James Jeffrey Bradstreet’s life was full of controversy. To thousands of supporters, he was a savior: a physician who claimed vaccines caused autism and promoted radical procedures to treat those afflicted, including his own son.

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.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Bradstreet’s death is proving equally divisive.

On the afternoon of June 19, a fisherman spotted Bradstreet’s lifeless body lying in the Broad River in the tiny town of Chimney Rock, N.C. He had a gunshot wound to his chest, authorities said. A gun was found in the water nearby.

That’s about all that everyone can agree on.

Like his research, Bradstreet’s death has become a Rorschach test in which his supporters see a conspiracy, while most everyone else — including law enforcement — sees a slow downward slide towards suicide.

The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office said it is investigating Bradstreet’s death, but that the wound appears to have been self-inflicted.

Bradstreet’s family, however, has set up an online account to raise funds for “an exhaustive investigation into the possibility of foul play.”

“Jeff dedicated his life’s work to finding answers, always pushing the envelope, and never giving up, even at the risk of being perceived as controversial,” wrote his niece, Cali Bradstreet Howell, on the gofundme Web site. “Now, in this moment, we find ourselves in a position, where we too are in search for answers … and we intend on finding them.”

Bradstreet had been a leading voice in the anti-vaccine, or “anti-vaxxer,” movement for nearly two decades.

He was a former preacher who traded the pulpit for a physician’s gown, according to the Gwinnett Daily Post. Bradstreet received his medical degree from the University of South Florida and completed his residency at the Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center in Texas, according to a paper he wrote.

His interest in autism was as much personal as professional. He made no secret about the fact that family had been touched by the disorder. “Both [my] son and stepson have autism spectrum disorders and have experienced significant recovery as a result of intensive biomedical interventions,” he claimed.

On his blog, Bradstreet detailed the painful story of how his own son’s struggles had pushed him to study autism — and increasingly controversial therapies.

“It takes a lot of courage to face the world with autism,” he wrote in a 2012 birthday letter to his autistic son:

From an easy pregnancy and simple delivery you progressed as a sweet and happy baby boy right up until 8 months when that first ear infection struck.  It didn’t want to go away easily and ultimately you needed tubes to drain the infection.  Prior to that we tried a lot of antibiotics and none worked.  We didn’t realize back then that you had a primary immune deficiency and couldn’t make enough IgM to defend your body.
I can’t even talk about the next year and all the things that happened.  But your mother and I had to watch our precious boy change without understanding what was happening. The first time you pulled the pans out of the kitchen cabinets and banged on them it was cute.  The next 20 times it was obvious something was wrong.  And then you just didn’t seem to cry when you fell and hurt yourself.  I had never seen that before.
The worst part of those early years was the horrific diarrhea that would actually burn your bottom within seconds. That was so sad and so hard to treat.  Back in those days we understood so little about the gut connection to autism.
Ultimately, secretin ( a simple hormone) give IV made a huge difference in that problem.  It was an immediate change and even got you the attention of Bernie Rimland and the National Enquirer. Your response to secretin made you an immediate hit with about 10 million readers of the Enquirer and neither your nor my life has been the same since.

But as the National Enquirer coverage suggests, some of these treatments were salacious but scientifically iffy. (A 2012 study, for instance, found “no evidence that single or multiple dose intravenous secretin is effective” for treating autism.) Bradstreet also wrote about including his son in an intravenous immunogloblin (IVIG) trial that “made a huge difference.” But another study found IVIG only helped 10 percent of patients and “should be undertaken only with great caution.”

Nonetheless, his son’s case helped convince Bradstreet that vaccines caused autism. He took his message to the highest levels of government. Twice he testified about the supposed link between vaccines and autism before the U.S. House of Representatives.

“He was a very happy, well connected child prior to his MMR at approximately 12 months of age,” Bradstreet told representatives in 2002, presenting copies of his son’s various tests. “Matthew completely lost about 2 months after his MMR vaccine.”

From his clinic in Buford, Ga., Bradstreet treated patients from around the world, many who sought him out online. Desperate parents seeking answers for their children’s maladies would write to him on his blog, begging him for help.

But leading autism experts say Bradstreet was simply wrong, and that the autism therapies he espoused were “dangerous.”

“There is no evidence that vaccines cause autism,” Peter Jay Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told The Washington Post. “It is pseudoscience based on a misunderstanding of the whole neurobiology of autism.

“But there are a lot of worrying conspiracy theorists that keep on making up allegations about vaccines,” he said. “Every five years, the main variables change. I’ve seen about six iterations of this. As soon as one pseudoscience theory is debunked, someone comes up with something new.”

Hotez, who also has a child with autism, said it was understandable that Bradstreet and others sought answers to the still somewhat mysterious disorder.

“If you Google something on the Web, you can get a quick and easy fix,” he said. “Unfortunately that’s what a lot of parents do, and there is a lot of garbage on the Internet.”

Bradstreet’s beliefs were doubly dangerous, Hotez said. Not only did they scare people off of vaccines — something that has led to a resurgence of measles in the U.S. — but the treatments themselves can also be deadly.

“Bradstreet was promoting chelation therapy, which is dangerous and without any benefit,” Hotez said. Chelation involves the use of chemicals to remove metals from a patient’s blood.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says chelation can be used in cases of acute poisoning, but Bradstreet believed the procedure could treat autism by removing mercury — supposedly introduced by vaccines — from an autistic person’s blood.

The FDA, however, has warned against such “chelation therapies” for autism: “Chelating important minerals needed by the body can lead to serious and life-threatening outcomes.”

“Chelation therapy never made any sense from a scientific standpoint,” Hotez added. “So in the zeal to chelate mercury, which, again, there is no basis showing [it is the problem], Bradstreet would also chelate the calcium, and that would cause a very toxic reaction.”

“Chelation is certainly not appropriate” for treating autism, Michael Katz, a senior adviser to the March of Dimes and professor emeritus at Columbia University, told The Washington Post. He added that numerous studies have debunked the link between mercury in vaccines and autism, rendering chelation pointless.

Bradstreet was also a believer in hyperbaric oxygen chambers and stem cell therapy for the autistic.

It is unclear what role Bradstreet’s controversial research and therapeutic techniques might have played in his death. According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, the FDA and Georgia’s Drugs and Narcotics Agency raided his Buford clinic in the days before his death.

“Multiple law enforcement officials said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration searched Bradstreet Wellness Center last week,” the newspaper reported on June 26. “On Monday, [June 22] plastic sheets covered the windows of the two suites the office takes up in a complex off Commerce Drive, and the doors were locked. ”

It’s still unclear why the raid was carried out. For many, however, the timing seemed to fit with the official explanation of a suicide. Bradstreet’s body was found near where he and his wife vacation, the Daily Post reported. And, although less frequent than bullets to the head, suicide shots to the chest are not uncommon.

But Bradstreet’s family and broad network of supporters see a nefarious scheme in the series of events leading to his death.

“He was a fighter and would never just quit,” Bradstreet’s former wife, Lori, wrote on the gofundme Web site. “What we were told happened really does defy all reason. Thank you for all your help to find the truth.”

The Bradstreet family did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“I can not accept the notion that Jeff would take his own life,” wrote former colleague, John Reinhold Sr. “His research was a threat to many representing huge financial losses in the hundreds of billions, if the direction his research was validating came to be accepted as ‘fact.’ We discussed this many times when he was in the earliest stages of his work. The public is unaware of how easy it is for someone knowledgeable whose financial interests are threatened to make a phone call and simply state, ‘He’s an annoyance we don’t need right now,’ and that simple statement putting plans in motion. If Jeff’s strong suspicions are right regarding cause and causes of autism, legal actions against those corporations implicated would be staggering and possibly unprecedented in the history of world finance. Jeff was brilliant and had every reason to live. Although we’ve not been in touch in recent years I can not fathom that he checked himself out.”

Others expressed their thanks for the miracles that Bradstreet had allegedly worked upon their autistic children, while quickly decrying his “murder.”

“I will always remember how helpful his office in Melbourne Fl. was to my very ill autistic child,” Marla Peters wrote. “My daughter is now 19, she was 5 when we first went to his office. No one would help her with her gut pain but this group of Dr.s helped her and myself. Forever grateful and sad because his work was not done! May God have vengeance quickly on the evil doers who murdered him!”

“One of the best doctors my son had in 21 years,” echoed Andrea Parker. “He did not kill himself! I simply don’t believe it at all. He was super religious and had an Autistic son himself. This looks really dirty to me.”

Hotez said passions run high in the autism debate. He and his family have received angry messages and e-mails but never death threats, he said.

And while he couldn’t comment about Bradstreet’s death, Hotez wondered if the homicide theories were, like vaccine conspiracies, half baked.

“There is a deep seated paranoia” in the anti-vaccine movement, he said. “There is a deep seated feeling that there must be something bad out there.”