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En español | An actor and bodybuilder from Los Angeles has gained the fame he's chased for years: He's the first person in the U.S. to be charged with a federal crime for peddling a fake cure for COVID-19 while promising big returns to his investors, authorities say.
Keith L. Middlebrook, 52, who played parts in Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 and Thor, and has amassed millions of followers on social media, is behind bars and charged with attempted wire fraud. He is due back in court May 22.
Hollywood screenwriters would be hard-pressed to concoct the allegations that have Middlebrook now facing up to 20 years in federal prison on a charge of attempted wire fraud.
With about 2.4 million Instagram followers, Middlebrook spun a web of lies and boastfully hawked a cure for the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to details in a 20-page sworn affidavit from an FBI special agent.
No approved treatment currently exists for COVID-19.
NBA legend's name stolen to advance scam
The FBI affidavit says Middlebrook even claimed that former L.A. Lakers basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson was one of his investors. But that wasn't true, according to the president of Magic Johnson Enterprises. And when the retired NBA player was shown a driver's license photo of Middlebrook, Johnson said that he had never met, spoken to or seen Middlebrook before, authorities say.
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The crime for which Middlebrook is accused occurred between March 13 and March 24, the criminal complaint says. His claims about finding a cure began to unravel when an FBI agent in San Diego got a call from an unnamed cooperating witness in Orlando, Florida, who revealed that Middlebrook was soliciting investments for the mass production of a purported vaccine for COVID-19. The witness, a convicted felon, said Middlebrook had promised him a percentage or finder's fee for any investors sent his way.
Middlebrook's advertised address in tiny Newport Beach, California? A UPS store.
His calling cards? On Instagram, he labeled himself the “Real Iron Man” and a “Genius Entrepreneur Icon."
His promised return to investors? He told an undercover FBI agent that for an investment of $300,000, he could guarantee a return of $30 million, which he claimed “was secured by an current $10 billion offer from an unnamed buyer in Dubai."
Authorities say Middlebrook schemed to defraud investors by promising enormous returns on investments in his firm, Quantum Prevention CV Inc. He falsely claimed he had developed a patent-pending cure for COVID-19 and a treatment that prevents a person from contracting the virus. On Instagram, he said he had developed a serum that, when injected, would cure a person with the disease within 24 hours and a pill that would prevent a person from contracting the virus. He made similar statements on YouTube.
He said his serum and prevention pills “would be worth $100 billion” before an initial public offering (IPO) of company stock, the affidavit says.
More than a million views on Instagram
One of his Instagram videos about his phony anti-coronavirus pills was viewed more than 1 million times during the four days ending March 24, the affidavit says. In the video, Middlebrook states that if he took the pill and walked into the Staples Center — filled with COVID-19-positive people — he could not contract the virus.
After Middlebrook was charged, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, Nick Hanna, said in a statement: “During these difficult days, scams like this are using blatant lies to prey upon our fears and weaknesses. … I again am urging everyone to be extremely wary of outlandish medical claims and false promises of immense profits. And to those who perpetrate these schemes, know that federal authorities are out in force to protect all Americans, and we will move aggressively against anyone seeking to cheat the public during this critical time."
In Washington, D.C., FBI Supervisory Special Agent Bill Brown praised the bureau's work, saying it took only about 10 days to investigate and arrest Middlebrook. “We were able to shut that guy down very quickly,” says Brown, chief of the FBI's Economic Crimes Section.
Middlebrook's public defender, Ijeoma Eke, reached by phone on April 24, declined to comment.