2015-08-26 / Top News

conspiracy | theory | files

From JFK to 9/11 — Americans crave conspiracies. A spate of doctor murders with Florida ties are spawning new, wild theories.
BY BILL CORNWELL
Correspondent Florida Weekly

WE DERIDE THEM DECRY AND THEM, denounce them, and most of us would like to think that we are above them. We are talking conspiracy are theories here, which the intellectual equivalents of a bloody, three-car pileup on a busy highway. As with a gory automobile collision, repelled and intrigued by we are at once conspiracy theories. We may hate ourselves for slowing to catch a quick peek at read or setting aside time to an accident or speculate about the latest outlandish we rumor, more often than not yield to but our base instincts.

So, no matter how much we poohpooh conspiracy theories or proclaim them to be the province of fools and nut jobs, it seems as if we — as a society — cannot get enough of them.

Perhaps we shouldn’t feel such guilt when we indulge our curiosity about the absurd and unfathomable. It seems to be encoded in our DNA. Conspiracy theories have been around for millennia, and the pages of history are littered with plots and intrigues that range from the documented (the assassinations of Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln, for example) to the plausible (the murder of John F. Kennedy) to the fully imagined (such as the beliefs that the Bush administration orchestrated the 9/11 attacks or that President Barack Obama colluded with others to produce a fraudulent birth certificate or that extraterrestrials crashed a spaceship in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 and the United States government has kept their little green corpses under wraps for almost 60 years). In essence, then, one man’s conspiracy theory is another man’s proof positive. Some of us are more selective in what we believe and demand a higher level of documentation, but all of us, experts say, do subscribe to conspiracy theories in one form or the other.

“No matter what you believe about the how and why of the (9/11 attacks) on New York and Washington, D.C., it’s a conspiracy theory,” Dr. Matthew R.X. Dentith, a philosopher who lives in New Zealand and has written a book titled “The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories,” tells Florida Weekly in an interview conducted via email. “For example, if you accept the official theory, that’s a theory about a bunch of plotters who acted in secret to commit a terrorist attack. That is a theory about a conspiracy. It just happens to be one that is well-accepted.”

This view that conspiracy theories can encompass the real as well as the imagined is echoed by another expert in the field, Dr. Joseph E. Uscinski, coauthor of the book, “American Conspiracy Theories.”

“Watergate and Iran-Contra are conspiracies,” says Dr. Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami. “Sometimes conspiracy theories actually unearth information we wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Still, it is not a stretch to conclude that the bulk of today’s conspiracy theories involve wildly exaggerated claims that routinely are manufactured by linking actual events to a highly speculative hypothesis. Once this is done, the conspiracy theory can be set loose on the

Internet, where it will find a receptive, if limited, audience that is eager to confirm its own worst fears and prejudices. This is not to say that everyone who espouses a conspiracy theory is a pajama-clad blogger who operates out of the basement in his parents’ home. Some are learned skeptics asking legitimate questions about puzzling events.

Undoubtedly, though, the Internet affords almost anyone — be he erudite, demented or somewhere in between — the opportunity to spew gibberish. And that seems to be the case of a recent conspiracy theory — rooted, at least in part, on the east and west coasts of South Florida. This particular nugget of web-generated lunacy posits that a cabal (possibly composed of and funded by large pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) is hunting down practitioners of alternative medicine and killing them. At this conspiracy’s core are the unrelated deaths of five health professionals. Four of the deaths have connections to Florida. On June 19, a homeopathic physician who had practiced in Melbourne, Florida, before moving to Georgia was found dead in what was ruled to be a suicide. Two days later, two chiropractors died unexpectedly and in a similar fashion in Boca Raton and Jacksonville, and then on June 29, a holistic physician was found brutally murdered in her home in Bonita Springs.

As conspiracy theories go, this is hardly in the same league as the Roswell incident or the 9/11 coverup, but it has gained some traction, and it does provide a neat — if not wholly explicable — look at how this sort of stuff begins.

In the matter of the alternative doctors, disparate and unrelated cases have been tied together with the thinnest of strings and presented as evidence of a vast plot whose aim is to silence those who criticize mandatory vaccinations and advocate for nontraditional medical practices. Those circulating this rumor/conspiracy contend that these practices threaten the very core of the Medical Establishment, which now seeks to annihilate its crusading enemies and mislead the public. According to Dr. Dentith, a dubious proposition such as this can make for a very “good” conspiracy theory.

“On one hand, a good conspiracy theory is a story of everything you know is wrong,” he says. “So, the medical community is lying to you about the real reason for vaccinating your children. These stories endure because they often hint at real fears people have.”

A key piece of this bizarre and convoluted theory about a plot to kill medical practitioners is the case of Dr. Teresa Sievers, a 46-yearold physician who was found murdered in her Bonita Springs home on June 29. The case remains unsolved, and authorities are revealing precious little about their investigation.

This absence of a definitive explanation for this savage crime leaves the field wide open for speculation — no matter how irrational or irresponsible it may be. Mystery, fear and sensationalism are crucial to a conspiracy theory, and Dr. Sievers’ horrific murder possesses all of those elements. In spades.

IF INVESTIGATORS KNOW WHO KILLED DR. Sievers and for what reason, they are keeping that information to themselves. Her body was discovered when co-workers became concerned when she failed to show up at her clinic. Those who knew Dr. Sievers well described her as a caring and dedicated physician who had a keen interest in holistic and nutritional medicine, anti-aging procedures and acupuncture.


ABBOTT ABBOTT Dr. Sievers, her husband and their two children had been visiting relatives in Connecticut. On the night of June 28, Dr. Sievers flew home alone so she could be at work the next morning. Her family planned to return to Florida later in the week. When her flight landed, she telephoned her husband to report her safe arrival. That was, apparently, the last contact she had with her loved ones.

There have been reports that at least one neighbor heard screams coming from Dr. Sievers’ home early in the morning on June 29. There has been another TV report that Dr. Sievers was beaten with a hammer. Neither report has been confirmed by police.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office has been parsimonious with information regarding the investigation. But Sheriff Mike Scott’s early comments on the case proved to be as provocative as they were cryptic and enigmatic. Specifically, the sheriff said the attack did not appear to be random or arbitrary. He further described the crime as a “complicated set of circumstances with many intricacies.” Sheriff Scott also raised eyebrows when he said that — when all is known and disclosed — books and movies will be written about the case. (Tony Schall, spokesman for the LCSO, says there are no new details to disclose.) Sheriff Scott’s comments certainly did not point followers of the case in any one direction. But they were ambiguous enough to provide an opening for conspiracy theorists.

These theorists — led by an Internet maven who identifies herself simply as “Erin Elizabeth” — have taken the murder of Dr. Sievers and linked it to the deaths of other alternative practitioners. In the eyes of Erin Elizabeth and others who adhere to this particular conspiracy theory, actual, verifiable connections in these cases are unnecessary. The practitioners did not know each other. They did not share cases or patients. There is no evidence that they were in contact with one another. And only one of them — the doctor whose death was ruled a suicide — had any unpleasantness as of late with the FDA.

Mr. Schall, the LCSO spokesman, was asked about a possible connection between Dr. Sievers’ murder and a medical conspiracy.

“A lot of people have called and asked that exact question,” he says. “We haven’t seen any evidence (that would support or bolster the conspiracy theory).”

No evidence at all?

“None,” he says.

ON JUNE 21, DR. BRUCE HEDENDAL, a 67-year-old chiropractor who practiced in Boca Raton, was found dead in his automobile. Dr. Hedendal, conspiracy theorists like to point out, was a robust athlete who was extremely active for his age. In fact, they note, he had participated in the discus throw at the Sunshine State Games shortly before he was discovered dead. But they either ignore or play down the fact that Dr. Hedendal had appeared ill at the track meet and had gone to his car to recuperate. Authorities found no sign of foul play.

In Jacksonville, on the same day, Dr. Baron Holt, a 33-year-old chiropractor from North Carolina, died unexpectedly. Dr. Holt was also said to be vigorous and athletic, but his family told a North Carolina newspaper that he had been “struggling with health issues,” which were not described further. As with Dr. Hedendal, no foul play was suspected and autopsy results are awaited.

Two days before Drs. Hedendal and Holt died, Dr. James Jeffrey Bradstreet’s body was found in the Broad River near Chimney Rock, North Carolina. Dr. Bradstreet had Florida roots. He had obtained a medical degree from the University of South Florida and had practiced in Melbourne before relocating to Buford, Georgia. Dr. Bradstreet, 61, died from a gunshot wound to the chest, and a weapon was found in the water near his body. The death scene was near a lake that Dr. Bradstreet and his wife often visited on vacations. Authorities declared it a suicide. Almost immediately, though, conspiracy theorists took issue with that finding.

Of all the practitioners who died, Dr. Bradstreet was, by far, the most widely known and most controversial. And it was his notoriety that seems to have fueled the conspiracy theory.

“To thousands of supporters, he was a savior; a physician who claimed that vaccinations caused autism and promoted radical procedures to treat those afflicted, including his own son,” the Washington Post wrote shortly after his death. “To many others, however, he was a crackpot; a man who, despite his medical license, ignored science and championed dangerous, discredited and occasionally deadly treatments.”

Dr. Bradstreet, the Post noted, “had been a leading voice in the anti-vaccine, or ‘anti-vaxxer,’ movement for nearly two decades.” He also was the object of apparent investigations by federal and state authorities shortly before his death.

“Multiple law enforcement officials said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration searched Bradstreet Wellness Center last week,” the Gwinnett Daily Post in Georgia reported June 26, a week after Dr. Bradstreet’s body was found.

In that same article, the Daily Post said that “some of Bradstreet’s supporters were speculating that his death wasn’t a suicide, but a conspiracy.”

This conspiracy angle began to gain traction principally through the efforts of a self-described “health nut” who goes by the name “Erin Elizabeth” and who maintains a full-throated presence on her website, “Health Nut News.” Erin Elizabeth, according to postings, operates out of Ormond Beach.

(Erin Elizabeth did not respond to Florida Weekly’s requests for an interview.)

Online, Erin Elizabeth says she has “a passion for the healing arts... (and) is an author, public speaker and advocate for healthy living.” She further claims to have overcome “(vaccination) injuries, Lyme disease, a significant weight gain and more.”

Her Facebook page lists almost 5,000 “friends” and almost 8,000 “followers.” On Facebook she also reveals that she is “in a relationship” with Dr. Joseph Mercola.

Dr. Mercola is an osteopathic physician and a controversial figure in his own right. He is wildly popular in the alternative medicine realm. Dr. Mercola is an icon of the anti-vaccination movement and has been criticized by the FDA for his marketing practices.

Erin Elizabeth has continually linked the doctors’ deaths to the possibility of a wide-ranging conspiracy. She is careful, though, to leave some wiggle room in her arguments.

“I don’t claim to have all the answers,” she writes, “but I don’t think anyone does. Yet.”

The assertions of Erin Elizabeth and others caught the attention of Snopes.com, the website that routinely debunks conspiracy theories, urban legends and widely circulated Internet rumors.

“While ‘Erin Elizabeth’ took credit for ‘breaking’ this rumor, it was concurrently or subsequently spread on a range of disreputable alternative medicine sites,” Kim LaCapria, the writer and researcher who looked into the doctors’ conspiracy for Snopes, informs Florida Weekly. “We get hundreds of emails every day, but none have mentioned ‘Health Nut News’ until these rumors appeared.”

Ms. LaCapria exhaustively investigated the allegations of a conspiracy and, not surprisingly, could find nothing to support such a conclusion.

Asked to assign the conspiracy theory a score on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 1 signifying absolute truth and 10 representing a total falsehood), Ms. LaCapria says she is “inclined to say a 10.”

The underpinning of the doctors’ theory is rather “straightforward,” she explains.

“‘Is the government or big pharma deliberately murdering doctors for unknown but sinister reasons?’” she says. “Not only do I think it’s a level- 10 untruth, I’m not convinced some of the people spreading it truly suspect they’ve genuinely uncovered a vast conspiracy. If taken as plausible or true, the allegation is actually a pretty terrifying one, but no one spreading it seems too worried about the purported cabal’s reach.”

Ms. LaCapria also points out a consequence of such a conspiracy theory that might go unnoticed by the public at large: The pain that such rumor and innuendo might bring to grieving families.

“There’s also the matter of these doctors’ deaths being recent (and indeed, some were quite young or died tragically),” she writes in an email to Florida Weekly. “It might be distressing for their loved ones to endure the spread of frightening rumors like this in their time of (very recent and unexpected) grief.”

IN AN OBLIQUE WAY, THE DOCTORS’ DEATHS highlight how so-called fringe issues (e.g. the wisdom of mandatory vaccinations) and conspiracy theories can be pulled into the mainstream. The vaccination question has proved to be a stumbling block for some presidential candidates — especially on the Republican side.

“Today, the debate about whether or not to vaccinate is just not a burning political issue among the Democratic Party’s grass roots that it is for Republicans,” Mara Liasson, national political correspondent for National Public Radio, wrote earlier this year, adding that the vaccine question makes it hard for GOP candidates to “reach out to the conservative base of their party and appeal to the mainstream at the same time.”

Two recent controversies, both in Texas and both involving high-ranking Republican politicians, shed light on how bizarre conspiracy theories can not only gain widespread attention but also shape and inform public policy. Although the Texas stories involve Republicans, conspiracy theorists are not restricted to any one political party or political philosophy, experts say.

“There is absolutely no difference between the left and the right on conspiracy theories,” says Dr. Uscinski, the University of Miami political scientist.

“I think people from all over the map, politically speaking, end up believing in different kinds of conspiracy theories,” adds Dr. Dentith, the academic from New Zealand.

Last month in Texas, a bill was proposed and passed that would allow hospitals to hold for four hours patients who appeared to be a danger to themselves or others. The bill’s intent was to allow psychiatric professionals to evaluate obviously deranged individuals before they were allowed back on the streets. Proponents of the bill hoped it might be at least one step in preventing incidents such as mass shootings by mentally ill individuals.

Senate Bill 359, as it was styled, enjoyed rare bipartisan support. It breezed through the Texas House and Senate. It was endorsed by the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians and the Texas Medical Association. But despite all that, Gov. Gregg Abbott vetoed the measure.

Why would he do such a thing?

Well, Gov. Abbott decided to side with a group known as the Citizens Commission on Human Rights — an outfit founded by the Church of Scientology — which had lobbied long and hard against the bill. The commission, as does the Church of Scientology itself, believes that psychiatry is junk science and little more than a means by which big pharmaceutical companies can drug the public into submission.

The outrage over the veto was immediate. The Dallas Morning News published a stinging editorial headlined, “Abbott sided with conspiracy theorists to kill mental health bill.”

“In his veto proclamation, Gov. Abbott wrote that only law enforcement officers, and not ‘private parties,’ should have the right to detain someone,” the newspaper wrote. “In this case, the private parties are doctors with training and experience to know when someone could be a danger to himself or the community.”

Furthermore, the newspaper said the governor “sided with fear mongering” by killing a bill that “would have helped doctors, law enforcement and the mentally ill.”

This was not the first time that Gov. Abbott had hopped aboard the conspiracy train. Early this year, he stoked the paranoia that gripped Texas after it was announced that military training exercises (named “Operation Jade Helm” by the Pentagon) would be held there.

“Plans for a 17-city Army Special Operations exercise in Texas stirred some ultra-right-wing fears of a government takeover of the Lone Star State,” the Houston Chronicle wrote in March.

Alex Jones, a Texas-based right-wing radio loon who has been warning of a federal takeover of Texas for years, seemed to get things rolling on Jade Helm.

“We’ve got huge news, ladies and gentleman,” Mr. Jones reported on one broadcast. “They’re having Delta Force, Navy SEALS with the Army basically trained to take over.”

According to Mr. Jones, federal authorities had deemed Texas to be a “hostile” site. Why the federal government would want to “invade” and take control of an entity that was already a part of the United States was a question that went unanswered.

By June, a survey conducted by the Texas Tribune revealed that an astonishing 44 percent of those polled believed that the military was about to impose martial law on Texas.

Gov. Abbott further inflamed the situation by instructing the Texas State Guard (a state force that is separate from the National Guard) to “monitor” the Jade Helm exercises.

“During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed,” the governor wrote in his formal instructions to the commander of the Texas State Guard.

Even Chuck Norris, the ineffable action figure who calls Texas home, weighed in on the looming threat.

“It’s neither over-reactionary nor conspiratorial to call into question or ask for transparency about Jade Helm,” Mr. Norris wrote on a web site. “To those who merely think we should check our brains at the door of the White House and trust what government does, I would reiterate to you the words of one of our government’s primary founders, Benjamin Franklin, who said, ‘Distrust and caution are the parents of security.’”

In Washington, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) likewise announced that he, too, would be keeping an eye out for any indications that his state was about to be placed under federal military rule. Like the governor and Mr. Norris, he promised to stand firm on the matter.

This would all be merely comical if not for the fact that some of the crazies who subscribe to theories such as Jade Helm regard them with a deadly seriousness.

Not long ago, the FBI uncovered a plot by three North Carolina men that was aimed at murdering federal troops after luring them into an ambush in South Carolina. The motive behind the thwarted attack?

Revenge for Jade Helm.

These arrests are a sobering reminder that conspiracy theories — as with most things in life — can have consequences.

“Conspiracy theories once in a while lead to violence,” Dr. Uscinski says. “It can come from a lone wolf or a group. You never know.” ¦

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