The Death of Lorie Atikian

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

In the early 1990s, Sonia and Khachadour Atikian of Toronto, Canada were prosecuted for failing to provide the necessities of life for their daughter Lorie, who had died in 1987 at the age of 17 months. Courtroom testimony indicated that the child had died of pneumonia and malnutrition after being kept on a meager diet. Mrs. Atikian maintained that she was following the advice of Gerhard Hanswille, a local herbalist who claimed his recommended products and practices could help make Lorie a "super baby."

The Atikians had emigrated from Lebanon and Syria to Canada and had two teenaged children in addition to Lorie. Their cultural background may have made them a bit more vulnerable than the average parent, but, like many people, they were concerned about modern food additives, pesticide residues, and drugs and held positive attitudes toward "natural" food and medicine.

Hanswille said that he learned herbology in Germany through self-study and books and had obtained a doctoral degree in naturopathy from Bernadean University in 1972. He owned two "House of Herbs" stores in Toronto. He also gave seminars at which he expounded his theories, which included making wax and clay effigies sealed with drops of blood and sperm (notions founded in Monism and Vitalism which are the basis of most primitive folk medicine). A book he wrote describes how to heal diabetes, epilepsy, tuberculosis, tumors, and paralysis by "touchless massage." Hanswille likened the technique to dowsing for water, something that "not everyone can do." Sonia paid $450 to one of his courses.

Bernadean University was a nonaccredited correspondence school that was never approved or accredited to offer any courses and was closed down by the Nevada Commission on Postsecondary Education in 1976. Hanswille had no license that entitled him to dispense medical advice. Nevertheless, his vision of natural health made a convert of Sonia. When she became pregnant with Lorie in 1985, Hanswille convinced her to remain "pure" for the sake of the child. She testified that Hanswille promised to make Lorie a super baby who would be "very different," would "develop without chemicals" and would be strong, pure, and "very special." Hanswille convinced Sonia that vaccinations would "poison" her child and that ultrasound examination would damage an unborn baby's brain. He had Sonia tell her pediatrician that she would not be bringing Lorie in any more because the family was moving to California. Hanswille was described as "like a doctor. . . surrounded by medicine and books. . . sure of what he was saying. He always had an answer."

Hanswille advocated an organic, vegetarian diet. He sold the Atikians a juicer for $400 after alleging that their own juicer "burned the nutrition" out of fruits. Among the products the Atikians purchased from Hanswille were a bottle of baby oil that cost $16, a bar of soap costing $7.40, and a 3 kg box of laundry detergent that cost $35.99.

When Lorie became ill she was treated with royal jelly, "cell salts," and an herbal concoction brewed by Hanswille. He also treated her with an electromagnetic "vitalizing" device that "stimulates the blood" and had attachments such as an electrified comb that was said to "liven up" the hair. Sonia Atikian testified that they became very concerned about Lorie's condition but that Hanswille assured them that it was normal for clumps of her baby's hair to fall out and not to worry if Lorie didn't gain weight. Hanswille told Sonia that taking Lorie to a hospital would be like "holding a loaded gun to Lorie's head and pulling the trigger." After Lorie died, the Atikians were charged with failing to provide the necessities of life for their baby daughter (child neglect) Hanswille was not charged.

The Atikians were tried three times. During the first trial, Hanswille admitted that on the day before Lorie died, he had treated her with the vitalizing device and advised wrapping her in cabbage leaves. But he denied influencing Mrs. Atikian against standard treatment and said he had told her to seek medical advice. He complained angrily that he felt like "the accused," but denied that he did anything wrong. He said that he "cannot tell people what to do," that it is up to the parents to make decisions for their children. The judge instructed the jury that it was all right for them to "vent your spleen" over the activities of Hanswille "and his ilk," but neither he nor herbalism were on trial in the death of little Lorie. The Atikian's defense was centered around the assertion that they had provided the "necessaries of life" when they followed Hanswille's advice. The first jury found Atikians guilty of child neglect, and the judge sentenced them to two years in prison. However, the verdict was overturned by an appeals court. To reach its finding of guilt, the jury had concluded that the Atikians could not possibly have believed that they were providing what Lorie needed. The appeals court disagreed and overturned the verdict. A second trial was held and ended in a mistrial because the jurors culd not agree on a verdict. During the third trial, it was found that the prosecutors had withheld an important investigative report that supported the Atikians' "honest belief" defense. When this came out, the judge dismissed the case.

During the first trial, one witness described how Hanswille's self-confidentce helped persuade her father to undergo treatment with him for cancer:

The herbalist was a very impressive man. He just glowed with health and was very charismatic, very jovial, charming, friendly, very nice, very knowledge-able. There was not a question that you could ask that he would not have an answer for. And he told a lot of stories about people who had come to see him and been cured by following his course of treatment. It's a very difficult thing to communicate just how mesmerizing this man was. He was so good, so positive. He just exuded this powerful aura about him. He told my father that his cancer was completely curable. He had to change his diet because this was the cause of the cancer. He would have to eat strictly fruits and vegetables, raw, or juices of those fruits and vegetables, and by doing this, the tumor would be dissolved. When my father lost weight, the herbalist said this was just the body ridding itself of toxins and poisons. During his final two weeks, my father developed a hole near his rectum and a lesion that grew bigger each day. The herbalist said it was just the radiation coming out, which was a good thing. I now know it was a gangrenous tumor. I look back now and can't believe that I fell under this man's spell .

The story of Lorie's death received extensive coverage in Canada by the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. In cases like this, many people blame of the parents for their gullibility and wonder how they could be so foolish. The reality is that many people believe the underlying assumptions that condemn modern food, commercial agriculture and extol "natural" medicine. The herbal industry tried to distance itself from Hanswille by saying that the case was "not typical." However, what Hanswille told the Atikians is not only widely believed by health food and natural (herbal) medicine ilk; it largely represents the philosophy that is used to justify the existence of "alternative" medicine and herbalism. The Atikians certainly used poor judgment, but it appeared to me that the primary culprit was Hanswille who represented himself as a skilled professional, which he was not.

In 1962, a California chiropractor was convicted of second-degree murder by words alone in the death of 11-year-old cancer patient, Linda Epping. To get a conviction, the prosecutor had to prove that "his fraudulent representations ... caused Linda to die when she died." I do not know whether Hanswille could have been similarly prosecuted under Canadian law. I believe that people who presume to give health advice that can make the difference between life and death should be regulated by the government and held accountable for their misdeeds. It is clear that the state has a compelling responsibility to protect vulnerable people—and their children—from the glib purveyors of pseudomedicine. It doesn't matter whether such practitioners are sincere in their beliefs because, when it comes to quackery, zealotry can be just as dangerous as fraud.

This article was revised on April 17, 2014.

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