One of the authors of a university report on infertility has admitted a multi-million-dollar fraud, reports Paul Harris in New York
It was a miracle that created headlines around the world. Doctors at one of the world’s top medical schools claimed to have scientifically proved the power of prayer.
Many Americans took the Columbia University research – announced in October 2001 after the terror attacks on New York and Washington – as a sign from God. It seemed to prove that praying helped infertile women to conceive.
But The Observer can reveal a story of fraud and cover-up behind the research. One of the study’s authors is a conman obsessed with the paranormal who has admitted to a multi-million-dollar scam. Daniel Wirth, now under house arrest in California awaiting sentencing, has used a series of false identities for several decades, including that of a dead child.
Wirth is at the centre of a network of bizarre scientific research, often working with co-researcher Joseph Horvath. Horvath has pleaded guilty to fraud, has used a series of false names and is accused of burning down his house for insurance money.
Many scientists are now questioning how someone with Wirth’s background was able to persuade Columbia University Medical Centre to unveil his research in such a high-profile way. They also want to know why it appeared in the respected Journal of Reproductive Medicine, whose vetting procedures are usually strict. ‘We are concerned this study could be totally fraudulent. It is an amazing saga,’ said Dr Bruce Flamm, a clinical professor at the University of California.
The study claimed to show that a woman’s chances of conceiving through IVF treatment doubled when someone prayed for them. ‘IVF is a very difficult procedure. Increasing the success rate by 100 per cent would be a huge breakthrough, a revolution,’ said Flamm.
The study was based on an IVF programme in Korea. Prayer groups in the United States, Canada and Australia were shown anonymous pictures of women on the programme and asked to pray. The subjects were not told they were part of a study, but the results claimed to show that the group had double the success rate of a group not being prayed for.
The research listed three authors of the study: Daniel Wirth and two Columbia fertility specialists, Dr Kwang Cha and Dr Rogerio Lobo. Kwang Cha has since left Columbia and now helps to run fertility clinics in Los Angeles and Korea. Lobo is still at Columbia. Neither returned phone calls and emails requesting an interview. Wirth’s lawyer, William Arbuckle, also failed to return The Observer’s calls.
On 18 May, Wirth pleaded guilty to multi-million-dollar fraud charges against US cable telecommunications company Adelphia Communications. While working for Adelphia, Horvath had steered $2.1 million of contracts to Wirth. The pair now face up to five years in jail and up to $250,000 in fines.
FBI papers filed during the case also show that Wirth has used a series of false identities over the years. In the mid-1980s, Wirth used the name of John Wayne Truelove to obtain a passport and rent apartments in California. The real Truelove was a New York child who had died as an infant in 1959.
He also used the name of Rudy Wirth, who died in 1998, to establish an address in New York and claim social security benefits. It is not clear whether Wirth and Rudy Wirth were related.
It has emerged that Wirth has no medical qualifications. He graduated with a law degree and then took a master’s in parapsychology at John F. Kennedy University in California, where he met Horvath.
Wirth and Horvath have co-authored numerous pieces of research claiming to prove paranormal activities. Many of them are linked to a body called Healing Sciences Research International, which Wirth heads. However, the institute appears to be only a mail box with no telephone number.
Horvath also has a long criminal history and has used many fake identities, including Joseph Hessler, a child who died in Connecticut in 1957. It was as Hessler that he was jailed for fraud in 1990. But it was as John Truelove – using the same false identity as Wirth – that he was arrested in 2002 for burning down his own bungalow in order to claim the insurance. Horvath has also pleaded guilty to practising medicine without a licence after posing as a doctor in California.
Sceptical scientists liken the two to a pair of conmen, similar to the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film Catch Me If You Can. ‘They seemed to think they were cleverer than everyone else. It was maybe the love of the game that spurred them on,’ said Professor Dale Beyerstein of the University of British Columbia, who has been investigating the pair’s research for several years.
Columbia University would not comment on the Wirth case. However, shortly after the prayer and fertility study was published, the Department of Health began an investigation into the university’s research. It found numerous ethical problems. Lobo, a respected scientist who was named initially as the lead author of the research, had only provided ‘editorial review and assistance with publication’ on the study.
Scientists are pressing Columbia and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine to disown the research. But the JRM still has the study on its website. Phone calls to the journal were not returned. Columbia removed the press release announcing the study from its online archive shortly after receiving requests from scientists for comment after the Wirth fraud charges. But the university has not officially commented, ignoring clarification requests from the Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health.