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U. boss likely knew of accused semen switcher's criminal past, ex-secretary says

Published January 25, 2014 2:07 pm

Semen switch • Lippert may not have been the only problem for Ronald Urry and the school's fertility program.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Documents obtained Friday from the University of Utah paint Ronald L. Urry as a perpetually frustrated administrator trying to rein in fertility operations at University Hospital, in a Minneapolis hospital and at the U. Millcreek clinic that employed ex-convict Thomas Ray Lippert.

The documents relate to the U.'s investigation of Lippert, who died in 1999 and is accused of switching his own semen with that of a San Antonio man to impregnate the man's wife during a 1991 artificial insemination. Lippert was employed part time by the U.'s Community Laboratory in Millcreek from 1988 until 1993 and also by Reproductive Medical Technologies Inc. for an as-yet-undetermined period. Both the U.'s lab and RMTI were run by Urry, who died in 1997.

According to Urry's former secretary, the two labs were one and the same, and Urry and other administrators were aware of Lippert's criminal past.

"Because there were just comments that they would make, and the way they would act," Jane Jeremenko said. "And I'd ask what there was about him that they knew, but they weren't inclined to tell me. It was a pretty well-kept secret."

In 1990, Urry recommended a raise for Lippert, calling him an "excellent individual" who "worked for us for a number of years, in different auspices." Urry said Lippert had "sole responsibility" for running the 3900 S. 1100 East lab, clocking between 20 and 25 hours per week.

But Urry's next mention of Lippert comes in a review of 1991 "Failures" that cites "Continuing problems with Tom." Then a 1993 report on the 700-square-foot U. lab — leased from RMTI — notes that patients complained of being "treated extremely rudely over the years by whoever was in the laboratory." A personnel listing at the time states that Lippert was one of the lab's three employees, and Jeremenko believes Lippert was a likely culprit.

"He was kind of uppity and pompous," Jeremenko said. "When I saw this on the news, my heart just dropped, like 'Oh, no. This can't be.' But then if there's a type of person that would do it, I could see Tom doing something."

Urry also managed fertility operations at University Hospital and at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. In 1993, he wrote that there were "a few major mistakes with large implications for liability" at University Hospital, and in 1995 at Abbott Northwestern he reported "a series of major mistakes."

The latest semen mixup is not the first to involve Urry. In 1992, a couple brought an unsuccessful lawsuit against the U. after in vitro fertilization treatment at University Hospital. They lost because they couldn't prove physiological harm had resulted from the clinic's negligence, but the negligence was not disputed.

The couple intended to use sperm from the husband and mix in semen from a similar-looking donor to preserve the man's sense of paternity — if it looked like his child, and it may even be his child, then it was easier to stomach. But after the woman gave birth to triplets, it was determined that the children were neither those of the husband nor the selected donor. The donor they had chosen, No. 183 had been replaced by No. 83.

The Tribune agreed to withhold the couple's names to protect the privacy of their children.

The husband still believes the switch was made deliberately to improve the fertility clinic's success rate. The donor they had chosen had only frozen sperm available, and the couple, who later divorced, had felt harassed by the lab for not selecting a fresh sample that was more likely to result in pregnancy.

(It's worth noting: Donor No. 83 had straight, auburn hair and green eyes. Lippert, a frequent sperm donor, had blond hair and blue eyes. Documents from the decision in the couple's appeal to the Utah Supreme Court make no mention of RMTI, the Community Laboratory or Thomas Lippert.)

Another U. Fertility Clinic client recently told The Tribune that in late 1996 or early 1997, she asked Urry to add to her sperm donor's record that her child had a potentially genetic medical problem. She says Urry told her that all records had been burned. The Tribune has also agreed not to name the woman to protect her child's privacy.

The U. has previously said that no records exist for RMTI, but staff emails show past U. andrology patient records are also missing. Prior to 1998, records were converted to microfilm and stored off-site, and when a patient requested a chart sometime after 2002, those off-site records were found to have been destroyed without authorization from the lab.

In the employment records obtained from the U. on Friday, Urry appears to be a fastidious administrator who set — at least on paper — a high bar for quality.

In a 1992 Salt Lake Tribune editorial about Cecil Jacobsen, a retired Provo geneticist who used his own sperm to impregnate several Virginia patients, Urry is portrayed as a proponent of heightened standards for fertility treatment programs. And according to his obituary in the Deseret News, Urry's renown was such that he was chosen to be a nationwide inspector of fertility labs.

"I can't say I ever had a finer boss than Dr. Urry," said Jeremenko, who said she can only remember problems with the couple who filed the lawsuit. "He was very fair and he loved working with the patients."

Clinic patients selected donors based on a sort of recipe card description that included race, hair color, eye color, complexion, ethnic background, height, weight, blood type and body type. Some also were told the donor's hobbies, occupation and years of education, although others in earlier years may have simply been told that most donors were either doctors or medical students at the U. Jeremenko said Lippert — a former law professor — was listed as an attorney.

Jeremenko was unclear on what purpose RMTI had beyond renting the lab space to the U. Asked what Lippert could have possibly done for RMTI after his separation from the U., she could not guess. Lippert's widow, Jean, has reported varying dates for Lippert's employment by RMTI, but she insists it was for nine years. The U. only has records of his employment for five (1988-93).

Here's what is known about RMTI: According to the Utah Division of Corporations, the company was first registered in 1984, and its board of directors voted to dissolve it in February 1998.

The board of directors initially consisted of president Ronald L. Urry, Richard Middleton, Joseph Smith, David Engleberg, Linda McReynolds (now Bury), George McDonald and attorney Bruce Cohne.

Registered principals when the company elected to fold were Bury, Middleton, Ronald L. Urry's wife Pamela Urry and Ronald E. Urry, Ronald L.'s father, who was listed as president starting in March 1989.

Ronald E. Urry died in October 1998.

Pamela Urry, Bury (a U. nurse), and Engleberg have not returned requests for comment from The Tribune. McDonald died in 2011. A call to a number associated with Smith was not returned. Then-U. doctor Richard Middleton has declined comment, citing the U.'s ongoing investigation. Middleton previously expressed to Tribune newsgathering partner KUTV that he felt Lippert was "very strange" and told Urry of his concerns. Bruce Cohne said that due to massive heart attacks and old age, he cannot remember much about the company and its relationship to the U.

The University of Utah has set up a hotline for concerned clients at 801-587-5852 and can also be reached by email at andrology@hsc.utah.edu. The University said it will not comment further until its investigation concludes. For those uncomfortable involving the U.,the San Antonio couple involved in the U.'s investigation may also be reached through the website "Was Your Child Fathered by Thomas Lippert?"

Current U. Andrology head Douglas Carrell, who was listed as an administrator for the Community Laboratory while Lippert worked there, did not return a request for comment for this story.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper —

Have concerns about paternity?

Do you have paternity concerns because of the Thomas Lippert case? You can call the hotline at 801-587-5852, or send an email to andrology@hsc.utah.edu.