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Mystery remains after DNA clears Utah fertility clinic worker

Published April 24, 2014 11:04 am

Investigation • Test shows son's sperm donor wasn't the one chosen at fertility clinic; U. can't tell mother who was responsible.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Diane McAffee wanted her children to be biologically related, so a few years after conceiving with the help of the University of Utah's fertility services, she returned to request the same donor.

For 17 years afterward, all involved believed her daughter and son were full siblings. That has changed after McAffee had her children tested as part of an investigation into former clinic employee Thomas Ray Lippert. Her daughter is 99.9985 percent likely to be the offspring of the selected donor. Her son, who was born with XYY syndrome, was neither the offspring of the selected donor nor, the U. claims, is he Lippert's.

"It made me angry, and very, very concerned for both my children," McAffee said. "We had purposely selected a local donor because we wanted them to be biologically related. To find out that they weren't was rather horrifying for my daughter. As well as my son and myself."

The U. outsourced the testing to TestMeDNA in O'Fallon, Ill.

McAffee said she was first told by clinic manager Colin Thomas that the processing of her son's sample fell outside of the August 1988 to July 1993 period in which Lippert was employed by the U. She then sent in a photo of her son to illustrate what she feels are striking similarities between the two, but Thomas told her he had passed it around the office and they didn't see the resemblance. If she insisted, he told her, they would test her son. She did.

Chris Nelson, the U.'s assistant vice president of public affairs, said Wednesday the results are "disappointing."

"Obviously he's not the child of Thomas Lippert, either, but that indicates another potential error in that laboratory."

McAffee, of South Jordan, said she was so careful during her pregnancy that she even gave up Diet Coke. She was also careful in selecting a donor — a nuclear scientist — who would produce intelligent and healthy children. She said the clinic workers told her donors were vetted for their genetic histories, their personalities, their attractiveness and their familial status. They had to be married and have children of their own, she said, to ensure they didn't develop a desire to find their offspring.

Lippert was an ex-con who is widely described as prickly, and he had no children of his own.

"It seems to me that they broke every single rule from what I was told," she said, adding that she still fears that Lippert tampered with her son's sample. She wondered last week in a tape-recorded conversation with her husband, Rex Smith, and the U.'s Douglas Carrell and Patrick Cartwright, if the U. had checked its Lippert DNA sample against that of his family members to make sure it has the right semen. Carrell — who did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday — said it had not, and that it is a valid concern.

U. Medical Group CEO Sean Mulvihill agreed that it's "a legitimate point" and said the U. may take McAffee's advice and test the sample against known Lippert family.

Carrell said the McAffee sperm mix-up likely occurred three years prior to the sample's April 1996 use, when it was frozen. Lippert was employed as a technician at the Community Laboratory at that time.

"Did Mr. Lippert freeze it?" Carrell asked. "That's possible. I don't know that. We haven't been able to get those records."

McAffee also questioned Lippert's involvement in almost every step of the process at the Millcreek clinic. Carrell said he wasn't sure about day-to-day operations at the clinic he partly supervised, but former U. Andrology office manager Jane Jeremenko told The Tribune on Wednesday that's extremely unlikely.

"[Carrell] knew how things were run," she said. "We had monthly andrology meetings where Tom was there, and the goings on of both laboratories and any concerns were brought up during the meetings ... He knew that Tom was in control of the samples and greeting the patients, processing the samples, releasing them to the patients, and that he was unsupervised."

McAffee is now awaiting results of an independent DNA test. Even if her son is not Lippert's, she's troubled, and she plans to pursue legal action against the U.

"To find out that we have someone who not only had a criminal background but was an alcoholic, that's extremely disturbing," she said. "But it's as disturbing to think that we've got some kind of phantom donor that nobody's able to identify."

Her son is tall and skinny, common for those with XYY syndrome, which also results in early onset and severe acne and poor motor skills. Her son is 17 but can't write in cursive or participate in sports. He hasn't taken driver training, McAffee said, "because he's too scared … he just doesn't have the coordination."

She says it doesn't change her love for her son. But if she had gotten the correct donor, there is a 1 in 2,000 chance that he would not have the condition.

"I do appreciate what they did, because I was able to get these two kids," she said of the clinic. "It's a very, very necessary and vital service for families that can't conceive. But we need to get what we order."

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper