19 January 2014

Fertility Fraud


by Leigh Lundin

The Switch, Part I

Manser+Sehr
Bill Manser and Elizabeth Sehr © MGM

Today’s article was suggested by a friend and neighbor. (Thanks, B!) The story involves Florida (where else!), DNA, and a man who spent half a decade in prison. And it’s about hubris.

In 1995, DNA lab worker Elizabeth Sehr submitted evidence for a paternity test involving William Manser. According to The Libertarian Republic and The Orlando Sentinel, Manser missed a court date and, when he failed to pay court-ordered child support for young Dylan Sehr, was sentenced to prison and served five years.

Bill Manser did not recall taking a DNA test and he expressed doubt the child was his. After prison, he built a relationship with Dylan and had at least one son with someone else. Then, two decades after Dylan’s birth, along comes a television program that combines those two favorites of daytime television, courtroom drama and paternity testing. (And people wonder why I don’t own a television.)

The program is called Paternity Court. It’s presided over by entertainer, lawyer, and dazzling drama queen Lauren Lake. I’ll be the first to admit it feels tawdry, even unseemly, but the show solved a riddle no one else seemed interested in resolving.
  • The result was that Bill Manser was sent to prison on a lie. He was not the father.
  • The broader implication is that lab technician Elizabeth Sehr either substituted the real father’s DNA or faked the test paperwork.
Less than a minute after the revelation, Lake asked Elizabeth if she knew who the real father was and Sehr readily admitted she remains in touch with him– then twenty seconds later complained Manser had called her a liar. In the build-up, the viewer experienced a sound dose of Sehr stridently insisting Manser’s the liar, that he’s a father avoiding responsibility. And we can’t forget she complained he wasn’t there for her son in his young years… completely overlooking she’d sent him to prison.

The mother blames LabCorp for ‘a mix-up’ and her son has said LabCorp should be held responsible. You don’t need a background in science to see what’s wrong with this rationale. If a lab failed to match, that might (or not) be considered a mix-up. But since the lab was able to identify the father’s DNA (if not his actual name), we know the real father’s DNA was in that lab, and there’s only one way it could have been placed there. Either that, or she faked the entire test.

What a plot for a murder mystery. But in case you think DNA might hold no more surprise, read on.

The Switch, Part II

Tom Lippert
Tom Lippert © KUTV 2014

Following a DNA test, the Branum family was surprised to learn Mr. Branum was not the father of daughter Annie. Before jumping to conclusions about Mrs. Branum, know that Annie was conceived in a fertility clinic. She was an in vitro test tube baby where a clinic affiliated with the University of Utah collected spermatozoa and eggs from Mr. and Mrs. Branum.

So the mother, Pam Branum, started detective work with the help of genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, who tells the tale in her blog (with altered names). The story centers around Tom Lippert, a brilliant but troubled student who decades earlier had kidnapped and electroshocked a girl in the hope she might fall in love with him. After a term in prison, he returned to school and worked for nine years at the lab associated with the University of Utah.
  • UU has proved less than cooperative, but it appears Lippert substituted his semen sample for that belonging to Mr. John Branum. 
  • It’s suspected Lippert may have supplanted dozens or even hundreds of semen collections over the years at the university clinic.
Lippert is long dead, but his legacy lives on.

DNA can resolve many mysteries, but it’s also possible for DNA tests to uncover entirely new puzzles.

12 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Questions from a reader:

”In the first story, I cannot understand why – as part of due process – the defense took the mother’s paperwork as fact without conducting independent tests on their client’s behalf – especially when the ‘father’ said he couldn't remember taking a DNA test and didn't think the child was his. After the truth was revealed, was the mother punished in any way?”

My impression is that Manser was naïve and penniless at the time he missed the court date where he was declared the father. I'm not sure what happened when he was criminally sentenced, but he kept doggedly denying he was the father or, as he put it, it was never proved to his satisfaction that he was the father. It doesn't seem he had a good lawyer if he had any at all.

I have doubts Sehr will be punished as the fraud originated 19 years ago, long past the statute of limitations. However, there's sort of a loophole in SoLs that prosecutors sometimes use in that the point the SoL clock starts running can be construed as when the crime was discovered rather when it was committed. Also, apparently he'd been paying until recently, so it's possible he might sue to get some of the payments refunded, but that's in question, too. A judge might look only at the earlier court's determination– that sort of thing has happened in the past when the real father was exposed.

A huge question in my mind is why Sehr went after Manser instead of the real father. Obviously it was someone neither parent wanted exposed, so is it possible she received payments from him and, since those hypothetical payments were secret, she went after Manser for additional funds? That’s far-flung speculation, of course.

Anonymous said...

If the woman in the first part messed with the results of one test, who's to say she didn't mess with others? maybe for a friend or maybe for profit? It sounds to me each result should be triple checked.

Janice Law said...

Wasn't there also a doctor out in California who was substituting his semen for donors and fathering dozens of children.
We life in a brave new world for sure.

Leigh Lundin said...

I'd forgotten about that, Janice. Thanks for reminding me.

Anon, that's always possible and apparently happened in labs in Texas and Washington DC, not to mention problems in the FBI facility that required retesting.

The most bizarre case I recall was that of a Canadian / South African dentist who twice evaded DNA testing by implanting a vial of someone else's DNA under his skin. The third time he attempted it, he was caught.

Unknown said...

Good morning, Leigh! Color me a cynic, because I’m appalled by all this, but not particularly surprised. Humanity seems capable of most anything these days. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

One of the take-home messages here is about the way the public (and the court) see "lab results" -- as Science and therefore Factual. Lab tests are run by human beings, and the records are kept by human beings. Not to be over-critical, but the fact is that lab technicians are not the brightest and best. If they were, they would not be lab techs. Techs get relatively low pay, have longer hours, and basically have the science equivalent of an assembly line job. Yes, the job requires special training. And yes, some labs pay more and hire better people. But any time we see "lab results" as infallible, we are opening ourselves up to errors like these. And the courts are just not getting it. At the very, very least, any DA worth his or her salt should get separate testing at an independent lab.

Leigh Lundin said...

Vicki, that’s all too true. I’m astounded by what people think they can get away with. Tom Lippert must have thought he was really slick, planting zygotes around the country. Elizabeth Sehr brazened it until she was finally caught out until the last second, and then acted as if everything was still Bill Manser’s fault.

Anon, you're dead right. Locally, our ‘technical’ schools (successors to the vo-techs) teach wearing gloves, taking blood draws, and medical coding, high school or equivalent required. Valencia Community College goes further, teaching sonography, EMT training, and ‘medical specialists’, e.g, office administration. They’re important jobs but if a lab or clinic looks no further than the courses they took, the bad could slip in with the good.

A Broad Abroad said...

The Zambian-born South African doctor practising in Canada, who inserted into his arm a 6 inch / 15 cm Penrose drain filled with another male patient’s blood, was John Schneeberger. He did it to evade detection after raping a woman patient, who, although sedated, recalled the assault. Details of his dastardly deeds can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Schneeberger

[BTW, thank you for posting the queries / answers in the first comment. Those are precisely the questions I would have asked.]

Marie Androv said...

There's got to be something deeply psychological about both perps. It just escapes me what it could be.

Leigh Lundin said...

You're welcome, ABA, and thank you. I didn't recall the dentist's name, only his dirty deeds.

Marie, I agree. I suspect Sehr was driven by greed or vengeance, but Lippert's actions were cruel, selfish, and sick.

Dixon Hill said...

CLASSIC! Nothing like kidnapping a woman at gunpoint, making her strip, forcing her to drink herself unconscious, locking her in a small box and then shocking her, to make her fall in love with you.

I looked up an article about what he Lippert did, and was surprised to see he'd evidently attempted this before. You can find the article by clicking HERE

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