A retired investigator for the state chiropractic board tells us this is the one case that he could not forget -- the one that got away, in his words. And he is frustrated that the board has been taking no action.
"It actually doesn't hurt, it actually feels -- feels good," says chiropractor Paul Whitcomb.
For a small town chiropractor, Whitcomb has a sophisticated marketing operation.
He posts videos on the Internet to promote his treatment for fibromyalgia. The symptoms include chronic muscle pain, fatigue, headaches and depression.
Medical experts we talked to say there is no single known cause for fibromyalgia, and no cure. But Whitcomb claims to have discovered the root of the problem -- a misalignment between the first vertebra and the skull. After six days of treatment, one patient makes what appears to be a miraculous recovery.
"I have no pain. I feel fantastic. I'm able to climb stairs," says Joan.
Then, there are the appearances on local TV, like a religious show in New Mexico, his book and a telemarketing center that his son runs out of Orange County.
All this self-promotion has helped build Whitcomb's fibromyalgia relief center in South Lake Tahoe into a thriving business, drawing patients from around the country and the world.
"Just like that. And that's enough. It's that simple," says Whitcomb.
He calls his treatment "The Whitcomb Method," a quick neck manipulation, three times a day, five days a week, for at least two months. The cost -- $7,000 and up. Whitcomb claims a remarkable success rate.
Dan Noyes: "So you're saying 94 percent of the time, 95 percent of the time, it works for people."
Paul Whitcomb: "This is an estimate, but I think that's pretty accurate. It works for that many of the people."
But there is a long list of patients who say the treatment does not work, and the added costs of staying in Tahoe can be expensive.
"My pain was definitely worse. I felt a heck of a lot more depressed, and because I'd been, you know, I'd been duped for ten grand, I mean, who feels great after that?" says former patient Walter Schulte.
Schulte is among at least nine patients who have filed complaints with the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners.
"I contacted maybe 40 to 60 people, and a high majority of them were ill again," says former patient and employee Susan Uribe.
Uribe says she worked at Whitcomb's call center in April and that many of the former patients she contacted were in serious financial trouble.
"A lot of them were crying because a lot of them now were facing bankruptcy," says Uribe.
"Once the word got out that I was investigating it, I was getting calls from all over the country," says Al Dockus, a former investigator with the California Chiropractic Board.
Dockus was the investigator assigned to the case. He retired this March after seven years with the chiropractic board. This is the one case he says he cannot forget.
"When I started working on this case, it was just so egregious what this man was doing to these, to these victims. To me it was a slam dunk," says Dockus.
As part of the investigation, an independent chiropractic expert reviewed the medical records of 10 patients and concluded Whitcomb committed several acts of "unprofessional conduct," including "incompetence... repeated acts of gross negligence...[and] excessive treatment."
Wallace Sampson, a retired oncologist, has spent 30 years debunking alternative medical treatments. He is critical of chiropractic in general, but especially of Dr. Whitcomb.
"With each one of these neck manipulations you increase the chance of a stroke," says Sampson.
There are some studies that question that link, but Sampson says he sees no merit to Whitcomb's technique.
"This is not only below standard. There is no standard that says you could do anything like that, and you shouldn't get away with it," says Sampson.
Noyes: "Is there any outside medical research, anything at all that says that what you are doing works and it is not dangerous to the patient?"
Whitcomb: "There are a couple of neurosurgeons who are doing the same thing who have been doing research in this as well."
Noyes: "Which one?"
Whitcomb: "Dr. Rosner."
That is Dr. Michael Rosner from North Carolina who had his license suspended in 2003 for performing unnecessary brain surgeries on eight patients.
"These are just tools we've developed. We use these for testing," says Whitcomb.
When Whitcomb says tools, he means it. Those are attachments for a socket wrench, outfitted with rubber tips.
Noyes: "You buy this stuff at a hardware store?"
Whitcomb: "Yes, mmm. Actually at an auto parts store."
"This one was totally off the wall. I've never seen anything like it. And anyone I explain it to says, 'You're kidding me. This guy's doing what?'" says Dockus.
Dockus says it has been a frustrating wait. But more than three years after that first complaint, and just a day before our interview, the chiropractic board finally took action.
"I think it did take too long. Yes, absolutely," says Brian Stiger, executive officer of the California Board of Chiropractic Examiners.
The board is moving to revoke Whitcomb's license. The complaint forwarded to the attorney general's office charges Whitcomb with administering "excessive treatment" and making "sensational statements which are intended to deceive the public."
"We have evidence to support taking action against Dr. Whitcomb's license," says Stiger.
"Are we taking advantage of desperately ill people? I think we're providing something for people so they can recover. Is our treatment perfect? It can't be perfect. Nothing's perfect," says Whitcomb.
Whitcomb is not only facing the possible loss of his license, he could also be fined $40,000 or more to cover the cost of the investigation. A lawyer for the doctor tells us he will demand a hearing on the complaint and fight it to the end.
We're posting some of the documents from this case and more information on the controversy in a new I-Team blog here.