They were on a family vacation in Los Angeles when Dr. Syed called with the test results. Priyanka P. was just 13 then, and had suffered for several years with the itchy, chronic skin rash that comes with eczema. But on this day — July 18, 2006 —the doctor had found something else in the girl's skin: traces of scabies and melanoma.
Scabies is a contagious skin disease caused by mites. Melanoma is the most deadly type of skin cancer.
Distraught, Priyanka's parents, Harish S. and Sarita P., cut short their vacation, got in their car, and headed for the doctor's home in San Francisco. Surely there had to be something he could do for the girl.
The family's nightmare had begun a week earlier, when Priyanka's parents accompanied her to an appointment with Dr. Timothy Syed Andersson.
"Dr. Syed," as everybody called him, had been recommended to them by a family friend. He had apparently been a professor at UCSF and Stanford, spoken at dermatology conferences, invented a green tea facial cream, and treated movie stars like Julia Roberts and Elizabeth Hurley.
On a visit to his Lakeside District home at 56 Springfield Dr., Priyanka's family was impressed by a wall of photographs showing the doctor posing alongside famous Bollywood actresses.
They followed Syed into his basement office and consulting room. He stuck a piece of tape on Priyanka's skin, peeled it off, and placed it in a plastic bag. He also swabbed the inside of her mouth, and took photos of her face, arms, and legs. He told the family that the images and DNA samples would be sent to a Stanford University imaging center for testing. In addition, Syed gave the girl a customized topical skin cream, for which he charged the family $520.
Cream wasn't all Priyanka would need.
A week later, her results arrived. According to a letter from the imaging center, the images and DNA strip had shown "serious symptoms" of "sub-acute to chronic nummular eczematous inflammation, seborrheic dermatitis, prurigo nodularis, with deep folliculitis, paraneoplastic pemphigus, and melanoma with traces of scabies."
The impenetrable letter was signed by Michael J. Palfskey, M.D., director of Stanford's Digital Image Scanning Center.
Not to worry, Syed told the family. He would be able to treat Priyanka with injections of what he called Interferon-alpha. He could give her the first shot right away, which would cost $1,320. She would need to come back for two more injections, which also cost $1,320 each.
Desperate to help their daughter, the family agreed.
Each time the girl received an injection, she complained of a severe burning sensation that lasted several days. Although Syed told Priyanka's parents that her skin problems would be gone within six months, after five months her condition had only deteriorated.
That's when the family decided to go for a second opinion at UC Davis Medical Center. In April 2007, after more than 10 months of believing their daughter had cancer, they received another set of test results. Priyanka suffered only from eczema.
Just recently, the family learned that nearly everything Syed had told them was a lie. Roberts and Hurley were never his patients. He had never been a professor at UCSF or Stanford, and he had never sent Priyanka's samples anywhere, because that lab at Stanford didn't exist, and Palfskey was a figment of Syed's imagination. And Syed wasn't even a real doctor.
Priyanka and her family weren't the only ones fooled. Dozens of vulnerable members of the South Indian immigrant community were treated by Syed, incorrectly diagnosed with cancer and other diseases, and given dangerous and improper treatments, according to the San Francisco District Attorney's arrest warrant affidavit.
Then there were the people who really should have known better.
Syed bamboozled many in his personal and professional life, including doctors, lawyers, professors, business partners, university admissions staff, and even the United States Information Agency, a now-defunct federal department that issued him a visiting scholar visa. In early 2007, Syed even duped a Medical Board of California (MBC) investigator initially assigned to his case, raising questions about the board's ability to protect the public from phony doctors.
Syed's deception spree came to an end in February, nearly four years after he had been brought to the attention of the MBC, when he was finally arrested and jailed. He refused to talk to SF Weekly for this article. But his former friends, victims, and one of his ex-wives (he has four) have plenty to say, as do the hundreds of pages of investigative documents in the D.A.'s file. They tell the story of a man whose genius wasn't for medicine but for fraud.
The man now calling himself Timothy Syed Andersson used to say his name was Tanweer Syed Ahmad. Sometimes he used a variation of that — Tanweer Syed — or flipped it to Syed Tanweer Ahmad or Syed Tanweer. At times he also went with a middle initial, as in Syed T. Ahmad or Tanweer A. Syed. Most people called him Dr. Syed, or simply Tim.
Syed had about as many names as he did stories regarding his education. He made frequent claims about earning various advanced degrees from universities all over the world — University of the Punjab, Pakistan; University of Tehran, Iran; University of Birmingham, England; and Lund University, Sweden.
Not one of those schools has any record of him, according to an investigation conducted by Jennifer Alderete, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security.
Only once has Syed been questioned about his background under oath. That was in 2005, in a civil case involving thousands of dollars Syed allegedly stole from a friend, Nitin Shah. (Although the judge found in Shah's favor, Shah has yet to see a dime, and Syed is currently countersuing Shah.)
"I will tell the truth, the whole truth, so help me God," Syed told the court. He said he was born on January 22, 1944, in Karachi, and attended high school there. He earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and an M.D. from the University of Tehran, he said, completing the latter in 1970. Shah's attorney, Michael Heath, asked whether Syed had practiced medicine in Iran.