Aggie Alchemy

John Bockris was known around Texas A&M as a chemist interested in "weird science." Joe Champion gave him all he could handle.

The worst of that worse, before the Philadelphia Project, came in May 1989, when Bockris and his research group assumed the lead in what will likely be known as the century's biggest scientific canard: cold fusion. Cold fusion -- a sustained, table-top nuclear reaction at room temperature -- was announced in March 1989 by Stan Pons and Martin Fleischmann, two University of Utah chemists. The implications were awesome: no more fossil fuels, no more foreign oil, unlimited amounts of good, clean electricity. However, news that the heat and power of the sun had been re-created in a jar drew predictable scrutiny. After a series of withering theoretical evaluations, Pons and Fleischmann admitted that there did seem to be flaws in their research, flaws they couldn't explain away.

But while Pons and Fleischmann licked their wounds, John Bockris climbed through the window of opportunity to stake his claim to saving the world. His experiments, he said, had not only produced the same telltale excess heat found by Pons and Fleischmann, but tritium -- a supporting byproduct Pons and Fleischmann couldn't find -- as well. For the next year, Bockris and Texas A&M were at the epicenter of the scientific world. By autumn 1990, however, the epicenter had moved elsewhere. Cold fusion's obituary had been filed, and the odious specter of fraud hovered over many cold fusion claims.

But by then, John Bockris had moved elsewhere as well. He had gotten himself involved with a con-man-cum-scientist named "Dr." Joe Champion.

As confidence men go, Joe Champion is unusual. At six-foot-four, 225 pounds, he can be intimidating -- rough around the edges, loud and occasionally obnoxious. He drinks heavily, yet his mind churns with science. Champion has the kind of fantastic ideas that, when considered along with his persona, would hardly be expected to appeal to a reasonable person.

Yet, as one might expect of a con man, Joe Champion has a certain charm. You can spot it in his penetrating blue eyes and obvious intelligence (he claims an IQ of 140). He projects courage and passion, which are likely the products of an unshakable faith in the gullibility of others. Joe Champion knows that if he works you long enough, you will come to believe almost anything he says and, most important, believe that he deserves a chance as much as the next guy.

Champion was born in rural Wood County, Texas and raised in Pasadena, the only child of a Ship Channel worker and a housewife. He claims to have graduated from Sam Rayburn High School in 1967, though that fact was once disputed by no less a source than his mother. After Champion's stint in the Army, his life took on a distressing tone: he married, went into business, had a couple of kids, divorced, began drinking heavily, went broke, lost his business.

Before he decided to become a "scientist," Joe Champion was a crook of the fairly common variety, albeit one with a vivid imagination. In 1984 he allegedly told two Houston men that he was an expert smuggler and that he could get a lot of money for young white girls. He was arrested two days later on an aggravated kidnapping charge.

In 1985 he talked two Arizona men into giving him $150,000 to go to South America to liberate a load of gold from the estate of a jailed drug dealer. Instead, he split the money with a partner. In 1987 he was charged with three counts of indecency with a child. Later that year, the sex and kidnapping charges were dismissed when he pleaded guilty to felony theft for writing a $2,000 bad check. He was sentenced to four years in Huntsville.

According to the Reverend Robert Lowe, a retired Methodist minister and family friend, just before Joe Champion was thrown in jail, he decided to convince his mother to give him most of the $100,000 estate left her by her husband. Lowe says Champion would make repeated collect phone calls to Edna Champion. Ultimately, he says, through "badgering and intimidation, he just drained it out of her."

"When he was arrested and taken to jail, we helped his mother make visits," Lowe says. "Though she never did get to see him, she would take him some money and deposit it in his account. He said he was doing research and needed paper and things like that."

What that "research" was became clear after Joe Champion was released from prison in August 1988. By October he was in Columbia, Tennessee, at a place called Brooks Machine Shop. He arrived broke, but with the optimism of a visionary. The future, he announced, would unfold right here behind the machine shop, in a tiny corrugated steel building he would call the Santa Fe Research Center.

Andy Brooks is polite and easygoing, 20 years in business, a man with a grown family. He makes no bones about the fact that, when he first met Joe Champion, he had no idea what this guy had up his sleeve.

"A guy I knew ran into a guy in Houston who had all this great technology," Brooks says. That second "guy" was Champion. "I said I'd be interested in talking to him. I had no idea I'd get involved, [but] I got started on it and didn't quit."

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