By Fatima Schroeder
High Court Writer
A witness wept as she gave evidence in the Western Cape High Court that she unwittingly lied to ill and injured people who approached her former employers to cure them through stem cell therapy.
The witness, Danielle Jibrail, worked for Biomark International - a company set up by attorney Stephen van Rooyen and his American wife, Laura Brown. They are wanted in the US to face 51 counts of fraud in connection with the treatment they offered.
The US has applied for their extradition, but they are opposing it. The extradition hearing is expected to take place in September.
Jibrail told the high court on Tuesday that the company's name was changed to Advanced Cell Therapeutics (ACT) after negative reports about Biomark appeared in the media.
She was testifying in a damages action brought by Noordhoek paraplegic Justine Asher against ACT, Brown and Van Rooyen after she was told that the treatment was safe and would help her to walk again.
Only Brown is defending the action.
Asher underwent the procedure in the Netherlands in November 2005 after paying R120 000 into the account of Gulf Stream Management Trust, of which Brown is a trustee and beneficiary.
The treatment was administered through a drip, and bovine cells were also injected into her neck.
Asher's case against Brown was postponed to February after she asked Judge Elizabeth Baartman for time to prepare a case.
Neither Van Rooyen nor his legal team was in court on Tuesday, and the case proceeded against him and ACT.
Testifying in support of Asher's case, Jibrail said she worked for Brown and Van Rooyen in April 2005 as a personal assistant.
At the time the business was still known as Biomark International, and operated from premises in Llandudno.
The name was changed after an article appeared in a newspaper about the fact that Van Rooyen and Brown were wanted for fraud in the US.
She said Van Rooyen and Brown told staff that they had to ensure that ACT was not linked to Biomark International because of the negative media publicity.
In addition, they told staff the FBI was after them because the Bush administration was opposed to stem cell therapy.
Brown later adopted the alias Sean Castle, while Van Rooyen used the name Sebastian Carlisle, the court heard.
Jibrail also told the court she was instructed to tell patients that the company was operating from Zurich.
She said Brown and Van Rooyen explained that the reason for this was because people associated South Africa with HIV, and would not have the treatment if they knew the business was based here.
In mid-2006 she started receiving calls from patients complaining of a loss of feeling and of rashes.
Jibrail told the court she later spoke to a doctor who worked for ACT, Catherine Orridge, who told her the stem cells came from California, and were meant for research purposes. They were not fit for humans. Jibrail said she logged on to the Internet and looked into the matter.
"Then I knew that Laura or Steve did not care about the patients they were treating," she said, becoming emotional.
"They lived very extravagant lifestyles and spent the money patients paid them on entertainment."
Jibrail contacted the FBI and e-mailed all ACT patients to inform them about the origin of the stem cells, and of the link between Biomark International and ACT.
She later resigned.
Asher later testified that words could not express the excitement she felt when she was told that the treatment would help her walk again. But when her condition did not improve, she contacted ACT.
Doctors told her it took several months before patients saw any results. However, after following ACT's strict instructions and undergoing additional physiotherapy and massage therapy, Asher received a call from a prosecutor who told her about the fraud case.
"My world just came tumbling down. I was traumatised. I am still traumatised by it. I couldn't believe that people could be so heartless," she said.
Judge Baartman has reserved judgment.