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'Miracle machine' scam targets the desperately ill

SEATTLE - In the late 1980s, an out-of-work math instructor in Colorado built an electronic device he claimed could diagnose and destroy disease - everything from allergies to cancer - by firing radio frequencies into the body.

SEATTLE - In the late 1980s, an out-of-work math instructor in Colorado built an electronic device he claimed could diagnose and destroy disease - everything from allergies to cancer - by firing radio frequencies into the body.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical devices, ordered William Nelson to quit selling his machine and making false claims. Nelson refused, and he was indicted on felony fraud charges. He fled the country, never to return.

That should have been the unremarkable end of another peddler of medical miracles.

Today, Nelson, 56, orchestrates one of America's boldest health-care frauds from a century-old building in Budapest, Hungary. Protected by barred gates, surveillance cameras and guards, he rakes in tens of millions of dollars selling a machine used to exploit the vulnerable and desperately ill.

This device is called the EPFX. In the U.S. alone, Nelson has sold more than 10,000 of them.


Nelson built his business by recruiting a sales force of physicians, chiropractors, nurses and thousands of unlicensed providers, from homemakers to retirees, drawn by the promise of easy money.

Nelson is just one profiteer, with one device.

A Seattle Times investigation has uncovered a global network of manufacturers who sell unproven devices, and practitioners who prey on unsuspecting patients.

Capitalizing on weak government oversight, they have used these devices - some illegal, others potentially dangerous - to drain patients' bank accounts, misdiagnose diseases, and divert critically ill people from life-saving care.

These victims are casualties in the growing field called "energy medicine" - alternative therapies based on the belief that the body has energy fields that can be manipulated to improve health. Energy devices range from handheld machines the size of television remotes to behemoth machines that weigh hundreds of pounds, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $55,000.

Many manufacturers and operators do follow FDA rules and disclose that treatments are unproven.

But The Seattle Times' investigation, based on government records and more than 200 interviews, found thousands who skirt the law.

Today, dozens of energy-device manufacturers present flashy Web sites with video testimonials and fake science.


"The message itself has stayed the same for centuries: 'This is the cure that I discovered and it's backed with testimonials from lots of people snatched from the grave by using it,'" said James Whorton, professor of medical history at the University of Washington's School of Medicine.

One tragic story

In a clinic in Tulsa, Okla., JoAnn Burggraf, 58, sat in an oversized armchair as she was hooked up to an EPFX.

Clinic owner Sigrid Myers, who was trained on the device in Seattle, wrapped black straps containing electrodes around Burggraf's forehead, wrists and ankles. The straps were connected to the shoe-box-sized EPFX, which plugged into a desktop computer.

Myers used the EPFX to scan and analyze Burggraf's body. Burggraf watched as the monitor displayed bright-colored graphics representing parts of her body that Myers said were unhealthy.

Then, Myers recounted, she set the EPFX to "zap mode" and transmitted imperceptible, low-level frequencies through the electrodes and into Burggraf's body.

She and her husband, Jerry Burggraf, owned a successful cleaning and restoration company in Tulsa. He developed leukemia and underwent chemotherapy. In 2004, he began EPFX treatments, hoping to stop the disease.

He died in March 2005 at age 59.


Her husband endured painful side effects from the chemotherapy. After that, she distrusted doctors.

She started EPFX sessions, at $60 an hour, seeking relief from pain in her joints and legs.

"I begged her to go to the hospital," her son, Bryan Burggraf, 37, said. "Mom told me this device would make her well."

But her pain grew worse, becoming so intense that she frequently blacked out. In October 2005, Bryan finally convinced his mother that she needed to go to a hospital immediately. She was so weak and sick, with inflamed, open sores on her legs, that she eventually had to be transported by helicopter.

She died within hours of admission. Tests showed that her body had been devastated by undiagnosed leukemia.

Her son said doctors speculated that his parents were exposed to now-banned solvents used in their restoration business.

"I'm outraged that this fraudulent device is still out there," Burggraf said. "If my mom had gone to the hospital earlier there may have been hope. If nothing else, she would not have died in incredible pain."

Myers, a massage therapist, has no formal medical training or college degree. But on the wall of her home clinic were half a dozen framed certificates that bestowed her with health-care titles and credentials such as "naturopathic doctor."


"We're not supposed to say it, legally, but it can zap away disease," she told a reporter who visited the clinic. Asked why the EPFX did not cure JoAnn Burggraf, Myers tearfully explained: "I had just a few days of training. I really didn't know what I was doing."

Now she says she's more experienced.

Myers continues to treat patients in her home office with a newer EPFX. She persuaded an elderly patient to buy the machine for her, which cost $12,000. In exchange, Myers said, she didn't charge the woman for EPFX sessions to treat her heart disease.

That patient died, too.

Con artistLast year, at an international EPFX conference in Budapest, William Nelson bounded to a stage in front of a cheering crowd of several hundred - operators of the machine or those hoping to buy one. They rose to their feet and applauded.

He explained how he had used the EPFX to cure cancer and AIDS.

"It helps that I'm a genius," he told them.

But nothing is what it appears with Nelson, including his appearance. On stage, he wore a white dress, heels and heavy makeup.


"Judge the teaching, not the teacher," he told the crowd in a soothing baritone. Nelson is a polished performer - funny, confident, commanding the tools of a natural-born salesman.

Later, under his stage name Desire Dubounet, he sang rock songs at his lounge, Club Bohemian Alibi.

This is the Nelson that few patients ever learn about.

From his restored, five-story building in downtown Budapest, Nelson operates the main EPFX business, Eclosion, and lives with his fifth wife and 8-year-old son. He has a personal staff of about a dozen, including a cook, hairdresser, nanny, security guards and chauffeurs.

From his movie production studio, he has created films that portray him as the crusader of alternative medicine and the FDA as the corrupt villain.

He said he has sold 17,000 EPFX devices worldwide. They now cost $19,900 each.

Nelson makes extraordinary claims about his life. He said he worked as a contractor for NASA, helping to save the troubled Apollo 13 mission as a teenager. He boasts that he was an alternate member of the 1968 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. He says he has eight doctorates, including degrees in medicine and law.

None of it checks out. NASA has no record of his employment; he was not an Olympic athlete. And his "degrees" came from unaccredited schools and mail-order businesses.


Eclosion remains registered with the FDA. Today, Nelson's sales empire reaches across 32 countries with dozens of distributors, brokers and trainers in the U.S. Top sellers can get hefty commissions, tropical cruises and BMW sedans.

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