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Surprise twist 

One of the most closely watched medical fraud trials in Colorado history came to an abrupt halt last week, when the defendant, a man who claimed to be an alternative "naturopathic medical doctor," suddenly pled guilty to multiple charges, including criminally negligent homicide and practicing medicine without a license.

Brian O'Connell's attorney reportedly had been planning a staunch defense of the 37-year-old Denver-area man, who until two years ago had operated an alternative practice in Wheat Ridge.

As detailed in a Jan. 19 Independent story about alternative doctors in Colorado, police raided O'Donnell's office in 2004, following a number of treatments that allegedly harmed his patients. He faced 14 charges, including reckless manslaughter, multiple assaults, fraud, theft, practicing medicine without a license and possession of controlled substances.

O'Connell's defense in Jefferson County District Court in Golden collapsed last Tuesday, when prosecutors discovered that he had lied about having earned a master's degree while testifying as an expert witness in a different trial seven years ago.

So on the second day of jury selection, O'Connell pled guilty to theft, perjury, criminally negligent homicide, illegal practice of medicine and third-degree assault. He faces up to 15 years in prison.

"It's a relief," says Dave Flanagan, whose 19-year-old son Sean, a terminal-diagnosed cancer patient, died just days after beginning unorthodox blood treatments with O'Connell. Flanagan says O'Connell claimed the treatments would save Sean's life.

Flanagan now is a major proponent of regulating alternative doctors in Colorado. Another proponent is Rena Bloom, president of the Colorado Association of Naturopathic Physicians, which is comprised of naturopaths, or alternative doctors who have earned four-year U.S. Department of Education-accredited degrees.

"The outcome of the trial confirms the need for licensing [of naturopathic doctors]," Bloom says. Her organization currently is urging the state Legislature to pass a law mandating that Colorado join the 15 other states that certify naturopaths.

She cites the O'Connell case as an example of why regulation should take place. "He didn't choose to come to Oregon or Washington or some other place [with regulation]," Bloom says. "He came here."

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