Aloe drug trial opens

T-Up producer facing fraud charges

product was sold as cancer cure

April 06, 2000|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

In one of the nation's largest criminal cases involving alternative medicine, a federal prosecutor said yesterday that a Baltimore businessman duped hundreds of dying people into buying "a miracle treatment" that amounted to a large-scale fraud.

"This case is about how far a salesman will go in his sales pitch to sell his drug to the American public," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Virginia B. Evans in yesterday's opening statements. "It was a business designed to relieve cancer patients of their pocketbooks, not their suffering."

The trial, expected to last three months in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, will focus on 17 families of the terminally ill people, all of whom bought an unapproved drug called T-Up from Allen J. Hoffman. Prosecutors say Hoffman's company collected more than $2.3 million in T-Up sales from 3,706 people across the country in 18 months.

T-Up was a concentrated form of aloe vera, a natural substance used in hand lotions but which has seen some experimental use as an immune system booster for cancer and AIDS patients. Federal prosecutors are trying to prove that it is unlawful for salesmen to tout unproved medicine, the first such case in Baltimore.

Each year millions of people turn to alternative medicine for treatments of ailments ranging from blisters to leukemia. Medical experts say the practice is growing -- and so are the numbers of people looking to cash in on it.

"When you're dying, what have you got to lose? Just money," said Dr. Ronald M. Klatz, head of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine in Chicago. "Alternative medicine is an important field that has led to many breakthroughs. But high-pressure marketeers have brought a great deal of huckstering to alternative medicine."

Aloe vera can be legally sold over the counter as a nutritional supplement. But Hoffman and his partners marketed their T-Up product as a cure and treatment for cancer, meaning that it should have been tested and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Evans said.

"This case is not about whether natural substances are good for you," Evans said. "It's about false promises. It's about salesmen using fraud and deception to sell their product."

Hoffman, 53, and another businessman, Odus Hennessee of Lawton, Okla., who grew the aloe vera on his farm, are charged with numerous counts of mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to produce an unapproved drug. T-Up was advertised on radio ads, the Internet, and audio tapes bearing such titles as "There is hope -- You do not have to die."

Hoffman's lawyer, Michael Marr, said Hoffman didn't intend to mislead anyone. He also suggested that most of the money -- about $12,000 for a two-week course and intravenous injections of aloe vera -- went to a doctor in the T-Up organization, Donald L. MacNay.

MacNay, who was a Manassas, Va. physician, pleaded guilty last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to mail fraud and conspiracy to produce an unapproved drug. Virginia medical authorities revoked his medical license and said the aloe vera treatments may have led to the deaths of three people.

Marr said Hoffman is a believer in aloe vera's medicinal powers and thought he was providing his customers with a valuable service.

"His intention was to help people get well," Marr said. "He might not have crossed every `t' and dotted every `i,' but he was trying to help them."

Prosecutors and U.S. postal inspectors painted a different picture of Hoffman in court papers and in opening statements yesterday. They described him as an aggressive salesman who answered his phone in his Baltimore office as "Dr. Hoffman," even though he never went to medical school.

He told desperate, dying customers that his treatment was approved by the FDA and that he had a doctoral degree with a background in microbiology, prosecutors said. He also purported to have invented ultrasound treatment and to have been a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, they said.

Evans said none of those claims were true and were made up in order for him to have more credibility to sell his product.

"He was no more a scientist and a Ph.D. than I am an astronaut," Evans told the jury.

Among those who are expected to testify in the case are Deanna Crabbe, the widow of Douglas Crabbe, a Port Deposit trucking company owner who died in April 1997. In the months before he died of throat cancer, Douglas Crabbe turned to T-Up, hoping that it would bring relief where traditional medicine couldn't.

The aloe vera made him even sicker, causing repeated vomiting and swelling of the skin, prosecutors said. Becoming increasingly disillusioned with the treatment, Deanna Crabbe made a surprise visit to Hoffman's office to talk to him about her husband's worsening condition.

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