It was a perfect place to hide their scheme: an old classroom in a squalid former high school tucked away in the hills of rural West Virginia.
The town of Nitro's police station is in the rundown 1950s-era building whose brown bricks are blackened with soot. Bingo games are played in another room.
On the second floor is a day-care centre and plumbing and roofing companies. But down a dark corridor lined with trash and broken students' lockers is Room 201. Inside is a pristine laboratory, fitted with sophisticated equipment. Green posters of human cells adorn the walls. A blue incubator stands in the back. It looks like an ordinary lab.
But in this room, scientists working for a UFO cult and a local politician were secretly trying to clone a human being. They were attempting to bring back to life Andrew, a 10-month old baby boy who died after heart surgery in September 1999. He was the son of Mark and Tracy Hunt, a wealthy and well-connected political family in Charleston.
Mark Hunt, 41, had been a member of the West Virginia House for five years and declared himself a candidate in the November 2000 election for the U.S. House of Representatives. He dropped out of that race, after spending $200,000 of his own money, and ran instead for the West Virginia State Senate. He lost. Hunt is now practising law, but maintains a Hunt for Congress office in Charleston.
After Andrew died, his parents froze some of his cells. Unable to cope with their grief, the Hunts began searching for a way to bring him back to life. Hunt says he travelled widely meeting scientists. He finally encountered on the Internet the one he was convinced would help him. He made a deal with French biochemist Brigitte Boisselier.
With doctorates from France and Texas, Boisselier, 44, was teaching at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., near Syracuse. In 1993, she joined the Quebec-based Raelian cult.
Today, she is a bishop in the cult, which believes the human race originated as clones of an advanced alien species. Its leader, French racing car driver and journalist Claude Vorilhon, who calls himself Rael, claims he learned this when he boarded a UFO in France in 1973.
Rael has set up headquarters at a science fiction theme park called UFO Land outside Montreal.
The Raelian movement says it has 50,000 members worldwide, who, according to its Web site, must pay 13 per cent of their yearly income to the cult and take part in unusual sexual practices -- such as being made to mate with someone of the same sex to prove one's sexual orientation.
Boisselier became science director of Rael's company, Clonaid, whose aim is to charge $200,000 to clone any person who can pay. She claims hundreds of infertile couples, homosexuals and others have asked her to clone them.
Around August 2000, nearly a year after Andrew's death, Boisselier and Hunt went into a cloning business of their own.
Hunt says he invested $500,000 to set up a secret, new company called Bioserv Inc., which they did not register with the West Virginia authorities. Hunt chose Nitro, an obscure town named after nitroglycerine since it was founded during the Second World War to make explosives.
Hunt rented the old classroom for $320 a month and began filling it with the equipment needed to create a new Andrew. Boisselier hired three scientists, all American-trained -- a geneticist, a biochemist and an ob-gyn affiliated with an in-vitro fertilization clinic -- to carry out the work.
Their method was similar to Dr. Ian Wilmut's, the creator of Dolly the sheep, the world's first clone in 1996. A human egg's genetic information is stripped away and the nucleus from a cell of the person to be cloned, in this case baby Andrew, would be fused by electricity into the empty egg. The embryo is then implanted in a surrogate mother.
Boisselier says 50 women came forward to bear the Andrew clone, including her own 22-year-old daughter, Marina Cocolios.
All the women may have been needed since there were more than 200 attempts to bring Dolly to term, all but one of the embryos miscarrying or born horribly deformed -- a principal argument of opponents of human cloning. But Boisselier said technology would allow her scientists to detect abnormalities in time to abort a fetus gone wrong.
Boisselier could not contain herself. She began to give numerous media interviews, saying a cloned child would be born by the end of 2001. And she began dropping hints.
Last March, she was called to testify before a U.S. House subcommittee, which was gathering evidence for a bill that would outlaw human cloning. Before Congress, she released an anonymous letter she said was from the father who had lost a 10-month old son and wanted him cloned.
"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," Hunt wrote. "We didn't know what to do and I couldn't accept that it was over for our child, and for the first time in human history I/we didn't accept death as the end. Not since our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, spoke to Lazarus and told him to 'come forth' from the grave has a human being able to bridge the great gulf of death.
"I hoped and prayed that my son would be the first; I decided then and there that I would never give up on my child. I would never stop until I could give his DNA -- his genetic makeup a chance. I knew that we only had one chance; human cloning. To create a healthy duplicate, a twin of our son. I set out to make it happen."
With no law against human cloning, the Food and Drug Administration took notice. Agents visited Boisselier at Hamilton College. They then arranged a visit to the lab at Nitro and struck a deal with her and Hunt last spring.
They would not reveal the name of the father or the lab's location in return for their agreement to cease work on the experiment. Boisselier and Hunt agreed until the legal picture was clear.
But Boisselier gave media interviews again, saying she would not stop the work. That is when Hunt said he began to sour on her, calling her a "press hog" who was getting him in trouble with the FDA. He says he changed the lock on the lab door to prevent further experiments.
A federal grand jury was then convened in Syracuse to gather evidence toward a possible indictment against Boisselier on the grounds her cloning activities had violated U.S. drug laws, which the FDA oversees, a U.S. government source said. An FDA spokeswoman refused to discuss the case.
Boisselier said in Las Vegas, where she lives, that she wants to sue the FDA to challenge its authority to ban human cloning.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to ban all human cloning. President George W. Bush said he would sign the legislation if the Senate passes a similar measure.
Boisselier said she doesn't intend to break the law and will move the project abroad if necessary. She said her company, Clonaid, has a lab outside the U.S., but refused to say where. A Web site edited by Boisselier said in March 1999 that Clonaid opened an office in South Korea and was seeking a partnership with scientists there. It has a second Web site registered in Seoul.
As Hunt's name and the lab's location were revealed, he admitted his role in the cloning attempt. He said he was severing ties with Boisselier and would abandon the project to bring back Andrew, adding that the work had only got as far as testing the viability of the child's DNA.
Boisselier said in a news release she had 2,000 people waiting to take Hunt's place and would open a new lab elsewhere in the U.S.
Hunt says he hasn't given up his belief in raising the dead through cloning.