Steve Crowder of San Diego sat in his wheelchair while a doctor tugged on his skin and applied beads of liquid through a dental syringe onto parts of his body. A quadriplegic, Crowder came to the Alternative Medicine and Biophysics Research Institute in Nampa, Idaho, believing he might walk again, or at least find some relief from chronic pain and spasticity. Crowder paid a hefty price for believing in such miracles. According to investigators from the Food and Drug Administration and the FBI, all he got for his $10,000 was a useless vial of colored liquid.
Between April 1997 and June 2000, Beverly and Thomas Vigil of Meridian, Idaho, touted a product called Neuralyn on the Web and elsewhere as a highly effective treatment for spinal cord injuries and other ailments. The couple claimed that Neuralyn was an all-natural substance made up of B vitamins, amino acids, and extracts of plants from the Yucatan Peninsula. According to Thomas Vigil, Neuralyn was created “from a dream.”
In fact, the Vigils teamed up with pharmacist David Taylor and concocted Neuralyn using a number of homeopathic ingredients as well as the topical anesthetics lidocaine and procaine.
According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, more than 100 people, most of them paraplegics or quadriplegics, paid up to $10,000 each to come to clinics in Idaho, Utah and Colorado for treatment. These people were told that Neuralyn treatments had been 85% to 95% successful, and that the product would enable spinal cord injury patients to move, stand on their own, or walk again by regrowing nerve cells. Many of these claims were made on the Vigils’ Web site.
Following an investigation, the Vigils were charged with conspiracy to use the Internet to commit wire fraud and introducing a misbranded drug in interstate commerce with intent to defraud.
During and after treatments, the Vigils falsely told spinal cord injury patients that even slight body movements were a result of the Neuralyn treatment. In truth, investigators say, any such movement was either due to involuntary spasms–caused, in some cases, by Thomas Vigil or his employees putting pressure on the patient’s tendons or nerves–or movements the patient could do prior to being treated with the product.
Vials of Neuralyn for home treatment cost up to $500. The Vigils claimed that the high price was justified by the costs of the ingredients, production process, and costs of research and patent applications. In fact, as Taylor and Beverly Vigil later admitted, a vial of Neuralyn actually cost only a few dollars to make.
Crowder obtained a sample of Neuralyn and had it analyzed. When it proved not to be the “all natural” product the Vigils had promoted, he contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego. Because the case involved a questionable drug, FBI Special Agent Mary Martin, who was investigating the case, contacted the FDA for assistance. Investigators from the two agencies eventually determined that the Neuralyn sample was identical to the formula for a product called “Trigeminol” used by a Mexican dentist to treat various ailments at his clinic in Cancun. The Vigils, it turned out, also copied and used Trigeminol promotional materials to tout Neuralyn.
By introducing a misbranded drug in interstate commerce with the intent to defraud, the Vigils violated the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Under the act, it is illegal to market a drug for treatment of specific illnesses if it is not approved by the FDA.
Not only did the couple mislead their patients about the bogus treatment, but they also misrepresented Mr. Vigil as a physician who trained at Harvard Medical School. Vigil held nothing more than a mail-order certificate for a 27-day biochemistry course he took at a “diploma mill” university that is no longer operating.
In addition, the couple falsely claimed that Neuralyn had undergone clinical studies, and that both a patent application and FDA approval were pending. “They were all actors,” says Crowder. “Down to the certificates on Vigil’s wall, it was all a staged event.”
In June 2003, the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho sentenced Beverly Vigil to 33 months in prison and ordered her to pay nearly $800,000 in restitution to people taken in by the scam. She also was sentenced to three years of supervised release following her imprisonment. Her ex-husband, Thomas Vigil, was indicted on similar charges. He remains a fugitive and has not been arrested.
Taylor pleaded guilty to conspiracy to deliver a misbranded drug in interstate commerce with intent to defraud. He cooperated with investigators and was sentenced to five years probation. Taylor also paid restitution of nearly $37,000 to those who paid for the phony treatments.
This article is reprinted from the September-October 2003 issue of FDA Consumer. The claims made for it are viewable on an archived version of the Vigil’s Web site.
This page was posted on December 31, 2004.