After two months of testimony, a federal jury now must settle the central question in the fraud case against Allen J. Hoffman: Did the Baltimore businessman believe in the aloe vera treatment he sold across the country, or was he little more than a new-age snake-oil salesman, preying on the sick and dyings' desperate search for a cure?
In closing arguments yesterday, Hoffman's attorney said the former lab technician was convinced that his alternative treatment offered real hope to people diagnosed with everything from cancer to AIDS.
"He was trying to help people. That's where his heart's desire was," defense attorney Michael Marr said.
Federal prosecutors left the jury with a picture of a greedy businessman who tooled around in a black Mercedes Benz, passing himself off as a medical doctor and making millions from an untested and possibly dangerous product.
One of the last witnesses jurors heard from was the salesman who leased the S-320 Mercedes to Hoffman and who later visited Hoffman's company, T-UP Inc. on Green Street in downtown Baltimore. John Miley testified late last week that Hoffman pulled a wad of cash and said business was so good he was having to move money into off-shore accounts.
Hoffman "had found a cure for something, but it wasn't a cure for cancer. He'd found a cure for poverty, his own poverty," Lawrence G. McDade, a Justice Department lawyer said during yesterday's final arguments in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Hoffman, 53, and Odus Hennessee, a businessman who grew the aloe vera on his farm in Lawton, Okla., are charged with mail fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to produce an unapproved drug. The fraud charges carry a possible penalty of five years and a $250,000 fine. The drug charges cold lead to a three-year sentence and the same fine.
Prosecutors say Hoffman's company collected more than $2.3 million in T-UP sales from 3,706 people across the country between 1996 and 1998 by overstating the powers of the aloe treatment.
T-UP was advertised on the Internet and promoted in company brochures, videotapes and an audio tape titled, "There is hope - You do not have to die."
One of the first prosecutions of alternative medicines, the trial opened April 5, and jurors are expected to begin deliberations today. Their verdict is expected to be closely watched, as much for what it says about the growing alternative medicine market as about the two men charged.
Over weeks' of trial testimony, the jury heard competing views about the effectiveness of Hoffman's product.
Prosecution witnesses such as Jerry White, a Cape Cod, Mass., man who suffered from prostate cancer, said they turned to the aloe treatment to avoid surgery or radiation. But after undergoing several months of treatment and paying $9,000, White had suffered a heart attack and his cancer showed no signs of abating, he testified.
Other T-UP customers, testifying for Hoffman, said the product helped them even as it faced the scorn of traditional medicine. Kathy Jo Hansen, of Twin Falls, Idaho, sought out Hoffman after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She said she was given injections of the aloe product at a clinic in Mexico, and the tumors shrunk.
"I was more than satisfied," Hansen testified. "I was ecstatic."
Hoffman has argued he promoted the aloe product only as a nutritional supplement that could help the body build its immune system to fight off disease. But prosecutors say he marketed it as a new drug - even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not approved it.
Government lawyers said Hennessee was part of the conspiracy, bottling the product in small vials designed for intravenous use although such injections were not allowed in the United States. Hennessee's attorney, Russell Duncan, argued yesterday that investigators overreached and failed to tie him to the case. Jurors could offer separate verdicts for Hennessee and Hoffman.
Hoffman, a Baltimore native, frequently referred to himself as a doctor and as a cancer researcher. Hoffman paid $500 for what he described as an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in Germany; a registrar from the college said Hoffman never was awarded a degree.
Hoffman said he continues to study the benefits of aloe vera and the mineral compound cesium chloride, though he told a government lawyer that he plans to move his business overseas.
"I'm not going to do that in the United States, because you people cause me too much aggravation," Hoffman said.