Fight of their lives

McCullom Lake Cancer Patients Battle in Two Arenas: Life, Court

The Northwest Herald today begins a six-part series on the McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuits. 
This special report is the result of a six-month investigation by the newspaper. Senior reporter Kevin Craver acquired and reviewed thousands of pages of documentation spanning more than three decades. 
Craver and videographer Danielle Guerra interviewed more than 60 people, including most of the 22 plaintiffs, or their next of kin, who have filed suit to date. Craver and Guerra traveled to Phoenix and Philadelphia to conduct some of the interviews.
The Northwest Herald today begins a six-part series on the McCullom Lake brain cancer lawsuits. This special report is the result of a six-month investigation by the newspaper. Senior reporter Kevin Craver acquired and reviewed thousands of pages of documentation spanning more than three decades. Craver and videographer Danielle Guerra interviewed more than 60 people, including most of the 22 plaintiffs, or their next of kin, who have filed suit to date. Craver and Guerra traveled to Phoenix and Philadelphia to conduct some of the interviews.

The warm Arizona sun brings out a glimmer in Joanne Branham’s eyes and a smile that more often than not is a permanent fixture. But the pain of losing Franklin, her husband of almost 44 years, to brain cancer is never far from the surface.

The McCullom Lake couple moved to Phoenix a decade ago to enjoy their sunset years in a sunny state. Joanne instead watched the love of her life waste away and die.

It started with seizures, Joanne said while sitting on the back porch of her daughter’s Arizona home. Franklin would open his mouth and drop whatever was in his hand. It got so bad that even the couple’s beloved pinochle games became a challenge because he would drop his cards or his glass.

“I would just get up and put my arm around him and tell him it’s OK,” she said, crying. “But it just got worse and worse.”

After years of a roller coaster of anti-seizure drugs, Franklin was told by doctors what was wrong in May 2004. The diagnosis was glioblastoma multiforme. Stage 4 malignant brain cancer. Victims have a 3 percent chance of being alive five years after diagnosis.

After surgery, the doctors gave Franklin six months to live. He barely made it one; he died June 18, 2004, two days after his wife’s birthday and two days before Father’s Day.

Early in 2005, Joanne’s daughters bought their mother a plane ticket to visit the village of McCullom Lake, the small McHenry County town where Joanne was raised, and where the couple raised their five children. Joanne took them up on their offer, and especially wanted to visit former neighbors Bryan Freund and Kurt Weisenberger.

She passed by her old home on McCullom Lake Road and stopped at Freund’s home jewelry shop. Just over a mile north in neighboring Ringwood, two manufacturing plants operated by Rohm and Haas and Modine Manufacturing Co. buzzed with activity, just as they had done for much of her life. When the trees lose their leaves, the companies’ water towers can be seen from the road.

Since the early 1980s, the Rohm and Haas factory, then owned by Morton International, had been tracking a plume of contaminated groundwater that their studies show never touched the village’s wells. Aside from the occasional rotten-egg smell that the neighbors attributed to them, they rarely paid the factories any mind.

The former neighbors’ reunion was bittersweet. Joanne learned from Freund’s longtime friend, Rusty Thomas, that Freund had been diagnosed in December 2004 with oligodendroglioma, a brain cancer that affects fewer than one person in 100,000.

Joanne visited the Weisenbergers, who had moved to Wonder Lake. She learned that doctors diagnosed Kurt Weisenberger with the same one-in-100,000 brain cancer the month after Freund.

Once the three families overcame the shock and were able to talk about it, the former neighbors concluded that what was going on at the Ringwood plants might in fact be their business after all.

“When I heard about Bryan, I had no doubt,” said Joanne Weisenberger, Kurt’s wife. “It was no coincidence with three neighbors in a row.”

The neighbors found and retained an aggressive attorney who previously sued Rohm and Haas over brain cancer deaths elsewhere. Since then, many more plaintiffs have done the same. And the coincidences don’t end with the first three plaintiffs.

The Lawsuits

Philadelphia attorney Aaron Freiwald, 44, sued Rohm and Haas, subsidiary Morton, and Modine in April 2006 on behalf of Freund, the Weisenbergers and the Branhams. He also filed a class-action lawsuit for village residents.

The class-action lawsuit has not yet been certified. It still is awaiting a judge’s ruling 20 months later. In that time, 19 more plaintiffs have come forward to blame their brain cancers or other illnesses on Modine and Rohm and Haas, which bought Morton in 1999 and took over the Ringwood plant’s operations in 2005.

Eighteen of the plaintiffs have brain cancer, three have pituitary cancer, and one has cirrhosis of the liver.

Freiwald accuses the companies in the lawsuits of fouling the environment with carcinogenic vinyl chloride, and hushing up the magnitude of the problem. The lawsuits state that decades of Morton dumping chemicals into an 8-acre landfill, Modine dumping into a smaller disposal site, and numerous industrial accidents, contaminated McCullom Lake’s wells.

“They were pumping this liquid waste starting in 1960 into this lagoon that was not lined, and that was essentially equivalent to dumping it right into the ground,” Freiwald said, and has alleged in the lawsuits.

The lawsuits also allege that efforts by Morton, and later Rohm and Haas, to clean up groundwater with an air stripper did so by shooting contaminants into the air that the residents breathed. The air stripper ceased operation several years ago in favor of a contained treatment system.

Sitting in the 18th floor office of his downtown Philadelphia law firm, Freiwald said there was nothing happenstance about the number of brain cancers connected to a town of 1,000 people.

A former investigative journalist turned lawyer, Freiwald is no stranger to locking horns with chemical giant Rohm and Haas. He sued the $8.2 billion company two years ago on behalf of thousands of workers at one of its Pennsylvania research facilities, where at least 15 people were diagnosed with brain cancer. Some individual lawsuits still are pending.

After visiting the town, meeting with families and reviewing what data was available at the time, Freiwald said it was not hard for him to reach a conclusion.

“We talk about rates of brain cancer on the order of two or three, or four or five, per 100,000 [people] per year,” Freiwald said. “This is a little community of maybe 1,000 people. There’s no one else around.”

The Companies

Just a few blocks from Freiwald’s office sits those of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, the law firm that Rohm and Haas hired to fight Freiwald’s lawsuits regarding both McCullom Lake and the Pennsylvania facility. About a mile to the east of the law firm, adjacent to the Liberty Bell, is Rohm and Haas’ world headquarters, where the chandeliers visible to passers-by are made of Plexiglas, one of the company’s many inventions.

Rohm and Haas acknowledges the problem, through environmental consultants and its cleanup efforts, that it inherited with its $5 billion purchase of Morton. But Rohm and Haas attorney Ralph Wellington said the company vigorously opposes the notion that contamination from the specialty-materials plant made people sick.

“There is simply no connection that has been found at all to the Rohm and Haas facility,” Wellington said from the desk of his 36th-floor office. “I’m sorry, they’re sorry that people are sick – whether or not it’s an abnormal number of people given the population [of the McCullom Lake area] is even seriously at issue. But the company also is not going to take responsibility for something it didn’t cause.”

Much closer to McCullom Lake, in Racine, Wis., sits the world headquarters of Modine Manufacturing, a company with net revenue of $1.7 billion. The company similarly disavows any connection between local brain cancers and its manufacturing of radiators and cooling systems.

Although Rohm and Haas and its legal counsel agreed to meet with the Northwest Herald, Modine preferred to limit its contact to telephone interviews.

“We would feel badly if people were harmed; however, based on where things stand in the litigation process, we would defer comment until a later time,” Modine spokeswoman Susan Fisher said.

The first lawsuits also included manufacturer Huntsman Polyurethanes and its parent company, Huntsman Corp. Freiwald dropped them from the lawsuits in March – Huntsman had only been at the  Rohm and Haas’ plant since 2000, when it bought the company’s polyurethane operation.

Both sides have amassed mountains of documentation to prove their points. Rohm and Haas and Modine both point to the numerous studies undertaken since the 1980s that show the contamination plume far northeast of the village and its wells.

Freiwald has obtained documentation and commissioned studies that he says proves the companies’ conclusions wrong. But regardless of legal wrangling, experts and statistics, one simple fact cannot be avoided – a large number of people who lived in or around McCullom Lake have been diagnosed with brain or nerve cancer.

After Freiwald filed the first cases, the Northwest Herald received e-mails from former area residents, now plaintiffs, forced to wonder whether their brain cancers were not a quirk of fate.

There was Dan Kalash, whose wife died of the same cancer that claimed Branham, and Brian DiBlasi and Lance Kuhns, who both grew up south of the lake in McHenry and were diagnosed with oligodendroglioma like Freund and Weisenberger.

“Your article about the cancer cluster in McCullom Lake shocked me,” DiBlasi e-mailed the week after the first lawsuits. “Not sure if this has anything to do with my tumor but if there is a chance to help other[s], I am more than happy to help any way I could.”

Eleven of the plaintiffs have been diagnosed with brain cancer in the past four years, not counting another who was diagnosed earlier but has relapsed. Six of the plaintiffs were diagnosed last year, five of them with lethal glioblastoma multiforme.

The Neighbors

Longtime residents Glenn and Donna Gates feel fine, but they have watched two neighbors die, and other friends and neighbors get sick.

The Branhams lived next door to the Gates’ home on Orchard Drive before moving a few blocks north to McCullom Lake Road, a home that Kurt Weisenberger helped Franklin Branham build.

Glenn Gates, a retired truck driver, and his wife don’t like to draw attention to themselves. But that changed when the Weisenbergers and Freund contacted Freiwald.

The more the Gateses thought about the illnesses, the more they worried about the four children they raised in their home. It was for their friends and their own family that they filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of residents to get access to medical monitoring and guarantee existing property values.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, my kids were all born in the 1970s, here,’ ” Donna Gates said. “They grew up here, and I’m scared to death.”

And they didn’t have to go beyond their front lawn to figure out that something was wrong.

The Kalash family moved next door to the Gateses after the Branhams moved out, and the Gateses took an immediate liking to them. Donna became fast friends with their daughter-in-law, Susan Kalash, who came over every weekend and on holidays with her husband, Dan.

The women both were pregnant with their last children at the same time. Susan, who became a nurse after having a son and a daughter, was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme and underwent surgery in September 1996.

Dan promised not to sleep in their bed until his wife of 21 years recovered. She died a month later in the hospital at age 42, the day before she was supposed to come home.

Dan’s weekend visits now are to his wife’s grave in Northlake. He carries her death certificate wherever he goes. Dan got rid of their bed.

“There’s got to be something going on in this particular area,” Kalash said in his Ingleside home. “How can so many people with rare cancers have similar diagnoses?”

Just across the street from the Orchard Drive house that the Branhams and the Kalashes called home lives John Stepp, who shares the same illness – doctors diagnosed him in September 2006 with glioblastoma multiforme.

Stepp filed suit in October 2006, as did Dan Kalash two months later, after conferring with his two grown children and his second wife.

The Residents

Freiwald held a town hall meeting April 27, 2006, for worried village residents, two days after he filed the first lawsuits.

Twelve-year resident Sandra Wierschke, who had received an MRI of her brain the day before, had plenty to worry about.

Wierschke, then 44, had sought three medical opinions for the spasms in her right leg and arm that had started six months before. The spasms started in front of Wierschke’s latest doctor, who told her that they were in fact seizures that required an immediate brain scan.

At the same time, the brain cancer cases started making headlines. The day after the town gathering, the scan results revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in Wierschke’s left cerebral hemisphere. It was diagnosed as glioblastoma multiforme, the same malignant brain cancer that killed Franklin Branham.

“I was numb. It was devastating,” Wierschke said, her voice breaking. “I didn’t know what to think. It all happened so fast.”

Also joining Wierschke in the meeting – and sharing her fear – were former village residents Frank and Judith Weisheit, married 42 years.

Three weeks before, doctors diagnosed Judith, 64, with glioblastoma multiforme. The surgery had weakened her, and her upcoming chemotherapy, while giving her a fighting chance at life, would be another struggle.

The Weisheits lived in town six years before moving to nearby Ringwood, where they planned to enjoy their retirement. Instead, Frank watched his wife worsen, and watched medical bills eat away at their retirement nest egg.

Both the Wierschke and Weisheit families filed suit a month later. So did Scott Milliman, a McHenry County sheriff’s deputy who patrolled McCullom Lake and underwent surgery in 2002 for oligodendroglioma, the same brain cancer affecting Freund and Weisenberger.

Sandra Wierschke, who had her tumor removed several weeks after the meeting, is beating the odds. Judith Weisheit did not. She died in February 2007, a week before Valentine’s Day.

Milliman said he patrolled the McCullom Lake area since 1997 and frequently parked by the plants to watch for speeders. A health fanatic who worked out five days a week, he said he routinely refilled his water jug from village wells and the Rohm and Haas plant.

“As soon as I saw [the first newspaper article], I said, ‘Son of a bitch,’” Milliman said. “I came home, showed my wife the paper, and said: ‘That’s it. That’s what caused my cancer.’”

Plaintiff Brian DiBlasi, 47, who grew up on the McHenry side of the lake, shared Milliman’s love of exercise. That came to an end in August 2004, when he woke up in an ambulance after suffering a grand mal seizure at a Des Plaines health club.

He also was diagnosed with oligodendroglioma. DiBlasi had his brain cancer surgery on his 13th wedding anniversary. When asked for the date while sitting at his dining room table in Cary, he pulled off his wedding ring to read the inscription.

“If it’s not written down, I don’t remember it,” DiBlasi said. “It’s hard to remember for questions that are asked of me right away.”

DiBlasi filed suit in July 2006. As the months passed, more and more plaintiffs added their names to the list. And more and more coincidences surfaced.

Family Ties

As Harvard resident Nancy Smith sped her mother Marion Kane to Memorial Medical Center in Woodstock last September, she knew in her heart that she was right about the cause of her mother’s splitting headaches.

The emergency room doctor considered meningitis a possibility, but Smith did not. Her mother had lived on the shore of the McHenry side of McCullom Lake for almost 20 years.

The widow of Kane’s late son, Patrick, sued the companies for the pituitary gland tumor that caused him to grow to 7 feet, 3 inches tall.

“I said, ‘Doctor, I hate to open my mouth, but are you familiar with the McCullom Lake brain cancers?’” Smith said. “He said, ‘Ooooh, yes,’ and I said, ‘Well, this is a former resident, and her older son died.’”

The subsequent brain scan revealed glioblastoma multiforme. Surgeons removed it, but gave Marion Kane a prognosis of 90 days. She underwent radiation to fight it, despite doctors’ recommendations against doing so, Smith said.

Former McHenry resident Lance Kuhns, 53, beat the odds. Twice.

Kuhns was diagnosed in 1993 with oligodendroglioma. He, too, contacted the Northwest Herald after the stories broke and victims surfaced. When his sister read him the articles, he said, “That’s me.”

He recovered only to relapse earlier this year and required a second operation that left a softball-sized dent in his head.

“I went for an appointment, and we discussed our options. There was surgery, or the doctor said, ‘If you don’t do anything, you’ll turn into a vegetable and eventually die.’” Kuhns said. “I chose surgery.”

Kuhns grew up across the street from plaintiff Sandra Kemmerer, two years his senior. She was diagnosed with brain cancer, benign meningioma, the year before Kuhns was, and relapsed two years before he did.

And the coincidences don’t end with Kuhns and Kemmerer, just as they didn’t end with the Kane family, the Gateses or the original three neighbors.

The Weisheit home previously had been occupied by Shelby Mazzone, who lived in McCullom Lake for 25 years before moving to Fort Collins, Colo. Mazzone filed suit in March 2007, blaming the defendant companies for her 1998 diagnosis of a right ear schwannoma, a rare and often benign nerve cell cancer.

Mazzone, in turn, lived next to Cynthia DePaepe, a 13-year village resident. DePaepe, now 44 and living in Muscatine, Iowa, sued the companies in July 2006, eight months after being diagnosed with hemangioblastoma, an extremely rare disease accounting for only 1 percent of primary brain cancers.

Get Busy Living

The concept of a normal life dies with a brain cancer diagnosis.

Milliman realized with his diagnosis that he had something in common with the one in three Americans who will face cancer sometime in their lives. He chronicled his experiences in a book, “My New Family,” and spends much of his free time e-mailing encouragement to people fighting the disease.

Although he no longer is able to work in the manufacturing industry, DiBlasi is doing better than most other plaintiffs. He devotes his time to brain cancer awareness, and his doctor has pushed back his MRIs to twice a year rather than once every three months.

Kuhns and Freund, who both lost their jobs and relapsed, have not been so lucky. But they in turn are luckier than Marion Kane, who died Saturday at her home.

Across the lake from the Kane family’s former home, plaintiff Julianna Mass languishes from the same cancer and is fighting a similarly pessimistic prognosis.

Regardless of health, the suffering continues for plaintiffs’ families, most of whom have been bankrupted by the illnesses.

Expenses forced the Branhams out of the Phoenix home they built to live out their semi-retirement. Joanne Branham now lives in a trailer home in neighboring Apache Junction and takes care of her adult son, Franklin’s namesake, who suffers from schizophrenia.

“If we had known, we could have been buying bottled water,” she said. She paused to compose herself.

“Or if we knew, Frank could have been treated way before now. He might have had a chance. But he didn’t ever have a chance. He didn’t even have a chance to fight.

“It isn’t fair. It just isn’t.”

RELATED LINKS: >> Click for videos, more coverage

PART 6: WHAT'S NEXT >> Uncertain futures

PART 5: SPRING HOUSE >> A familiar story

PART 4: THE VILLAGE >> 'A state of limbo'

PART 3: THE COUNTY >> County study questioned >> Opposing views of study

PART 2: THE PLUME >> Was well water tainted? >> A history of events >> The chemicals in question

PART 1: THE PLAINTIFFS >> Fight of their lives >> Did chemical exposure cause cancers? >> Krug: McCullom Lake series necessary journalism >> The cancers >> Plaintiffs' timeline >> Photo gallery >> Submitted photo gallery

Loading more

Digital Access

Digital Access
Access and all Shaw Media Illinois content from all your digital devices and receive breaking news and updates from around the area.

Home Delivery

Home Delivery
Local news, prep sports, Chicago sports, local and regional entertainment, business, home and lifestyle, food, classified and more! News you use every day! Daily, weekend and Sunday packages.

Text Alerts

Text Alerts
Stay connected to us wherever you are! Get breaking news updates along with other area information sent to you as a text message to your wireless device.

Email Newsletters

Email Newsletters
We'll deliver news & updates to your inbox. Plan your weekend and catch up on the news with our newsletters.