Aggie Alchemy

Keep Houston Press Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Houston and help keep the future of Houston Press free.

Texas A&M Code of Honor
"Ye who makes thy own gold, makes thy own rules."
New Golden Rule

On a mid-October morning in 1992, three Americans, all connected in one way or another with Texas A&M University, stood up in front of a gathering of press people at the El Presidente Hotel in Mexico City to make what they claimed would be an important announcement. The first to speak was Dr. Joe Champion, a large man in an open shirt and dark jacket, who introduced himself as the lead scientist for something called the Philadelphia Project. At first, Champion played to the journalists' worst fears by launching into a highly technical discourse, tossing off phrases such as "Through careful nuclear predisposition, the isotopic compositions of base minerals could be selectively transmuted through electromagnetic resonance" and "This fission or separation is in all cases equivalent to the separation of an alpha particle within the nucleus of the atom."

Gobbledygook, most of the reporters thought. But then a phrase stuck: "For example, if we placed mercury in a field of resonance, two of its seven isotopes are converted into platinum."

Platinum? Interesting. The reporters looked at their watches and silently prayed for a mild earthquake. A moment later, they got it.

"However," Champion said, "one of these new isotopes of platinum is not stable. It converts to gold within a period of six days."

Say again? The room fairly buzzed as the implication of Champion's statement took hold. Start with mercury, end with gold. Alchemy.

Champion smiled as the room came alive. This was the moment of glory he had so long awaited, the culmination of years of study and planning and work. Champion had everyone's attention. To set the hook, he turned to a rumpled, bespectacled man to his left.

Dr. John O'Mara Bockris stood and introduced himself: distinguished professor of chemistry at Texas A&M; the author of a score of books and more academic papers than you'd care to count; a legend in electrochemistry -- and now, it seemed, a legitimizing presence in a field of study thought dead centuries before.

The reporters were rapt. Champion had a crudeness about him, but Bockris, despite a cheap suit and a few wild hairs that sprung violently from his balding head, oozed genteel authority.

"The problem," Bockris sniffed in his stuffy British accent, "is that most people are so ingrained with traditional scientific theory that they have no room in their philosophies for such a totally revolutionary concept. They would rather deny it altogether than to have to rethink their whole perceptions of physics. This is the greatest advance in modern science."

Well, it was certainly news.
Or so it seemed then, when Mexican newspapers and television reported the story. But today, the tale of the Philadelphia Project appears much different. Then, it was a story of progress and good intentions. Now, it is one of fraud and greed. What started as a parable of teamwork and scientific breakthroughs looks today like the sad saga of how Texas A&M University, one of the country's finest research institutions, lent its name to the willful corruption of scientific integrity and encouraged two men, one of whom should have known better, to revisit a long-abandoned pseudo-science.

At first, the Philadelphia Project was a promise taken seriously and with hope. Today, it just might be the greatest Aggie joke of all time.

If there was a science reporter at the El Presidente, he or she had likely heard of John O'M. Bockris. During his 50-year career Bockris has starred at a number of news conferences, many of them based on flamboyant exercises in scientific miscalculation only a touch less odd than alchemy.

Bockris was born in South Africa and raised and educated in London. In 1960 he went to the University of Pennsylvania, where, a decade later, he claimed the birth of the "hydrogen economy" with a method for using sunlight to free hydrogen from water. In 1982, four years after he had moved on to A&M, Bockris announced a "quantum leap" in his hydrogen-fuel technology through a "secret catalyst" that split water into hydrogen and oxygen even without the energy of sunlight. Two years later, focusing on a slightly different scientific arena, he claimed to have found a material that facilitated complete conversion of sunlight to electricity, something that would have no doubt surprised many researchers in photo-voltaic technology.

As it turned out, all three "breakthroughs" were the result of research errors more common to an undergraduate chemistry student than a scientist with a half-century's experience. Bockris, a stubborn, autocratic man with a flair for the dramatic, further damaged his credibility by grandstanding before the media with provocative -- and unconfirmed -- findings. In each case Bockris later refused to admit his mistakes, despite damning research by other scientists.

"He is an ambitious, egocentric, driven human being who has come a long way ... by aggressive, outlandish at times, scrapping," says one of Bockris' colleagues at A&M. Another A&M colleague, Doherty-Welch distinguished professor of chemistry Dr. Albert Cotton, says, "He did, in the course of his earlier career, a little bit of work that was good science. He was hired here -- a decision I thought was risky. There were many, many danger signs.... And he wasn't here very long before he began not only not getting better, but actually getting worse."

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."

At least not until Joe Champion used up more than half a million dollars of Brooks' money. He did it with a series of wacky but potentially lucrative ideas: running an engine on hydrogen, extracting gold from sea water, and mining precious metals from abandoned oil wells.

By spring 1989, Brooks wanted out. Then came Pons and Fleischmann's cold fusion announcement. Champion read a little about the process and, in an old fish tank, put together something resembling the experiment used by the Utah scientists. He hooked up a computer to the apparatus and immediately began reporting excess heat.

Brooks allowed himself a little excitement at Champion's cold fusion claims. And when men in suits started showing up -- from universities, corporations and scientific labs -- Brooks thought he might actually get some of his money back. The only problem, says Dr. Joel Muehlhauser, a professor of physics at the University of Tennessee, which put together a team to study Champion's work, was that "there was nothing there, no repeatable data whatsoever."

When that became clear, life in Columbia turned bad for Champion, who had convinced everyone in town that he was a legitimate scientist with a Ph.D. It didn't help when his mother came for a visit. One day, someone called to "Dr." Champion.

"Why, he never even finished high school," Mrs. Champion remarked.
Not long after Edna's inadvertent revenge, Brooks' son, Jeff, approached Joe Champion and said he had a good mind to tell the county sheriff about the tidy sum his daddy had lost.

"He left town," says Andy Brooks. "Immediately."
While Champion played scientist in Tennessee, John Bockris was desperate to get out front and stay there on cold fusion. Around September 1989, four months after Bockris announced his successful production of tritium, he received a phone call from Champion, who told the A&M researcher about his own cold fusion work. Intrigued, Bockris sent two post-doctoral fellows to Brooks Machine Shop to check the competition out. Though no one else who had seen Champion's setup could affirm that it worked, somehow Bockris' post-docs managed the impossible. They reported that Champion's process was a winner.

Still, given all that Bockris had to contend with in his own lab, the news about Joe Champion fell by the wayside. But Bockris didn't forget his cold fusion pal. Accordingly, when Bockris heard from Champion 18 months later, he was prepared to welcome him with open arms.

In early 1992, Champion was living in Houston. He contacted Bockris and told him he had some new theories worth looking into, theories as important as cold fusion -- theories about turning base metals into gold. He wondered about the chances of testing his notions at A&M. He added that he had met a man named Bill Telander who seemed willing to finance the research.

Champion had met Telander while working with Mike Boyd, owner of a Houston import/ export business. Boyd, in turn, had become involved with Champion through a friend who had been among the first to witness Champion's alchemical leanings. This friend told Boyd that Champion could indeed make gold from dross, and when Boyd had a sample of Champion's work analyzed, traces of gold turned up.

Boyd became Champion's sugar daddy, and for almost two years he paid the living expenses of Champion, his girlfriend, Maggie Sacharski, and their two children. He also paid for Champion's supplies and equipment, as well as his frequent jaunts to Chicago, Arkansas and Guanajuato, Mexico, where Champion did experiments at a local university.

Life with Joe Champion was an adventure. It almost seemed that they were on the run, Boyd recalls. To make matters worse, Champion drank a lot and, once he had a few drinks, would tell anyone who listened that he could turn mercury into gold. In Mexico, Champion told Boyd they were being followed.

"There was always a lot of spy bullshit going on with Joe," Boyd says. But Champion's fears were realized in October 1991, when he was arrested in Deer Park by federal agents who had finally tracked him down on the South American gold scam he'd run in Arizona.

Champion won an extradition hearing and was released on bond (paid by Boyd) in February 1992. That's when he met Telander, a wealthy Napa Valley businessman with a background in the restaurant business, and the three men started work in Clear Lake on an electromagnetic resonance machine. The EMR device, Champion told Boyd, was going to be part of the first phase of an upcoming research project at Texas A&M University.

Though Telander had assumed financial responsibility for Champion's research, he promised to include Boyd, who had gone bankrupt from the expenses he'd incurred thanks to Champion. "Joe's best talent was being able to present himself as extremely credible," Boyd says. "Whether or not all those things were fact or fiction, I don't know. I do know ... it cost me everything I had. But when Bill Telander became involved, I was essentially an empty syringe."

Including him in the deal anyway was a nice gesture. It was also a hollow one: once Telander and Champion left for College Station, Boyd never heard from them again.

But Texas A&M would hear from them with a vengeance. On April 8, 1992, Bill Telander established a five-person scientific team headed by John O'M. Bockris and Joe E. Champion Jr. He called it the Philadelphia Project.

The focus of the research, Telander wrote, was "on a single phenomena [sic] which has implications in the accelerated production of precious metals, the production of energy and the separation of selected isotopes..."

Among the more than 60 recipients of Telander's four-paragraph statement were two U.S. senators, the CIA, the National Security Council, General Electric, Rockwell International, the Department of Energy, the U.S. Navy, nine oil companies and 20 foreign embassies. At the end of the message was a notice: "We are willing to receive you, upon appointment, within our offices on the campus of Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, U.S.A."

That Aggieland was not immediately flooded with government officials, foreign envoys and oil executives probably came as something of a relief to A&M officials. Despite Telander's confident announcement, at least one administrator had some concerns about the project.

For one thing, that concern went, who was Bill Telander, who had buckets of money in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, but not so much as a nickel in a U.S. bank? Who was "Dr." Joe Champion? And how did these guys get hooked up with John Bockris? Everyone at A&M was well aware of the kinds of things Bockris routinely got into; were Telander and Champion?

Then there were the rumors floating around campus that Bockris was once again involved in weird science.

Dawn Lee Wakefield, who was director of development for A&M's College of Science at the time, remembers a conversation she had with a faculty member on April 1, 1992, more than a week before the Philadelphia Project experiments began.

"He said he heard that Bockris was turning mercury into gold," Wakefield recalls. "I thought it was some kind of April Fool's joke, but then I realized, he's serious!"

Despite the questions and the rumors, the project was deemed acceptable and Telander gave $200,000 to A&M's Development Foundation, a nonprofit funding agency, to get it started. By then, Bockris' enthusiasm for the Philadelphia Project had runneth over. While he admitted that Champion's formula for making gold was incomplete, he believed wholeheartedly that it was closely related to his cold fusion work -- specifically in the transmutation of elements.

"I have no hesitation in encouraging you to go ahead with these speculative but very original and exciting investigations," Bockris said in an April letter to Telander, adding that success would be a major achievement in chemistry and physics. "One might see it as Nobel Prize material."

The Philadelphia Project began the second week in April with the first of two transmutation methods proposed by Joe Champion. The initial experiments involved bombarding a chemical mixture with radio waves from the EMR machine built in Clear Lake.

On hand for this first phase was William Baucum, a nuclear physics technician who had worked with Champion on cold fusion experiments at the University of Tennessee. Baucum says he worked several weeks on Champion's EMR process, yet "was never quite sure exactly how [the experiments] came out."

Champion claimed that transmutation of base metals into precious metals was nuclear science. If that was the case, then not only would gold be produced, but radioactivity would be as well. Baucum says the team wanted to measure radioactivity but didn't have the equipment to do so. Telander promised to buy a mass spectrometer, a $100,000 device that Bockris wanted in his lab, once the researchers convinced him that transmutation was possible.

"Once we had proved that it did indeed work, then I think he [Telander] was going to use that to raise a whole lot of money and provide more funds to study the effect," Baucum says.

After Baucum left A&M, he tried to keep up with the Project. But, because Telander had made everyone sign non-disclosure agreements, information was hard to come by. Baucum does remember one conversation when Bockris expressed serious doubts, "as if maybe some of the [gold] had been planted."

Plant or no plant, the Project kept churning on, and by May it had moved along to Champion's second method, a thermal process he had learned from a hobby chemist in Seattle. The chemist had been studying "cold fission" (as he called it) in his backyard lab for 30 years before he showed Champion the gold-making process during a 1989 visit to Brooks Machine Shop.

The chemist called his process gunpowder fusion. It worked like this: a mixture of silicon oxide, iron, mercury, lead, silver, calcium and gunpowder was placed in an empty coffee can, ignited and allowed to burn for a few minutes. The mix cooled for two days before it was sent out for precious-metals analysis.

When the thermal experiments began, Bockris asked Ramesh Bhardwaj to join the Philadelphia Project. Bhardwaj was the senior scientist in Bockris' lab, a native of India who came to A&M in 1988. At the time Bockris approached him about the Philadelphia Project, Bhardwaj was working on a waste-treatment project for NASA. Essentially, he was pumping electrical current through excrement to reduce it to water. It was exciting work, he says, but when Bockris called with the transmutation project, he answered.

"I always had hope that [Champion] had something," says Bhardwaj, who now works in private industry in New Mexico. "You see, my idol is Dr. Bockris. I consider him like a god. I never thought Dr. Bockris could be made a fool of."

The first thermal experiment yielded nothing. When the analysis returned two days later, Bhardwaj reported the result to Bockris. The professor then asked Champion what was next.

"John, can I talk to you alone?" Bhardwaj remembers Champion asking Bockris.
When they were alone, Champion came clean. John, he said, this recipe is so important, if I start giving it to all the people in your lab, do you know what will happen to the economy of the world? The recipe I gave those people, he said, is not complete.

When Bhardwaj was told what Champion had said, the senior scientist hit the roof.

"You have wasted my time," Bhardwaj shouted at the two of them. "Three days, with analysis and everything, and now you're saying the recipe is not right."

"I can only give the recipe to Dr. Bockris," Champion insisted. "I will mix the chemicals and give it to you for analysis."

"I am not a technician that you can just give something to to be analyzed," Bhardwaj replied. "That is not the way to do science. If I am involved in the research, I want to know everything you are doing."

Champion finally relented, but not until Bockris told him Bhardwaj was crucial to the project. Any results would be incomplete without input from the senior scientist.

The experiments continued with Champion working closely with Bhardwaj. Champion had taken charge -- mixing the chemicals himself, guiding his co-workers through the ignition and burn phase, showing them the extraction process. Bhardwaj noted how confident Champion appeared in a lab setting. The man did seem to know something of the scientific method.

But there were red flags. One in particular went up when Champion suggested dissolving gold in nitric acid. "This is basic chemistry," noted Bhardwaj. "It doesn't work." Bhardwaj says he often had meals with Champion in which the two men shared their pasts. Presumably, Champion skipped the time he spent in prison in Huntsville. He did, however, give Bhardwaj his educational resume: a master's degree in geology from the University of Houston, a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Arizona. But when Bhardwaj checked, he discovered that Champion had no credentials.

"I had a feeling from the beginning that Champion was telling lies," Bhardwaj says. "All of these things told me that this is not science we are doing. This is dirty tricks going on here."

Nonetheless, on June 2, 1992 -- "one fine morning," Bhardwaj calls it -- there was gold. There was great excitement, of course. It's not every day that a recipe for gold is discovered. Bockris wrote up an abstract and asked everyone to sign it. Bhardwaj signed, but not before suggesting that it might be premature to issue a written report.

"We should do some independent experiments first," he said.
"This is just for Mr. Telander, not anyone else," Bockris replied. "He just wants to know how we did the experiments and what we saw."

Bhardwaj might not have known that Telander was pressuring Bockris for results. According to a letter Bockris received from Telander two weeks before the gold appeared, Champion was reporting "positive progress" in the transmutation experiments and in the EMR stimulation of radioactive isotopes.

In the letter, Telander said he was convinced that the team had proven transmutation. He went on to say, however, that "in light of the information you have provided me ... I am reticent to continue any further support. I have made it very clear during this relationship that I am not a philanthropist wishing to fund research projects. I am a businessman wishing to fund industrial science projects." Telander closed by saying he planned to pull the plug on the project by the end of the week.

Bockris, concerned about losing the funds, went straight to the A&M Development Foundation. An official there told Bockris not to worry: donors can't rescind Foundation gifts. But he advised Bockris not to accept "additional contributions."

Bockris was also having difficulties with Bhardwaj. Champion continued to report transmutation. To Bhardwaj, there were only two possible explanations for the presence of gold, and alchemy wasn't one of them. It could be either contamination (trace particles of certain elements turning up on others with similar atomic weights) or concentration, an effect so elementary that a high school student could spot it.

Bhardwaj said that Champion was adding what he called a "seed" to the mix -- say, 150 grams of gold ore, which, depending on the size of the mixture, might measure out to 200 parts per million. After the burn, the ppm might leap to 500 -- an effect explained by the partial dissipation of the other chemicals. The net amount of gold is the same, but the percentage of gold in the total mix is greater.

But it appeared that the harder Bhardwaj argued that the alleged transmutation was nonsense, the more it seemed Bockris wanted to believe Champion. This clearly confused Bhardwaj, who was used to having Bockris' unwavering trust.

"If you become stubborn with him, then he begins to feel he cannot get the work done that he wants to get done," Bhardwaj explains. "Sometimes he can really force people hard to give the results he wants. Not that the man will tell lies. But if someone brings the results that [show] it is not working, Dr. Bockris can tune the results in such a way that it seems that it is working.

"My feeling after being with him is that he has contributed some 800 papers, written 20-some books. He's close to retiring. If he does the conventional electrochemistry, he will get ten more papers. For what? He doesn't care about the papers. What he wants is to make his name very big, or possibly get a Nobel Prize. He has told me, 'This is Nobel Prize work, and if you say that it works, you will share the Nobel Prize.' But my experiments did not show any indication that it works."

Did John Bockris believe he could turn mercury into gold? Probably not. Not once, in the mountain of correspondence he generated during the Philadelphia Project's lifetime, did he ever give transmutation a solid endorsement. In August 1992, he described the results as "very preliminary." Ten months later, searching for backers in a desperate attempt to keep the Project alive, he wrote the South African embassy, vaguely describing "experimental circumstances which can lead to the apparent production of" precious metals.

"I make this statement with reluctance," he admitted, "for it is inimical to the present views in physics."

Still, despite pressure from Telander to verify transmutation, news of which was never reported beyond the Development Foundation, and despite Ramesh Bhardwaj's insistence that the experiments were a sham, the Philadelphia Project endured.

It endured, it seems, because John Bockris did not believe in transmutation as much as he believed in Bill Telander and his deep pockets -- and A&M's willingness to dip into them. From the beginning, it appeared that Telander was quite willing to pour much more than $200,000 into the Project. Four months later, it was clear that Telander sought to get that money from other people -- and that Bockris had his own ideas about how it should be spent.

On July 25, 1992, Champion faxed Bockris a letter from the Engelhard Corporation, the world's largest refiner of precious metals. He reported that Engelhard had followed the Philadelphia Project guidelines for an experiment and had discovered 15 ppm of gold where none had existed before.

"Engelhard," Champion wrote, "has summoned Bill, [Project researcher Roberto] Monti, attorneys and myself to return on

the 29th solely for financial negotiations
purposes." According to sources and Philadelphia Project documents, the amount discussed was $10 million. Engelhard spokesman John Lederman says the company met with Telander and Champion but it quickly ruled out a deal. "There was concern that we were dealing with people somewhat less than credible," Lederman says.

In September 1992, while Bockris was in Argentina, Telander, Champion and Bhardwaj had dinner in Bryan with Randy Jackson, brother of singer Michael Jackson. With Jackson were his financial and scientific advisors. Since the beginning of the Philadelphia Project, Telander

had been trying to get $20 million out of the Jackson family, which has a reputation for colorful investments. Now, Jackson was at Texas A&M, where he witnessed some experiments and was being wooed by Telander and Champion.

But it was Bhardwaj who was put on the spot.
"Well, Dr. Bhardwaj," said Jackson's financial advisor, "you have worked on this project, you have seen the results. Would you invest money into it?"

"Probably not," Bhardwaj said. "But we are working on a waste-treatment process you might be interested in."

Funny Bhardwaj should mention that. A couple of weeks before the Jackson dinner, Bockris had begun what one chemistry professor calls "a bait and switch." Bockris had sent Champion two faxes discussing the future of the Philadelphia Project. In them, Bockris briefly outlined areas of study that, along with Champion's two methods for producing gold, now included cold fission and the synthetic production of iron from carbon.

But the lion's share of Bockris' fax message talked about the formation of a private research and development company to commercialize the electrochemical treatment of waste. Bockris pitched the business in great detail, including a learned discussion of commercial real estate prices in Bryan-College Station.

Bockris said the company could tap the resources of three other local research outfits -- Lynntech,

a biochemical company; RBC, or Rechargeable Battery Company; and something called B-CS Technology -- all firms that Bockris had set up with money from Houston financier Hampton Robinson. All three are staffed exclusively by former students of Bockris' and, because they have yet to bring a product to market, survive on government grants. (According to information from the state, Lynntech receives more Small Business Innovation Research funding than any other Texas company.)

Bockris also proposed sharing patent rights for the waste treatment process with two researchers and splitting a $500,000 cash payment for "discovering" the process. He said the cost of setting up the company and hiring six workers would be $1 million, with subsequent annual costs of $300,000. Champion responded the following day with a fax offering $200,000 per year.

Bockris suggested the same funding approach used for the Philadelphia Project -- that is, to go through A&M's Development Foundation rather than A&M's standard research agencies (see sidebar, page 8). That would allow Bockris to keep more of the money for his own purposes, and to pay A&M less for using their facilities. It would also allow him to get around possibly problematic peer reviews of his research proposals. It was a surefire thing, he said. "This formula is 100 percent foolproof, as proved out by me since 1981."

But none of it was meant to be. On September 28, 1992, the FBI subpoenaed all paperwork related to the Philadelphia Project. The documents went to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which had begun an investigation of Telander and his company, Southwest International Exchange. The SEC wanted to know if the Project had been funded from nearly $8 million invested in a fraudulent foreign-currency exchange deal set up by Telander in 1990.

The visit from the feds was the first (or perhaps just the latest) in a series of bizarre and embarrassing episodes that still plague A&M -- the worst of which could have been avoided if not for a strange reluctance to shut the Philadelphia Project down.

In October 1992, Bockris and Champion made their announcement to the Mexican press. They presented as evidence of their discovery a lengthy report written by Champion that included a number of experimental abstracts prepared at A&M -- including the one Bhardwaj had warned Bockris not to release. Telander, who was also in Mexico, added to the growing amount of bogus information by claiming that the trio held international patents on the alchemy process.

Champion and Telander spent the month following the press conference visiting Mexico's silver mines and giving demonstrations of a process they claimed would turn silver into rhodium -- an element worth about $4,000 an ounce.

Things seemed like they couldn't get any stranger. Meanwhile, back at A&M, Bockris was trying to drum up interest in his own demonstration of alchemic transmutation. The show was for Future Energy Applied Technology, or FEAT, a consortium of investors that was still giving Bockris thousands of dollars a year to study cold fusion. But Bockris abruptly canceled out, citing time constraints and the need for further confirmation.

The real reason may have been the widening rift between Bockris and Bhardwaj, which promised to tear them completely apart. With Champion still in Mexico, it had fallen to Bhardwaj to lead the FEAT demonstration. But when Bhardwaj had approached his mentor, he didn't have good news. "I have done 16 experiments," Bhardwaj told Bockris. "They have all failed."

"Well, Champion is claiming it can be done," Bockris replied. "These people are coming, somebody has to do the experiments. What do you need before you can give the demonstration?"

"I will do four experiments," Bhardwaj said. "If two work, I will do the demonstration."

Bockris began pressuring Bhardwaj to set a date for the demonstration. He told Bhardwaj that he would have to forgo a Christmas break in order to conduct his tests.

Christmas came and went while Bhardwaj did the four experiments, all of which failed. Bhardwaj pleaded with Bockris to consider his reputation and call off the project immediately. Bockris wouldn't hear of it and insisted on rescheduling the FEAT demonstration. He began questioning Bhardwaj's competence.

"If you cannot do these experiments," Bockris said, "why are you here? Why are you my senior scientist?"

Shocked, Bhardwaj went to Michael B. Hall, head of the A&M chemistry department, four times in a two-week period. He told Hall he was afraid Bockris was about to fire him. Hall told Bhardwaj not to worry. But the damage had been done: by summer, Bhardwaj would be gone from A&M, his turn as right-hand man to a scientist he had once idolized ruined by delusions of gold.

It turns out that Bockris had no choice but to try to pry results from Bhardwaj. In early December, Telander had paid a visit to Bockris' lab to ask the professor if he needed Joe Champion to continue the Philadelphia Project. Bockris reportedly said that Bhardwaj or Guang Lin, a physicist in Bockris' lab, knew enough about the process to do the experiments.

"Good," Telander had said. "The bastard's been stealing money from me in Mexico, and I'm going to have him arrested."

Telander and Champion had been heading for a break since August 1992, when Telander found out that Champion had lied about Jack Keller, the Seattle chemist who had originated the "gunpowder fusion" transmutation process. Champion had told everyone Keller was dead, a victim of leukemia contracted as a result of his nuclear experiments. But one of Telander's attorneys found Keller still tinkering away in Seattle, and Telander tried to hire him on. But Keller wanted nothing to do with Joe Champion, who he says "stole" the transmutation method from him.

Now, Champion was in Mexico City, getting drunk every day, fooling around with a young Mexican woman and, according to a news reporter who had gotten to know him after his press announcement, moving $10,000 a day from a joint account with Telander to one in his own name. It was a lifestyle with which he had previously had great success in Arizona, Tennessee and Texas, and now he was trying it south of the border.

But Bill Telander was not Andy Brooks. He had the goods on Joe Champion: he knew about the federal warrant on the South American gold scam. Telander notified the FBI, salting his story with a tidbit about how Champion was going to sell his nuclear know-how to Third World dictators. Telander then recruited a news reporter to set up a phony interview for Champion with another reporter.

It was a B-movie scene that December 1992 afternoon in the bar at the El Presidente Hotel -- which, not two months before, had been the site of Joe Champion's greatest triumph. When the dozen or so agents from Interpol, the FBI and the local judicial police surrounded him, Champion was too drunk to plead his case. He was taken to the airport and put on a plane to Phoenix, where he was met by Maricopa County sheriff's deputies.

With Telander under investigation and Champion in jail, that should have been the end of the Philadelphia Project. But A&M did nothing to stop John Bockris, who was trying to find another backer. In January 1993 he sent a letter to Nancy Meachum, one of Telander's lawyers, saying he planned to check out a recipe used by a man named Patel at Mid-States Recycling, a Chicago-area company that Champion claimed had pulled gold from mercury.

Incredibly, Bockris told Meachum that A&M considered the project "fairly reasonable. SO LONG AS THERE IS NO PUBLICITY, YOU CAN WORK ON THIS SUBJECT, I have been told from the President to the Department and by several executives in between." Then Bockris offered a beautiful insight that would have brought tears to the eyes of a con man like Joe Champion:

"If you talk quietly and confidentially to a wealthy man and explain frankly and honestly the ... evidence (incomplete), you might get his scientific advisor to recommend an investment, particularly if you use me."

Bockris also sent two letters to Bruce Blumberg, Champion's public defender in Phoenix. He said there was "no doubt" that Champion had produced gold. And, he added, if "Champion's work is finally confirmed, I would certainly think he would be a person I would nominate for a Nobel Prize."

Then there is Bockris' letter to Tracy Potter at the South African embassy. Potter says it was followed by several phone calls from Champion's girlfriend, Maggie Sacharski, "pleading with us to take it seriously and invest."

Finally, in late April 1993, Bockris reverted to the strategy he had used with his hydrogen-fuel and cold fusion "breakthroughs." He proposed going public. He wrote A&M chemistry department head Mike Hall, admitting a lack of solid data. But, he insisted, he feared "being left behind. Our position ... at the forefront of the field is one I do not wish to neglect." Bockris went ahead and wrote a scientific paper on the Project and listed as co-author one "Joe Champion, University of Guanajuato, Mexico." The paper was never published.

The Philadelphia Project was finally halted with the indictment of Bill Telander, which forced A&M to freeze the Project's remaining funds. Telander has since pleaded guilty to four counts of securities fraud, admitting that he used $7.8 million bilked from 380 investors not to trade currency, but to fund an extravagant lifestyle and to finance "other personal investments."

Was one of those investments a $200,000 gift to the A&M Development Foundation to start the Philadelphia Project? Telander never admitted it. But some of Telander's investors received a 12-page prospectus on the Philadelphia Project that projected first-year earnings of $34.5 million. Investors also related a meeting with Roger Briggs, a general partner to Telander, who reportedly said the Philadelphia Project could net $11 million in two weeks.

But the final word came from Telander himself. Sheila Babbie, one of the Telander investors, says Telander walked out of a recent criminal hearing and said he still hoped to return to her some of her money. How? From the sale of Philadelphia Project technology.

But of course, the Philadelphia Project only began with Bill Telander and his dirty money. It was allowed to proceed, tearing a course of financial and personal ruin, because one man's greed and arrogance led him into the orbit of another, who had become too foolishly convinced of his own legitimacy.

John Bockris and Joe Champion continue to walk the same twisted pathway in the name of science. In November 1993, the story of the Philadelphia Project finally surfaced, forcing A&M into a series of inquiries that Bockris refused to cooperate with. There have been demands for Bockris' resignation, and 23 of A&M's 28 distinguished professors have asked the school to revoke his title, comparing the Project to "mining green cheese from the moon."

Bockris, meanwhile, calls it merely "unconventional" and continues to insist that Joe Champion is onto something worthy of the Nobel Prize. And while Bockris fights for his reputation, Joe Champion is serving a five-year sentence in Phoenix for the South American gold scam. He continues to believe that he can turn mercury into gold and has threatened to use what he now calls "The Science" to ruin the precious-metals industry. He has written and published 20th Century Alchemy, a layman's guide to making gold.

On a recent morning in Tennessee, Andy Brooks, the machine shop owner, got a phone call from a woman. She saw Brooks' name in the book's acknowledgments, right there alongside John O'M. Bockris', and wanted to know what Brooks thought about it all. Brooks didn't have to think long, he says.

"I just laughed out loud."

Michael King contributed research to this story.

Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.


Join the Press community and help support independent local journalism in Houston.