Details Emerge of the Criminal Charges Against Embattled CFS Researcher

Jon is a staff writer for Science.

After police in Ventura County, California, arrested and jailed Judy Mikovits on 18 November, they gave few details about the felony charges levied against the well-known chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) researcher. According to the Ventura County Sheriff, she was a fugitive from justice arrested on a warrant from Washoe County, Nevada, and was "not bailable."

Now ScienceInsider has learned that her felony arrest warrant was issued by the Reno Justice Court in Washoe County. The District Attorney there has charged Mikovits with "possession of stolen property," according to a document filed with the court, and "unlawful taking of computer data, equipment, supplies, or other computer related property." Mikovits's former employer, the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI) for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, also filed court documents yesterday that further shed light on the arrest.

WPI fired Mikovits on 29 September because it said she refused to share a cell line with another researcher there.

On 4 November, WPI filed a civil lawsuit against Mikovits at Washoe County's Second Judicial District Court in Reno. That breach of contract case alleged that Mikovits wrongfully took laboratory notebooks and other data from her lab after WPI fired her.

WPI is housed on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, and the chief of the campus police, Adam Garcia, told ScienceInsider that the arrest warrant is related to a break-in and theft reported to his department on 9 November. Garcia would not specify the date the alleged break-in took place. Garcia also would not specify who reported the alleged crime beyond saying it was WPI "staff." He noted that there was an ongoing investigation and would neither confirm nor deny involvement of other law enforcement agencies. "This is a University of Nevada Police case," he said. Garcia said that contrary to information on the Ventura County Sheriff's Web site. Mikovits could be freed on $100,000 bail. Mikovits has an appearance in the criminal case scheduled for today in the Ventura Superior Court at 1:30 p.m.

A preliminary injunction on the civil case is, coincidentally, also scheduled to take place today at the exact same time at Second Judicial District Court in Reno, which Mikovits's attorneys filed a motion to oppose. In a reply to their motion, WPI's counsel yesterday filed documents with the Second Judicial Court in Reno that accuse Mikovits of having "masterminded the theft of the Misappropriated Property." WPI's attorneys allege that Mikovits "instructed" a research assistant who worked with her to "take irreplaceable patient samples and laboratory notebooks." According to their court filing and an affidavit from the research assistant, he followed her instructions and hid the notebooks in a "Happy Birthday" bag, first at his condo and later in his mother's garage. The court filing says Mikovits retrieved them on 17 October. Garcia says it is yet to be determined whether others will be arrested.

Calls to Mikovits's lead civil attorneys were not returned, and at press time earlier today, it was unclear who would represent her at the criminal hearing.

Mikovits stepped into an international spotlight in October 2009 when she headed a team that published a study in Science about a possibly groundbreaking discovery related to CFS. Mikovits and colleagues reported that 67% of CFS patients they tested harbored a recently discovered mouse retrovirus dubbed XMRV. Other labs soon reported that they had difficulty confirming the finding, which led the CFS community to split into different camps. WPI staunchly stood by Mikovits's work, even after one of the labs she collaborated with in the Science study retracted its contribution to the paper because contamination had tainted data it supplied. The falling-out between WPI and Mikovits came about after a second Science paper that she co-authored reported that nine labs—including WPI's—could not reliably find XMRV or related viruses in blinded patient samples.

Mikovits lives in Ventura County and a friend of hers there, Lilly Meehan, had her house searched on 18 November in relation to the case. "I was made to sit down in my recliner, and they wouldn't let me stand or get water," says Meehan, who said three Ventura County Police officers presented her with a search warrant and then combed through her house for half an hour.

Meehan, who has two daughters with CFS, believes she was dragged into the investigation because of her blog postings that defended Mikovits. On a blog for CFS patients and advocates, Meehan criticized a letter to "friends and patients" from WPI's president, Annette Whittemore, that explained why the institute had sued Mikovits. "I am beyond outraged at the shameful accusations thinly veiled by Annette Whittemore in her letter today," wrote Meehan.

Meehan is now managing a legal defense fund for Mikovits.

Annette Whittemore, president of the Whittemore Peterson Institute, issued the following statement on 19 November:

The Whittemore Peterson Institute was required to report the theft of its laboratory materials to law enforcement authorities. These authorities are taking the actions that they deem necessary.

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