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Thursday, September 3, 2009 - Page updated at 03:10 p.m.

A Seattle Times Investigation

MIRACLE MACHINES:The 21st-Century Snake Oil

They cure cancer, reduce cholesterol, even eliminate AIDS. Their operators say these "energy medicine" devices work by transmitting radio frequencies or electromagnetic waves through the body, identifying problems, then "zapping" them. Their claims are a fraud. The Seattle Times has found that thousands of these unproven devices — many of them illegal or dangerous — are used in hundreds of venues nationwide. Read more about this project.


Part 1

Eccentric multimillionaire fugitive leads an empire that dupes people in pain

William Nelson orchestrates one of America's boldest health-care frauds from Budapest, Hungary, where he rakes in tens of millions of dollars selling a machine called the EPFX that offers bogus treatments.

Lance Armstrong's chiropractor paid to endorse machine

Company lobbies Washington state chiropractors
Primed by civilians, troops become test subjects

Project credits


William Nelson claims to hold eight doctorates, but those don't check out. In reality, he's a charlatan who fled the U.S. rather than face federal charges on nine counts of fraud.

The machines they believed in

The EPFX's slick and sophisticated graphics may impress, but no scientific research shows that energy machines can diagnose or cure medical problems. This session was at the Puyallup Fair in 2007.

The booth, operated by several practitioners, was visited by more than 400 people who paid $20 for half-hour sessions.


The people who died

Karen McBeth
Karen McBeth, of Seattle, whose cancer had spread, spent $17,000 on one of William Nelson's EPFX machines. Her family said traveling to treatments robbed her of precious time with them.

JoAnn Burggraf
JoAnn Burggraf, of Oklahoma, sought EPFX treatment for joint pain because she didn't trust doctors. Undiagnosed leukemia painfully racked her body before finally killing her.


Nelson's empire

Federal fugitive William Nelson has created a global, multi-million dollar empire that began in Colorado during the late 1980s when he sold 139 of his homemade medical devices. Today from Budapest, his sales and training network spans 32 countries.

Nelson's global empire (PDF)

Part 2

Public never warned about dangerous device

Panos Pappas calls the PAP-IMI "modern scientific alchemy" and "micro-lightning." Others call it "a piece of junk" and "the worst of the newest technologies."

While the FDA prohibited using the machine for any medical treatment in 2005, The Seattle Times found PAP-IMIs in use in at least five states, including Washington.

Illegal devices shut off in Issaquah, Bellevue
PAP-IMI fan sought military study
The PAP-IMI in the U.S.


Payayiotis Samaras, 65, has the tumor on his neck treated with a PAP-IMI twice a week in Pappas' Athens office, at no cost. Sammas claims the growth was huge, puffy and a deep blue and is now greatly reduced in size.

Part 3

Teen's death hastened by practitioner who had bogus diplomas

The Seattle Times has found that scores of "energy medicine" practitioners are graduates of a multimillion-dollar industry that gives them deceptive credentials. These people buy the appearance of legitimacy through an international network of unaccredited health-care schools and murky trade associations.


The last hours: Cancer patient Sean Flanagan is joined by his family the same day he was treated by Brian O'Connell. He died the next day, six months sooner than medical doctors had predicted.

Updates on this project

How to protect yourself

Consumers can research medical devices and practitioners, including their training and any disciplinary record.

Practitioners: To validate a license or check for any disciplinary actions or complaints, call the Washington Department of Health at 360-236-4700 or go to and click on "Provider Credential Search."

Medical devices, companies:

• Search FDA databases of medical-device manufacturers and their registrations:
• Search an FDA database for warning letters:
• Check for adverse events linked to medical devices:

Accredited institutions:

• Find out whether an institution is accredited through the U.S. Department of Education (DOE):; Find out whether an institution or non-degree program is accredited through the Council for Higher Education Accreditation:

Licensed naturopathic doctors: The District of Columbia and these 14 states consider naturopathy a licensed profession requiring a degree from a four-year college accredited by the DOE: Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

Seattle Times Special Reports and Investigations

Miracle Machines: The 21st-Century Snake Oil
The Times has found that thousands of these devices, many of them illegal or dangerous, are used in venues nationwide.

The Favor Factory
The Times examined relationships between those who benefit from earmarks and those who make campaign donations to lawmakers.

Confronting Malaria
A look at the Gates Foundation's billion-dollar initiative to eradicate malaria.

Pike Place Market
Seattle's Pike Place Market turns 100 this year.

Your Courts, Their Secrets
Sealed records hold secrets of potential dangers in our medicine cabinets; of molesters; of missteps by local agencies.

License to Harm
The state allows hundreds of doctors, counselors, and others to keep practicing despite their sexual misconduct.

The Bering Sea
The Bering Sea is seeing dramatic changes due to global warming.

Olympic Sculpture Park
An interactive guide to Seattle's new park.