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Geneticist Denies Abuse Charges

Community Patron in Seclusion After Allegations Are Publicized

By Kimberly Edds
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, August 6, 2004; Page A04

SAN MARINO, Calif. -- In the world of gene therapy research, W. French Anderson was at the top. He made his name leading the first approved experiment in which patients were given new genes. Once a pioneer at the National Institutes of Health, for the past decade he has headed the Gene Therapy Laboratories at the University of Southern California.

In this posh Los Angeles suburb, he was a good if quiet neighbor and a benefactor, writing checks for community projects that included outfitting the local police department's running team with uniforms.

Geneticist W. French Anderson, 67, walks to a Los Angeles County sheriff's bus after his arraignment Monday. (Walt Mancini -- Pasadena Star-news Via AP)

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But now the researcher is in seclusion, charged with molesting a teenage girl he once coached in tae kwon do. He is free on $600,000 bail, has surrendered his passport and firearms and, if convicted, faces as much as 26 years in prison. In court earlier this week, his lawyer said Anderson had mentioned suicide and when he was in jail last weekend, he was on a suicide watch.

Outside the courtroom in which he pleaded not guilty, Anderson told reporters, "It is a nightmare being falsely accused. I did not do the things that I am charged with."

Anderson is charged with one count of continuous sex abuse on a child and five counts of lewd acts upon a child, felony charges that could result in a sentence of 26 years in state prison.

Prosecutors said Anderson began abusing the girl during the monthly tae kwon do lessons he taught at his home starting in January 1997, when she was 10. A fifth-degree black belt, Anderson still competes. The abuse continued for almost five years, until December 2001, prosecutors say. Even after that, the doctor continued to visit and e-mail the girl, authorities said. She is now 17.

Anderson's attorney did not return repeated calls for comment.

Anderson was placed on administrative leave from USC on Friday when sheriff's deputies arrived on campus with a search warrant, university officials said. Computers and computer files were taken.

Anderson was born in Tulsa, and he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1963. He met his wife, Kathryn, in an anatomy class at Cambridge University. They married in 1961. Kathryn Anderson retired last month as chief of surgery at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles. They have no children.

In his research, Anderson has focused on improving the way healthy genes can be transported into cells to replace variant genes that can cause disease. He has also been developing methods for performing gene therapy on human fetuses as a way of preventing diseases in babies before they are born.

Anderson made his mark on the scientific world in 1990 when he organized and oversaw the removal of white blood cells from 4-year-old Ashanti DeSilva, inserting copies of a missing gene and re-infusing the cells into her body. The procedure, and a similar one performed on 9-year-old Cynthia Cutshall, was partially successful. Both girls, who suffered from a rare genetic disorder that left them without a functioning immune system, are now healthy -- though in part from a drug that was not available before 1990.

While gene therapy has had mixed results overall, Anderson has pursued his quest to perform gene therapy as routinely as doctors administer drugs now.

DeSilva's parents, Raj and Van, said they were devastated by the news of the accusations against the doctor who saved Ashanti's life.

"We've left our daughter with him alone many times. We support him fully. We trust him fully. We don't believe any of these charges," Raj DeSilva said.

Steven Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute, who with Anderson tested the safety of gene therapy in cancer patients, said Anderson played an important role in the early development of the technology.

"He is a good scientist and a caring person. I would be incredibly shocked if these charges turned out to be true," Rosenberg said. "I find this all very hard to believe. I've always known French to be an honorable person."

At home, the white-haired doctor may have been a little quirky for the button-down neighborhood, with a karate ring in his back yard and his 1990 Acura Legend in the driveway on a street lined with luxury cars.

But he was known for his generosity. In addition to providing the San Marino Police Department's running team with uniforms, he paid for the overhaul of a gym used by the city's police and firefighters. He has been a frequent visitor to the station and is friends with the police chief, Arl Farris, who approved a concealed-weapons permit for him.

After being tipped off by his accuser that charges might be coming, Anderson wrote to Farris saying that he could be the target of an extortion attempt. But prosecutors say there is no evidence of blackmail.

"We think it was just an attempt to already start setting up a defense," Deputy District Attorney Cathryn Brougham said.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company