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Mother shares fears about alleged semen switch at Utah fertility clinic

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Thomas R. Lippert

By Matthew Piper | The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Jan 10 2014 08:06PM
Updated Jan 15, 2014 11:14AM

It stands to reason that Tom Lippert wouldn’t have made an attractive sperm donor.

He had wispy hair and a right eye that sat a quarter-inch too high on his round face. He was in poor shape. And he was a convicted felon.

"I can’t imagine a couple seeing him and saying ‘Yeah, I want him,’ " says San Antonio resident Pamela Branum. Yet when she told the University of Utah that her 21-year-old daughter was not — as previously thought — the biological child of her husband, but instead of this Millcreek fertility clinic employee, she says U. staff told her Lippert had been a "popular" donor.

Now Branum thinks Lippert fathered many children against the will of unknowing couples and that the U. — by telling her he was a popular donor — was trying to preemptively deflect concerns she might acquire upon finding other unwitting half-Lipperts in the world.

Lippert died in 1999. In 1975 he pleaded guilty to subjecting a Purdue University coed to electroshock behavioral modification techniques that were intended to make her love him, and for that, he served two years in prison.

In a statement Thursday, the U. acknowledged "credible" evidence that Branum’s daughter is a clinic employee’s, due either to mislabeling or deliberate tampering with semen samples at Reproductive Medical Technologies Inc. The U. — which did not own RMTI but contracted with it and employed Lippert part time for five years — said it has investigated the claim since April.

But Branum doesn’t buy it.

"Truthfully, they haven’t been investigating," she said. "They’ve been stonewalling this whole time."

U. employees declined to comment for this story and have not indicated Lippert was a sperm donor.

The Branums now live in San Antonio: John, a retired Marine, and Pamela, who has two boys from a previous marriage. Annie is their only child together.

A Corps recruiting post drew John to Park City from 1990 until 1992, when the couple encountered difficulty conceiving. Although both were fertile, their doctor said, their body chemistries were not a good fit, and he suggested artificial insemination.

So they went to what they understood to be a University of Utah clinic. (Only recently did they learn that RMTI was registered as a private enterprise with the Utah Division of Corporations.)

Pamela became pregnant after a few tries, but about halfway through her term she lost the child and endured disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), which caused her to lose vast amounts of blood. Afterward, she and John looked at each other and asked, "Do we even want to try this again?"

They did. Three visits later, in August 1991, Pamela recalls being struck by Lippert’s confidence and thinking, "You know what, if it doesn’t happen this time, this is it for me."

"And lo and behold, I was pregnant."

After Annie was born in May 1992, Pamela thought of the collection of baby photos Lippert proudly displayed as a testament to the clinic’s successes, and she felt guilty when she couldn’t find time to drop off a photo of Annie.

Twenty-one years later, she feels violated. "I wasn’t raped, but it wasn’t far from it."

The discovery that Lippert was the father was a coincidence. Pamela’s interest in genealogy led her ­— just for fun — to persuade Annie and John to take DNA tests, and after a paternity test confirmed that John wasn’t Annie’s father, subsequent testing led to Lippert’s first cousin.

For a long time, John, who like Lippert was the only son of an only son, felt mostly anger.

They still marvel that Lippert worked himself into a position of trust after a "fairly infamous" crime," Pamela says. "He didn’t change his name or anything."

RMTI was run by Ronald Urry, who, like Lippert, is dead. Other RMTI administrators either declined or did not respond to requests for comment on this story, with one saying the U. had advised them not to speak.

But, "the flip side is we wouldn’t have our daughter if this didn’t happen," Pamela said. "And she’s just the most wonderful person ever."

Annie seems to have gotten only the best of Lippert. Pamela says she is not remotely cruel, moody or unattractive, but like Lippert — a law professor by 26 — she is whip-smart. She began talking in sentences by a year old, and she shares Lippert’s father’s ability to play songs by ear on a piano.

The family sometimes wondered from whom Annie had gotten her long, elegant fingers. Pamela says, "Annie would look down at her hands and say, ‘Whose hands are these?’ "

The astrophysics major at the University of Texas-San Antonio was characteristically quick to recover from the shock and soon worried most about getting into the classes she wanted, Pamela says.

By going public, the Branums hope to inform other RMTI patients whose samples may have been compromised.

"We could have so easily just kept this quiet," Pamela says. "This isn’t something that you want to shout from the top of the tower about. But we didn’t think for too many moments [before deciding] that we can’t let this happen to other families."

Genealogy blogger CeCe Moore has created a website for those with concerns, titled "Was Your Child Fathered by Thomas Lippert?" Two people have already contacted Pamela through that site, she says. "They went there during that time frame, and they’re wondering, ‘Should I go and get my child tested?’ "

The U. has offered free testing for concerned families, who can also call the University of Utah Andrology Lab at 801-587-5852 with questions.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper

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