A Bitter Pill
When Suzanne Harris and Peter Ludwell quit their full-time jobs to become crusaders in the fight for health freedom, they expected to draw fire from critics of their conspiracy theories regarding government and big business. But it never occurred to them that their life's work would go up in flames.
The couple had been living in a small office building in tiny Johnstown, fifty miles north of Denver, which also housed KHNC-AM, the American Freedom Network flagship station. Between patriotic call-ins and gun shows, the station also broadcast Harris and Ludwell's Law Loft Report, a program devoted to, as Harris puts it, "news and analysis of the trends that count and news that's important, with a focus on health issues."
Their show occupied KHNC's 6 to 7 p.m. weeknight slot. Until November 29, that is, which is the day KHNC itself disappeared. Harris and Ludwell left Johnstown at 4 p.m. that afternoon and drove to Denver for dinner. Afterward they had car problems, so they returned home late, at about 1:30 a.m. By then, three fire districts had spent three hours trying to save the building that housed KHNC, but to no avail. The radio station was gone, as were the couple's dog and six cats--and five years of work.
Although the fire initially seemed suspicious--particularly given KHNC's politics--the Colorado Bureau of Investigation ruled out arson and closed the case. A hot plate caused the fire, according to the CBI.
But Harris and Ludwell say they're certain it wasn't the hot plate that started the fire--and if it was, they're not the ones who plugged it in. And if the fire was arson, perhaps the perpetrators were trying to shut down not KHNC, but the Law Loft, whose cause is just as controversial as the radio station.
"As I've told the police, Peter and I had a conversation about the hot plate while I watched him turn it off before we left," Harris says. "The hot plate had a black cord, and everything else had a white cord, so it was hard to unplug the wrong thing. And while he was unplugging it, I told him that instead of using a pot of water on this hot plate for humidity, we really ought to get a humidifier."
Harris and Ludwell told Officer Tim Barrett of the Johnstown Police Department of their concerns; he says he'll pass them on to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. "It'll be up to CBI to decide if they want to reopen the case," Barrett says. "As of right now, we consider it closed, unless they convince CBI there's something else to it."
Police sergeant Leno Rodriguez adds that it's sometimes tough to determine arson, but he believes the CBI did a thorough investigation. "Sure, it's always possible someone went in there and burned the place," Rodriguez says. "See, you have to take into account what they were doing over there at that radio station."
What Harris and Ludwell were doing was attempting to stop international efforts that would change the classification of vitamins and supplements from "foods" to "drugs"--and all from their Johnstown headquarters. Their cause, they readily admit, really irritates some pharmaceutical companies, medical concerns and even foreign governments that have a vested interest in taking over the supplement business. For example, Harris says, the Canadian government became very upset this past July when she spoke at a conference of that country's Health Action Network Society. "We forced them to react to us, we blew away their speakers with our information, and then the Minister of Health was defeated in his attempt for re-election the following Monday because we made him look so bad," she says.
Self-styled "health-freedom advocates" point to Canada as a worrisome example of what happens when vitamins and supplements are reclassified as drugs. For instance, since Canada changed the classification of DHEA (the natural hormone dehydroepiandrosterone), which is all the rage in this country as an anti-aging supplement, possession of DHEA has carried the same penalty as possession of marijuana. "Basically, what we're talking about here is that if we allow the vitamins and supplements to change to 'drug' status, everything will have to be funneled through the FDA," says Harris. "The FDA will be required to test every herb, every vitamin, and then decide how much of it the public should be allowed to have. It's just more control for them, less control for us."
Harris and Ludwell claim to have been instrumental in altering or affecting several key pieces of legislation, including the Food and Drug Administration's recently passed Reform Bill (in a paper filed in protest of the bill's language, Harris asked the FDA point-blank why it was throwing the Constitution out the window). The Law Loft's research was responsible for getting dietary supplements excluded from the "harmonization" portion of the bill, which would have officially made them drugs, Harris says. ("Harmonization" is the term the FDA and other agencies use to describe what they want to do to vitamins and supplements: regulate them internationally, so that all countries are in "harmony" with each other regarding what's acceptable and what's not.)
But the most serious consequence of the Law Loft work, the couple says, involves the Codex Alimentarius, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, an international nutrition code that Germany is trying to put in place that would set worldwide standards for foods, drugs, pesticides and their trade. "We, with the help of many people in other health-freedom organizations, got the Codex law pushed back to a step three from a step five," Harris says. As a result, the Codex committee will have to do further research before a vote can be taken, and health-freedom advocates have bought themselves more time to alert the public to potential dangers.
If the Codex is passed and becomes law in Germany--which accounts for more than half of Europe's supplement sales--the United States would be legally bound to honor it through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty. And that, Harris says, would be a disaster for residents of this country who care about their ability to manage their own health care. As currently written, the Codex would restrict, regulate and possibly criminalize the use of vitamins, herbs, minerals and supplements as FDA-controlled drugs. Which would mean no more megadoses of vitamin C for that runny nose, and you can kiss echinacea goodbye.
Harris filed a protest paper with the Codex committee in Germany just before a crucial vote in October. "The Germans were really pissed off about what I said, the information I had," she says. "They had written all over it in exclamatory German, not realizing that they were going to have to make it public record. There were white-out and eraser marks all over the place."
Harris and Ludwell don't confine themselves to legislative activism; they also research and archive information on vitamins and supplements, then disseminate their findings in health-related magazines and through Internet hookups with other health-minded folks. But the Law Loft Report was their main outlet, and now it's gone.
"I think that, if anything, it was the combination of the Law Loft and what KHNC stands for that pushed someone into starting the fire," says Harris. "But Peter and I obviously had annoyed some people."
Of course, the rest of KHNC's hosts weren't exactly filling their air time with warm tales of Lake Wobegon. The station, which went on the air in 1993 and claims an unofficial audience of 1 to 2 million people in 84 countries, was called the "USA Patriot Network" until the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, but the content was the same before and after the bombing: right-wing, ultra-conservative, arm-yourself-before-the-government-gets-you talk radio, with a few reputedly anti-Semitic hosts--despite the fact that prominent KHNC yakker Dr. Norm Resnick is Jewish and station owner Don Weideman, a Christian rabbi, thinks he's Jewish.
While Resnick and Weideman vehemently deny any link between KHNC and the patriot movement, their station gained national attention in 1995 when it was revealed that call-in guest Mark Koernke, "Mark from Michigan," had a suspected connection to Timothy McVeigh, who'd just been charged with the bombing in Oklahoma City. And the station was thrust into the spotlight again in the summer of 1996, when the Freemen, who held off the FBI for 81 days in eastern Montana, called KHNC to air their grievances.
It was those two connections that prompted dozens of newspapers nationwide to run, at least in brief, news of the November fire. Most of those stories reported that officials initially called the fire "very suspicious" and referred to KHNC's programming as "right-wing and anti-government." Some went so far as to call it a "major source for guns, survival gear, short-wave radios and other items linked with the patriot movement."
But Harris and Ludwell wouldn't have cared if KHNC peddled diapers. The station gave them a forum and an audience--and, until the fire, a place to live and establish a library of books, documents and speeches.
Like most crusaders, Harris and Ludwell are reluctant to reveal much about their personal lives, believing it will detract from The Cause: putting a lid on "lies" from health groups that purport to have citizens' best interests at heart but actually want a piece of the lucrative market for vitamins and supplements. They're also reluctant to reveal details of their current whereabouts; they've been on the road since the fire.
Bits and pieces of their pasts filter through the rhetoric, though. Harris, an articulate speaker who delivers clear, concise sentences even when she's not talking about The Cause, says she's a former lawyer and law professor; Ludwell, she adds, is a former CBS field reporter for legal news. They moved to Colorado from Los Angeles, where they'd worked at their respective jobs for many years, although Harris says they were doing "other political things at the time, too, like rescuing people from Vietnam."
Harris admits they're "middle-aged baby-boomers" but won't say how long they've been married or where they met and when. "I just don't think our personal life should be part of the story," she says. "It'll just dilute the information we want to get out." She does casually mention that "Peter is a Vietnam vet, and I was at Berkeley in the Sixties." Even so, she adds, "we have never considered ourselves radical."
What prompted the couple to take the radical action of dropping lucrative careers in favor of crusading was the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, a bill first introduced in 1992 by Senator Orrin Hatch that set up a separate category to classify dietary supplements. Harris says she was scared by the original draft. "I was reading it and said, 'You know, something about this isn't quite right,'" she remembers. "I felt that consumers were being told that it would benefit them, and on the surface it seemed like what we were looking for ourselves, but the actual language of that version I saw was far from beneficial to consumers."
The bill that passed turned out to be different from--and, says Harris, slightly better than--the early draft she had seen, but it was too late to change course. By then, she and Ludwell had already decided to dedicate their lives to the health of others.
As for their health, they say it's improved since they changed paths. "We take vitamins, yes," says Ludwell, who tends to stay in the background and let Harris run the show. "But what we're even more serious about is eating healthy foods, like meat without hormones and organic produce. Which was rather difficult to find in the tiny town of Johnstown, I might add."
It was no problem in L.A., however, where in 1992 the two began researching the formation of a think tank--the Law Loft--that would concentrate on publicizing any threat to global health freedom. Soon after, they began broadcasting the Law Loft Report on KHNC from California.
Ludwell and Harris moved to Colorado in 1995. Harris says Weideman offered Ludwell a job as news director and promised not only to pay for the move, but also to give them a place to live at the station. Ludwell did work as news director for a time, Harris notes, but the station "never paid a dime toward the $20,000 it cost to move us out here." And, she adds, they did get a place to live, but "we didn't realize we were going to be put in two rooms with no shower or kitchen."
Resnick, who does most of the talking for KHNC (Weideman did not return Westword's phone calls), says that Harris and Ludwell begged the station for a job and that Weideman made no promises beyond offering to help them until they found a place to live.
The two sides may disagree on how the Law Loft wound up housed at KHNC, but they certainly agree that by the fall of 1996, the station wanted to dump the Law Loft Report and oust Harris and Ludwell, for reasons neither party will disclose. Listeners, however, raised such a stink that Weideman had no choice but to let them stay.
And they wanted to: Harris says they liked Colorado. "We'd love to come back," she adds. "The people in Johnstown were nice, and we enjoyed going into Denver when we could afford it. There definitely are not the resources available here that there are in bigger cities like L.A., though."
And research takes up the bulk of their time and energy. That's what makes them so valuable to consumers, Harris says, because the average vitamin-pill popper doesn't have the time or the wherewithal to read all of the information that's out there. "I started doing research on vitamins," she adds, "and I realized that everyone thinks that the objective of mainstream medicine is to disavow alternative approaches as being too experimental, because they don't want the consumer to be hurt. But as I looked at patent filings and read the business pages closely to see who was buying whom, a clearer picture started to emerge. It became obvious that the name of the game is 'stealing from the alternatives.' The mainstream medical companies want the phytopharmaceutical market for themselves because there is so much potential there."
As they researched the field, Harris and Ludwell decided they didn't want the Law Loft to be like other think tanks "that turn out propaganda to make money rather than freely sharing their thoughts," Harris says. Proving they could not be bought, Harris claims they turned down offers to work with both the Democrats and the Republicans. And while the Law Loft is set up as a business venture--it's not a nonprofit, because the political topics Harris and Ludwell occasionally write about make them ineligible for that status--the couple has lived almost solely on donations from people around the world who are sympathetic to their cause. And that seems to be a healthy number, judging from the many Web sites linking to their work.
John Hammell, who runs International Advocates for Health Freedom and has worked with Ludwell and Harris on some of the legislative changes made in Canada and the U.S., says the worth of the vitamin and supplement industry is in the billions but that no one seems to know the exact amount. "There's just been no one collecting that kind of data, and I would know, because I would be using it," says Hammell from his headquarters in Hollywood, Florida.
"It's nowhere near as big as the pharmaceu-tical industry, of course," Hammell adds. "Internationally, that's believed to be second only to the arms industry in terms of size." And when the numbers are that big, competition can get intense--very intense. In fact, Hammell's been keeping a low profile since the fire; he says he fears that the people who targeted the Law Loft--if anyone targeted the Law Loft--might target him, too.
According to Frost & Sullivan, an international marketing and research firm that tracks health issues, about 50 million Americans take a daily vitamin. And internationally, Hammell estimates that dozens of groups and thousands of individuals have been pelting the U.S. and foreign governments with letters, faxes and phone calls protesting proposed changes. "That was evident with the FDA Reform Bill," he says. "A guy at the FDA told me they ran out of ink and paper on their fax machine, so many people were pummeling them with protests. And believe me, I know--it's not easy getting a bill changed."
The primary reason he's bothered by the regulation of herbs and vitamins, Hammell explains, is because they're natural, "gifts to all of us from our Creator." He's been researching health law for the past ten years, ever since a life-threatening illness was cured by alternative methods after mainstream medicine failed. "It's not easy doing this kind of work," he says. "But we keep adding groups to our numbers, and I get calls all the time from people wanting to know how they can get involved."
From their tiny office in Johnstown, Harris and Ludwell became leaders in the movement. "Don't run out of steam because you're constantly putting out brushfires," Harris advises other grassroots groups. "You have to pick your battles and only fight the ones that count. And it really doesn't take that much money. You just need a unity of command and an economy of force."
The next battle the Law Loft founders face is finding another station that will air their show--and another home where they can start reconstructing their lives and library. One of the last independent radio stations in Missouri, Kansas City's KCXL-AM, collected donations from listeners to bring the couple in last week to do some test broadcasts, but Harris says she's not sure whether that gig will pan out.
One thing is sure: KHNC doesn't want them back. But then, Harris and Ludwell don't ever want anything to do with Resnick and Weideman again, either. "I don't want to get into a pissing match with these guys," says Harris. "But they did us wrong so many ways, right from the beginning, that I just don't know what they could have to say for themselves."
The pistol-packing Resnick always has a lot to say, although three-quarters of it is prefaced with, "Now, this is off the record." What he will say on the record about the fire is that he thinks Harris and Ludwell started it accidentally, when they forgot to turn off the hot plate.
"Where Suzanne and Peter lived was a disaster waiting to happen," Resnick says. "It was a fire hazard, no doubt about it, with papers piled knee-high and junk everywhere. It was like a pigsty.
"Everyone immediately assumed it was arson," he adds. "You know, the public was saying, 'Those wackos, those nutcases--they got what they deserve.'" Resnick says he doesn't believe KHNC was torched by anyone from its enemy list; however, he claims the station had been receiving threats. (None of them were reported to the Johnstown police.)
KHNC is slated to be up and running within a week, Resnick says. That's thanks largely to Weideman, who built the transmitter for the station on his 600-acre farm and thus spared it from the blaze. Jack McLamb, a former Phoenix cop who's had a show in the 7 to 8 p.m. weeknight slot, will take over the Law Loft's time as well. McLamb has come under fire himself recently from the Anti-Defamation League for espousing the joys of militia membership and for running an Internet Web site with a link to an anti-Semitic group, the Liberty Lobby.
"But at least he isn't mooching off us like the Law Loft was," Resnick says. Resnick also wants it on the record that KHNC allowed Harris and Ludwell to live at the station for free for two years--in those two rooms with no kitchen or shower facilities--and let them use the phone and the copier. "They were running up our phone bill," he adds. "And do you know what it's like to be around people who don't shower?"
Resnick wants to make sure everyone knows he doesn't think Harris and Ludwell started the fire on purpose. "I know they didn't," he explains, "because their animals died, and they loved those animals more than anything."
But Harris and Ludwell insist they're not the culprits. "It could have been anyone," says Harris. "The Canadians, someone from the pharmaceuticals, someone who has a vested interest in making vitamins categorized as drugs." They're sticking to their story that they unplugged the hot plate. And no matter who turned it on, Harris adds, the hot plate could not have fallen off the table on its own, because it had a heavy Dutch oven on top of it--their improvised humidifier.
The couple noticed several other oddities as they sorted through the blackened rubble. For example, they had always dead-bolted the door with a key from the outside, they say, but neighbors had been able to kick in the door when the fire was first discovered, which meant the dead bolt had not been locked, which meant that someone could have come through a window and then walked out the door by unlocking the dead bolt from inside. Also, Harris says, they'd kept track of their computer disks, since they had to be cross-referenced with the vast amount of information they've collected over the last five years, and when she counted the metal pieces that remained from the disks, some were missing.
And if the hot plate was the cause of the fire, they wonder, why was the damage the worst at their computers, which weren't anywhere near the hot plate?
Harris and Ludwell say they think KHNC wants the investigation closed because an arson case would delay insurance payment. The station itself was comfortably insured, according to Resnick, but the adjustor has told Harris and Ludwell that they're covered for only $2,500, since the insurance on the building was not for personal effects.
But all the owners of the Law Loft really need to carry on is their research, and Harris doesn't think that will be too tough to re-create. "Oh, a visit to the library in Rome, which is the single-best place in the world that I know of where you can get most of the international paperwork the fastest, and I might need to go to Switzerland, too," she says. "That fire destroyed five years of our spending weeks at a time in libraries, and so our top priorities are getting all of that back and getting on a radio station. There are some deadlines coming up."
Two important ones: Congress goes back to work on January 28, and there's a crucial Codex meeting in Bonn in September.
"Just get me there," Harris says. "I'll get the information. You know, the Bill of Rights is under massive attack--both parties are working to destroy it. But they'd better get their gritty paws off my vitamins."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.