer recalled laughing at Ben-Abraham's excuses, such as, "`All my
money is tied up in my research.' He would always try to talk himself out of
it. He'd promise he'd catch up tomorrow."
But Tealer also admits to having been charmed. "He said he was Doogie Howser,"
Tealer recalled. "He always presented himself as extremely well-educated. His
suits fit to a T. You'd think they were sewn on his body. He was very
immaculate about his person. But when you took a look at his apartment, you
asked where that came from."
Eventually, Tealer said, the unpaid rent "just got to the point that they
couldn't catch up anymore," and the brothers were evicted.
Casting about for what to do next, Avi Ben-Abraham focused on the Clinton
administration, preferably "a job on the staff of the presidential science
adviser," recalled Kent Cullers, a NASA researcher who had "a few
conversations" with Ben-Abraham during his time in the Bay area.
Asked about Ben-Abraham's resume entry as an adviser to NASA's "Space Cryonics
Program," Cullers replied that "there's no such program. It was an idea that
the cryonics people proposed, but I know that NASA never accepted any such
thing. The idea was to use cryonics and suspended animation techniques so that
starships and other things would become practical."
Other acquaintances remember being shown a letter, signed by two dozen
senators and congressmen, urging President Bill Clinton to appoint Ben-Abraham
to the newly created post of AIDS czar. To bolster his candidacy, Ben-Abraham
claimed to have headed the "Medical Advisory Boards" of the Washington, D.C.,
AIDS protest group ACT UP and another AIDS group, Hollywood Supports.
Rich Jennings, the founder of Hollywood Supports, said the organization has
never had a medical advisory board, and had no relationship with Ben-Abraham
beyond "a meeting with him once a few years ago. We did some checking on him
afterward and we discovered that some of the things he had said weren't true."
Steve Michaels of ACT UP/DC had a similar recollection. "He came to us,"
Michaels recalled. "He was talking about wanting to be AIDS czar. He proposed
putting a committee together. We said, `Sure. Sounds good.' But there was
never anything. Talk is cheap."
Ben-Abraham also claimed to have been an AIDS adviser to the San Francisco
Health Commission. But Sandi Mori, the commission's secretary, said, "I have
never heard of this person, and I know everybody who has anything to do with
When a Washington appointment didn't materialize, Ben-Abraham headed for Los
Angeles, where a mutual friend introduced him to a well-to-do stockbroker,
Joseph Arsenault, who invited Ben-Abraham to join him in his mansion on Sunset
Boulevard, where the two spent several months "enjoying Los Angeles," in
"He was playing," Arsenault said, "and not doing much with his life. He was
taking a break." Arsenault, who thought Ben-Abraham was wasting his talents,
said he "convinced him to get off his ass and go to work," providing a
reference to the New York headquarters of his firm, Whale Securities.
No sooner had Ben-Abraham moved into a townhouse on East 55th Street in
Manhattan than he began passing out business cards identifying himself as
Whale's "Director of Medical and Advanced Technologies."
"He did not work here, was not employed here, didn't have a title here," said
a senior Whale executive who spoke on condition that he not be identified. "He
was basically a `finder.' He had a thing that if he brought us a deal he'd get
something out of it, like 500 other people. He printed his business cards
without our knowledge. As soon as we found out, we told him to leave."
Before that happened, Ben-Abraham met Bryan Gransden, a wealthy Canadian
financier who with his partner, Claus Wagner-Bartak, had spent $6million to
fund what they believed was breakthrough research in "nanoparticle technology"
Their tiny Toronto company, Structured Biologicals, was nearly out of money,
and someone suggested they talk to Avi Ben-Abraham.
"We were attracted to Avi Ben-Abraham, because we needed somebody who could
help us to raise money," said Wagner-Bartak, a respected German-Canadian
engineer who headed the development of the "Canada arm," the space shuttle's
Gransden remembers Ben-Abraham's "immensely full portfolio," including his
diploma, articles, correspondence with the rich and famous, even pictures
taken with Pope John Paul I. "One set of correspondence seemed to suggest he
was being seriously considered for the post of president of Israel," Gransden
To Gransden and Wagner-Bartak, Avi Ben-Abraham seemed like the fresh face
their struggling company needed. When Ben-Abraham was elected chairman and
chief executive officer in July 1995, Structured Biologicals announced that it
had "a distinguished academic and physician" at its helm.
Before Ben-Abraham's arrival, there had never been much investor interest in
Structured Biologicals, which was traded as a penny stock on the small
Alberta, Canada, exchange, and whose only real asset was an option to license
the nanoparticle technology being developed at UCLA.
In his first few months on the job, Ben-Abraham raised what Gransden called
"modest amounts" of money, most of it from a consortium of Toronto investors.
Ben-Abraham had been chairman for less than six months when there was a flurry
of buy orders for the company's stock so unexpected that the Alberta exchange
asked Ben-Abraham whether he could account for the sudden interest. He told
the exchange he couldn't.
Less than two weeks later, Ben-Abraham announced in a press release that a
landmark experiment in AIDS therapy, sponsored by Structured Biologicals, was
about to take place in San Francisco.
The experiment, which made headlines around the world, involved the
transplanting of bone marrow from a baboon to a San Francisco AIDS patient,
The idea behind the transplant technique, developed by Dr. Suzanne Ildstadt of
the University of Pittsburgh, was that because baboons are resistant to the
human AIDS virus, baboon blood cells might help confer immunity in humans.
Wagner-Bartak recalled being instructed by Ben-Abraham to send Ildstadt a
check for $15,000. "He felt by giving it to this professor, he would own her,"
Wagner-Bartak said. According to Ildstadt, who vaguely recalls having met
Ben-Abraham once, the check was one of "many, many" donations in support of
Ben-Abraham's press release claimed he would "take part" in the transplant.
But according to Dr. Stephen Deeks, the surgeon who actually performed the
pioneering operation at the University of California Medical Center,
Ben-Abraham was nowhere near the operating room.
"He came to San Francisco on his own," Deeks said. "He was in the hospital,
but that was it. He kind of followed us around. He wanted to be in the room,
but we refused to let him. After it was over, he disappeared."
According to Wagner-Bartak, Ben-Abraham and Ildstadt later "had a real
fallout, because Ben-Abraham claimed that what she was doing was his work. He
claimed that he was the catalyst of this baboon transplant."
The transplant ultimately proved unsuccessful. But following Ben-Abraham's
announcement, the price of Structured Biologicals stock rose by 31 percent.
Visiting Hong Kong a few days later, Ben-Abraham recounted the transplant
experiment he hadn't observed for the South China Morning Post.
"It was a remarkable day," he told the paper. "As I stood in the hospital
room, watching this simple blood infusion, it was as if while Getty was
accepting death with every drop, he was receiving hope. It was as if with
every drop, history was changing."
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