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University of Utah says sorry for sperm mix-up; family not happy

Published April 25, 2014 11:29 am

Report reveals ex-con employee didn't undergo background check and was a lab-approved donor.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

The University of Utah has determined that ex-convict Thomas Ray Lippert was hired to work at its fertility clinic without a background check, that he was a frequent sperm donor, and that a Texas family deserves an apology for a mix-up involving Lippert's sperm in 1991.

What the U. doesn't say — for certain, at least — is that the switch was deliberate.

John and Pamela Branum believe Lippert purposely substituted his own sperm for John's to impregnate his wife, Pamela, with their daughter, Annie.

The San Antonio couple are not satisfied by a report issued to them after a 90-day internal review and plan to release a statement Thursday.

What's more, a second family is contemplating legal action after testing revealed another sperm foul-up involving the U.'s Community Laboratory.

(Read more about that story here.)

The Branums have said their hope in going public was to help other couples uncover potential wrongdoing. In that spirit, they shared the results of the U.'s investigation.

One person who has read it, former U. fertility office manager Jane Jeremenko, was dismayed. Jeremenko wondered why the U. didn't interview her — given that she has alleged Lippert's criminal history was known by then-director Ronald Urry and former supervisor and current director Douglas Carrell — or Lippert's widow, Jean.

She was also "flabbergasted" that the hotline set up for concerned couples directed families to the U.'s andrology lab, which has a clear conflict of interest, she said.

U. Medical Group CEO Sean Mulvihill said he only just learned Tuesday that, according to the Branums, other families were concerned about the U.'s staffing of the hotline.

"We're reviewing the staffing of that hotline now, actually," he said. Carrell was among those taking the calls, he said, simply because, "He is our No. 1 expert in andrology."

Lippert died in 1999 after years of alcoholism. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 1975 for what was widely known as "The Love Experiment," kidnapping a young female college student and using electroshock risk/reward conditioning to make her fall in love with him. He served two years in federal prison.

The Branums discovered that Annie was not John's biological daughter through a take-home DNA test in October 2012. Further investigation revealed that Annie is related to Carla Evans, a cousin of Lippert who knew he had worked at the lab. The Branums then compared Annie's DNA against a sample from Lippert's 99-year-old mother, and it was a 25 percent match.

The U.'s report found that Lippert was a frequent sperm donor beginning in 1983.

He was employed at the U.'s Millcreek Community Laboratory part time from August 1988 until July 1993, while the clinic served an estimated 1,500 couples.

Notably, however, the U.'s report says "correspondence suggests" that Lippert worked at Reproductive Medical Technologies Inc. — located in the same 700-square-foot lab, also run by Urry, and which contracted with the U. for fertility services — in 1994. Lippert's widow, Jean, has said her husband worked for RMTI until Carrell opted to shutter the company in 1997 after Urry's death.

According to the U., RMTI specialized in nationwide shipments of sperm samples and the design and marketing of medical supplies. However, a December 1997 letter to the stakeholders of RMTI from Carrell, obtained through a records request, says the U. did the bulk of the heavy lifting. "The University of Utah is at best breaking even. … However, RMTI is assured a sizable profit for simply taking a phone message and sending out a monthly statement."

Details about RMTI are scarce.

The company's records were destroyed in 2007, the report finds, "in the normal course of dissolving the business."

At least three couples served by three labs managed by Urry have alleged mix-ups.

Beyond the two previously mentioned, another couple sued the U. in 1992 and lost an appeal to the Utah Supreme Court on the grounds that they could not prove physiological harm had occurred as a result of their triplets being the offspring of another man, and not their selected donor.

The Community Lab/RMTI was one of three overseen by Urry. His annual reviews found in 1993 "a few major mistakes with large implications for liability" had occurred at his University Hospital lab, and in 1995, "a series of major mistakes" at his Abbott Northwestern lab in Minneapolis.

Carrell, who did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday, told investigators that, despite fail-safes, "lab memoranda in reference to other cases indicate that samples were sometimes mislabeled, mishandled, lab paperwork contained errors, and other irregularities occurred."

It is unknown why Lippert separated from the U., but Urry's appraisals of lab operations at one point reference "continuing problems with Tom."

The U.'s investigation finds that some may have known that Lippert had a criminal history but that they believed he had been found guilty of a white-collar crime.

Jeremenko said rather that the lab's administrators often hinted that Lippert's criminal history was more sordid than that.

The U.'s probe was led by three U. physicians — Jeffrey R. Botkin, Thomas L. Miller and John F. Bohnsack — and reviewed by medical ethicist R. Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin law professor. Mulvihill said that the "notion of a conflict of our internal people didn't really come up," when he announced the formation of the committee in January.

The U. previously refused to disclose that Lippert was a lab-approved sperm donor. The U. says it chose to release that information because his widow has told the media that Lippert was a frequent donor and because the U. "inadvertently" shared that information with the Branums in 2013.

Lippert had an attractive donor profile. He was listed as a lawyer, at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, with 24-plus years of education.

The profile said he had blond hair, blue eyes, with a medium complexion and interests in sports, video photography, medicine, travel and music.

Most of that seems to have been near the truth, although he was disbarred as a result of his conviction.

His samples were sent to "several dozen" clinics around the country, the U. says.

The U. declines to disclose the number of children or geographic locations of those donations — specifying, however, that records indicate Urry limited donations to 10 within the Wasatch Front area. Of donations for artificial insemination, the investigation states, approximately 10 percent to 12 percent result in pregnancies.

The U. says several couples have requested paternity tests but that, thus far, no other children have proven to be Lippert's offspring.

The special review committee recommended that the U. apologize to the Branums and continue to offer testing for "a reasonable period of time (such as one to two years)." The committee spells out that the U. should refrain from contacting Community Lab patients because "this matter is more likely to cause harm to these families than to provide benefit."

The report finds that Lippert has only two potential genetic predispositions that his offspring might be harmed by: alcoholism and criminality. The panel concludes that the role of genetics in those outcomes is murky, and thus unwitting Lippert offspring are not, by virtue of that alone, worse off than offspring of other donors.

"If there is harm in these circumstances to the child," the report reads, "it might result from learning this surprising information, not from their genetic origins per se."

The U. no longer permits employees to donate samples or accepts anonymous sperm donations. It now does criminal background checks for all employees.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper