Nobody in the small town of Nitro, W.Va., knew. Toddlers played in day care downstairs, senior citizens lunched in the cafeteria, the entire Nitro Police Department worked out of the same building.
And all the while, upstairs in Room 201 of the former high school building, a French woman and her assistant worked to clone a West Virginia politician's dead baby.
Mark Hunt didn't tell his secret until after he had given up the quest — for now. And only on the grounds of failure.
Mr. Hunt, a Charleston lawyer whom Kanawha County voters elected three times to the state House of Delegates, rented the space in the Nitro Community Center for $347.58 a month. On the lease, he said his purpose was a "research venture."
Mr. Hunt paid Brigitte Boisselier — who is also a bishop in a church that ascribes divine status to cloning — $5,000 a month to work on the first human clone, that of his 10-month-old son Andrew, who died after surgery for a heart defect. He spent nearly $500,000 all told, he said, and he'll spend more if he gets the chance.
The lawyer said in a telephone interview last week that he and his wife "decided, for the first time in human history, since Jesus raised Lazarus, to transcend the great gulf of death and bring our baby home — to create an identical twin of Andrew."
Mr. Hunt said he and his wife realize that a clone wouldn't restore their son, but a duplicate child would be "some solace." Miss Boisselier's group Clonaid was the only group prepared to attempt a human clone from cells of a deceased person, he said.
He called the undertaking "a great adventure" and said he isn't ashamed of seeking to duplicate life, "but we kept it secret because press coverage would have jeopardized it."
Last week, Mr. Hunt announced that he had severed ties with the cloning group and closed the lab where researchers had hoped to clone DNA from Mr. Hunt's dead child.
Mr. Hunt said he lost confidence in Miss Boisselier recently because she became "a press hog," giving many international news interviews on behalf of the cloning project, and on behalf of the Raelian religion.
Miss Boisselier was one of a team of scientists, led by Dr. Severino Antinori, who announced at a National Academy of Sciences panel last week that it would clone babies for 200 couples within the next few months.
Agents of the Food and Drug Administration came to Mr. Hunt, alarmed by reports that a human clone was being attempted in Nitro. Mr. Hunt said he promised the federal officials that no human cloning would occur in Nitro, but Miss Boisselier gave another TV interview saying a cloned baby would be achieved within six weeks
Mr. Hunt said the FDA asked him if he had misled the U.S. agency. So he closed the Nitro laboratory and changed its locks.
But when the people of Nitro found out — four months after federal officials started investigating the lab — several were not happy.
Greg Casto, director of the Nitro Community Center, said he did not know the lab was being used for work aimed at cloning a human being.
Mr. Casto related to the Gazette details of a phone conversation he had last week with Mr. Hunt when the news about the lab broke in Nitro. Mr. Hunt has since refused to speak to reporters.
"I've got two sets of parents out front — in fact, they're still there — saying they don't want to bring their children to the day care," Mr. Casto said he told the lawyer.
Mr. Hunt will remove the equipment from the now-closed lab as soon as he can find "a safe, dry place" to store it, according to Mr. Casto.
He also told Mr. Casto that the scientists had not been there since "probably the beginning of June."
According to Mr. Casto, the lawyer told him: "Between you and me, that's the reason I let them go. Because they weren't doing anything. They weren't working. What I wanted them to do was look at the DNA of my son Andrew, to see if it was viable or not. They weren't doing it."
Mr. Hunt said the lab's refrigerator contained only a medium used to keep DNA alive. He said no actual cloning was ever supposed to happen in the Nitro lab.
The scientists were only supposed to study Andrew's DNA there, to see if they could successfully clone him.
Upstairs from the Nitro Community Center cafeteria — past the old high-school lockers, and classrooms-turned-offices rented to more ordinary businesses — there's a locked classroom door with a little glass window.
Through the window, you can see Miss Boisselier's lab. Even to the untrained eye, it hardly looks like it cost $500,000 to set up.
The walls are decorated with huge blown-up photos of egg cells, either human or animal. In front of the blackboard, there's a desk, much like a teacher's desk, with a computer and printer and scanner. Then there are two chemistry lab tables, with the sinks everyone remembers from high school.
On one table, the sink holds a bar of soap. The rest of the table is occupied by a scale, a Brita pitcher full of clear liquid and one piece of equipment the size of a microwave oven. On top of the machine rests what appears to be a box of rubber gloves Evolution One brand.
On the other table, the sink holds a big bottle of washing-up liquid and a roll of paper towels. The equipment on that table is an incubator, which Mr. Hunt told Mr. Casto "burned up the first time we plugged it in."
The Clonaid Web site listed no physical address — only a cellular phone number in Las Vegas for public relations employee Nadine Gary. Miss Gary said Miss Boisselier was attending a conference on human cloning and referred questions to her. Miss Boisselier could not be reached for comment last week.
The Clonaid site does offer brief explanations of the services it sells:
c Clonaid: For as little as $200,000, Clonaid will clone a person as soon as its scientists figure out how. Especially targeted "to wealthy parents worldwide After the first success, it is likely that the next clients on the list will be chosen according to their bid (for financial priority reasons) so that the money collected will help improve the technique from which everyone will benefit."
c Clonapet: Coming soon: "The cloning of pets to wealthy individuals who wish to see their lost pet brought back to life." Also available for owners who want to resurrect dead racehorses.
c Insuraclone: For $50,000, get anyone's DNA cryogenically frozen until science can cure whatever killed them.
The Clonaid site also offers a link to a letter credited to Mr. Hunt. It is addressed to James C. Greenwood, chairman of the House subcommittee on oversights and investigations.
"Who am I and why do I support human cloning?" the letter begins. "I am a successful attorney, a former state legislator, a current elected official, a husband, a son, a brother, but most importantly, I am a father."
The letter reveals that the writer, at age 38, was "blessed with a perfect baby boy," that the boy grew to recognize his father and call him "Dada," that he and his wife were told their son had a 94 percent chance of making it through his heart surgery, and that the writer spared no expense in trying to find a way to bring his son back.
"I must withhold my identity until after the project is successful," the letter concludes. "However, our commitment to human cloning and to duplicating our child is unlimited.
"Hopefully one day we can all celebrate our family and friends, my wife and our son, Dr. Brigitte and the brave new world."
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.