RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A Virginia man who claimed he was developing a groundbreaking treatment for AIDS was sentenced to nine years in prison Wednesday for spending investors' money on personal expenses rather than the research and human trials he promised.
Michael F. Harris, 50, of Luray promoted a treatment using hyperbaric chambers, which he said inhibited the HIV virus that causes AIDS. The chambers are used to treat divers for decompression sickness, or the bends. Harris obtained a patent for the treatment and conducted animal trials but spent the vast majority of the more than $800,000 he raised from investors on a home, entertainment, car expenses, farm and horse supplies and other personal items.
"You literally stole their money," U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson told Harris before giving him the maximum sentence under federal guidelines.
Harris, who did not testify at his five-day jury trial, was unrepentant.
"You've heard one side of the coin throughout this," Harris told the judge. "I've had problems with people trying to undermine my company. I do not feel this is fair."
He said he plans to appeal.
Among the dozens of victims was Dr. Tom Marosi, a San Diego anesthesiologist who invested $200,000 in October 2006 after contracting the AIDS virus. His brother, John Marosi of Bay Village, Ohio, testified Wednesday that Harris assured Tom Marosi that he and two of his HIV-positive friends would be the first to receive the revolutionary treatment. John Marosi said that after receiving the treatment, his brother planned to "cure the world" by establishing a network of clinics using the hyperbaric chambers.
But four weeks after transferring the money, nearly half of which Harris used for a down payment on his house, Tom Marosi died.
"Michael Harris not only stole $200,000 from Dr. Marosi, he stole his hopes and dreams," John Marosi told Hudson.
A defense witness, however, said she had no quarrel with the way Harris spent investors' money - including the $5,000 she sank into his company.
"I do not feel like I was a victim," said Dr. Annie Prochera, another San Diego anesthesiologist who described Harris' project "a game-changer" in AIDS treatment.
"I believe in the project, and he was not trying to be deceptive or run off with people's money," Prochera said.
She said a business owner is entitled to take a salary, and that's the way she viewed the expenditure of investor funds for personal expenses.
Hudson, however, noted that Harris spent nearly all the money on himself.
"He didn't use a dime of this to further the science," the judge said.
Dr. Robert E. Rosenthal, chief of hyperbaric medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, said in a court affidavit filed Tuesday that he reviewed the Harris patent and determined that "the proposed treatment is not a viable form of treatment for HIV or other viruses" and the treatment protocols "are unsafe for humans."