You may remember the excellent CBS 60 Minutes documentary, "21 Century Snake Oil Salesmen," produced by the respected and talented executive at CBS, David Gelber. The program focused on two of the worst, but then relatively unknown, fraudulent stem cell practitioners: "Dr." Frank Morales of Texas and Mexico and "Professor" Lawrence Stowe of Dallas. With the participation of two patients with whom we were very close, ALSWorldwide and CBS set up a "sting" operation in both Ft. Worth, TX and Monterrey, Mexico. Both men were eventually brought to trial, pleaded guilty in early 2014 and are currently serving their 5 year sentences. Restitution of $479,862 was also ordered.
The sting operation began in December 2009 and culminated in a very successful 40-minute episode of CBS 60 Minutes, first broadcast on April 18, 2010. The Emmy award-winning show (Outstanding Investigative Journalism in a News Magazine - presented on September 26, 2011) was instrumental in two ways: informing the authorities, the public and the ALS community of the culprits (Stowe and Morales) illegal and immoral actions and stopping them from preying on those with ALS and other motor neuron diseases.
BUT, the governments of Mexico and the United States were then unable to bring these people and their associates to justice. Stowe and Morales "went underground" and temporarily stopped their crooked and deceitful practice of purporting to provide treatment when their only real goal was to extract money from those who were most disadvantaged--ALS patients and families. Despite the efforts of many people, including those at CBS, ALS Worldwide, the trail grew cold. Then a 24-count indictment was unsealed on December 27, 2011, charging Stowe and Morales with criminal behavior.
Following are links to both the CBS 60 Minutes program "21st Century Snake Oil Salesmen" and the Nature Magazine Newsblog of December 29, 2011 with the story of the arrests.
The Story Behind the Story (as Paul Harvey used to say)
The serendipitous nature of this entire project started with David Gelber's call to ALSWW at noon on December 10, 2009. He was seeking information about questionable or crooked stem cell practitioners about whom to report and had been directed to ALS WORLDWIDE for information by Bernard Siegel, founder of Genetics Policy Institute and organizer of the annual World Stem Cell Summit. At 2 PM that same day, I received a call from the sister of an ALS patient in Houston, whose brother had just paid $47,000 out of a total $150,000 for "stem cell therapy". Her instincts properly told her that her brother was a victim of deceit and dishonesty. She asked the involvement of ALSWW to confirm (or perhaps reject) her fears.
It took less than two hours to find out that "Professor" Lawrence Stowe's academic, medical, financial and other claims were bogus. A simple internet search confirmed that his "Stowe Foundation" address was a drop box in a Ft. Worth, TX strip mall, his house was mortgaged well beyond its worth and in default, his academic credentials at the University of Illinois had nothing to do with the science of stem cell technology and his "blood testing laboratory" was in a trailer park in South Carolina.
Further internet searches uncovered equally damaging information about his accomplice "Dr" Frank Morales. His claim of an MD degree from Texas Tech University, El Paso, was untrue, his undergraduate degree in the British West Indies was from a college long ago closed for being a "diploma mill", his claimed associations with several reputable organizations were denied by those organizations and the hospital in Monterrey, Mexico at which he claimed to be the Director of Stem Cell Therapy stated "we know of Mr Morales and have nothing whatsoever to do with him. No further comment."
An analysis of the "vitamins, supplements and minerals" supplied by Stowe to the patient were chemically and financially examined and found to be ordinary supplements of poor quality, mislabeled or relabeled as something different than they were, overpriced by anywhere from 50-100 times their retail value and, perhaps most importantly, of no use whatsoever for those with ALS, based on prevailing knowledge of supplements ordinarily provided by responsible practitioners.
After securing the involvement of the first patient and his sister to participate in the "sting," we then obtained the participation of the second patient, a wonderful college administrator from Lufkin, TX. We asked for his participation because of the geographic proximity to the other patient and to Stowe/Morales and because he had recently retired from his professional role and wanted to support the effort to bring these predators to justice.
The takedown of Stowe/Morales began with the first patient and his family on a speakerphone with them while David Gelber, Barbara and I listened in from a small hotel room in Houston. Stowe incriminated himself flagrantly with obvious lies and exaggerations during that call. David Gelber, while a well-known producer of 60 Minutes, was not shown in online photographs, so he and a model portraying an MND patient then traveled to see Morales in Monterrey, Mexico and "set the trap" for yet another "stem cell surgery." Through our colleagues at Tecnologico de Monterrey, we were able to learn that Morales was portraying an unleased vacant office in a new office building as his "surgery center."
On the day of the "takedown" in Monterrey, at the Camino Real Hotel Presidential Suite, which we had arranged for CBS to use, hidden cameras were set up and the recorded meeting between both patients and Stowe/Morales took place. At the proper time, both David Gelber and the interviewer Scott Pelley (now anchor man of CBS Evening News) came in from an adjoining room to confront the perpetrators. Barbara and I were hovering nearby, getting telephone updates from David Gelber. We narrowly avoided detection when Stowe approached patient friends of ours in the hotel restaurant and began soliciting them for his scheme. The friends called and said that Stowe was waiting for them to meet with him and I advised them to simply not show up.
After the recorded meeting at the Camino Real, Morales and Stowe threatened both CBS and the patients with litigation. Realizing they would not fall for the empty threats, both of them went into hiding and couldn't be located by Mexican or US authorities. The Mexico Cofre Pris (FDA equivalent) and the Ministry of Health worked tirelessly to find Morales and the FBI located Stowe and his accomplices in the US.
It's a sad story when those who are already most disadvantaged, the ALS community, are further subjected to dishonesty, false hope, and financial trauma with worthless treatments. As we have said so many times, ALS families must listen to those they truly respect (their neurologists, other proven medical practitioners, recognized and reputable organizations such as MDA, ALSA, ALS WORLDWIDE, MNDA, NEALS and others listed on our Associations page). Further, they must always use their instincts and common sense to "smell test" those with whom they are put in contact.
The patients who participated in the documentary, our good friends Michael Martin of Houston, TX and Steve Watters of Lufkin, TX are both deceased. David Gelber left CBS 60 Minutes in 2011 after 25 years to become an independent film producer. ALS Worldwide received the Grassroots Advocacy Award from Genetics Policy Institute in October, 2010 at the World Stem Cell Summit in Detroit, MI partially for our role in initiating and organizing the sting operation. We continue our effort to help identify both the high quality, well organized and properly overseen stem cell facilities from those that are shameful in their deceitful, illegal practices with financial gain as their only purpose.