Southern California man drummed up investments for phony coronavirus cure, FBI says
The muscled, spray-tanned and self-described “Genius Entrepreneur” cupped a white pill in his palm, then told his 2.4 million followers on Instagram: “If I walk in the Staples Center and everyone is testing coronavirus-positive, OK, I can’t contract it.”
Keith Lawrence Middlebrook didn’t just tell his Instagram followers he’d invented both a pill that inoculated him from the coronavirus and a serum to cure those who’d contracted it. He pitched the bogus medicine to a man he believed to be an investor, trying to drum up $300,000 with the promise of a $30-million return, a federal agent wrote in an affidavit.
Middlebrook, 53, was arrested Wednesday night and charged with attempted wire fraud.
“There’s a particular opportunistic cruelty in seeking to profit based on the fear and helplessness of others,” Paul Delacourt, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said in a statement.
In a May 9 interview, a few days after he was released on bond, Middlebrook insisted he was innocent, framed by vindictive investigators frustrated that an earlier case, implicating him in an alleged mail fraud scheme, was dismissed in 2016.
Middlebrook, who described himself as a bodybuilder, credit score consultant and self-taught expert in anti-aging technology, maintained that his product — a compound of 12 “antivirals” — inoculates people from COVID-19 and any funding he solicited would have paid for patents, testing and legal costs.
“I don’t want one dollar I didn’t earn,” Middlebrook said.
In March, an informant who had furnished the FBI with information in the earlier mail fraud case contacted an agent in San Diego: Middlebrook was soliciting funding for a coronavirus vaccine, he told the agent, and he was promising the informant finder’s fees for investor referrals.
Madison MacDonald, an FBI agent in Los Angeles, reviewed texts Middlebrook sent the informant. “Investors who come in at ground level say $1m will parachute with $200m to $300m,” one message said, MacDonald wrote in an affidavit.
Another was a picture of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, MacDonald wrote, accompanied with the words, “We got MAGIC JOHNSON coming aboard!!!! Call me!!”
The FBI contacted Christina Francis, president of Magic Johnson Enterprises. Francis spoke with the former Lakers star and reported back, the affidavit said: Johnson has no involvement with Middlebrook or his businesses and had “never met, spoken to or seen this individual.”
Middlebrook took to his public Instagram account to declare that “after studying cell tissue and chemical biology for many years,” he had created a cure for COVID-19. “This is the cure right here, going into mass production,” he said, displaying a syringe. “This is going to save and change the world. Yes, I have a meeting set up with President Donald Trump.”
The video has been viewed 633,000 times. No cure or vaccine exists for the novel coronavirus.
The next day, an FBI agent posing as an investor spoke with Middlebrook on a recorded line. For a $300,000 investment, Middlebrook guaranteed him a $30-million return, secured by “a $10 billion offer from an unnamed buyer in Dubai,” according to MacDonald’s affidavit.
The day after their call, the purported investor followed up. Middlebrook said he’d secured seven more investors since they last talked, each of whom had pledged an average of $750,000 to $1 million, the affidavit said. The investor and his mother could get the “prevention pills” once he’d wired a $9,999 deposit, Middlebrook said, according to the affidavit.
In a video posted to Instagram, Middlebrook said the pills had so thoroughly inoculated him from the coronavirus that “if someone tests coronavirus-positive, I’ll give them a hug, sit down and have a conversation with them, and take them to dinner.” The video has been viewed more than 1 million times.
The evening of March 25, Middlebrook told The Times, he met the purported investor in the parking lot of a Jersey Mike’s sandwich shop in Santa Monica. Middlebrook said he reached out for a handshake and the man looked at him, surprised. “I said, ‘I’ll shake your hand, I’ll give you a hug. I’m taking it myself — I can’t contract the virus.’ He said, ‘Wow, so it’s real?’ And I said, ‘What’d you think?’”
Then, Middlebrook said, federal agents swarmed the parking lot with their guns drawn. “I’m going, ‘This is unbelievable,’” he recalled. “What? What did I do?” Middlebrook was arrested and booked in the federal lockup in downtown Los Angeles, where he remained until posting bond last week. Charged with attempted wire fraud, he has yet to enter a plea.
“During these difficult days, scams like this are using blatant lies to prey upon our fears and weaknesses,” Nicola Hanna, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “While this may be the first federal criminal case in the nation stemming from the pandemic, it certainly will not be the last.”
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