Feds say small-time actor peddled fake coronavirus cure to millions online
By MEAGAN FLYNN | The Washington Post | Published: March 26, 2020
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The Justice Department brought its first coronavirus-related criminal fraud case in the nation on Wednesday night, accusing a small-time actor in Southern California of peddling a fake cure to millions of his social media followers and trying to woo investors with promises of millions of dollars in returns.
Keith Lawrence Middlebrook, 53, was arrested by the FBI on Wednesday during a meeting in which he delivered pills to a potential "investor" — an undercover agent — that Middlebrook claimed would prevent covid-19, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles said in a statement. He is charged with one count of attempted wire fraud, which carries a punishment of up to 20 years in prison.
In videos he posted this month to his 2.4 million Instagram followers, Middlebrook showed off nondescript white pills and a liquid injection he claimed would offer immunity and a cure, respectively. The self-described "Genius Entrepreneur" frequently accused Democrats, the media and federal and world health officials of creating mass hysteria as a ploy to hurt President Donald Trump. And at one point, he claimed his drugs had the support of a doctor with the Trump administration.
"Not only did I make the cure, but this pill right here is the prevention," he said in one video. "Meaning, if I walk into the Staples Center and everyone's testing coronavirus positive, I can't contract it. It's impossible. . . . I have what makes you immune to the coronavirus."
The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned there is currently no cure, vaccine or preventive drug for covid-19.
U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna urged Americans to be "extremely wary of outlandish medical claims and false promises of immense profits."
"During these difficult days, scams like this are using blatant lies to prey upon our fears and weaknesses," Hanna 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."
Middlebrook, who according to his IMDb profile played bit roles in films including "Iron Man 2" and "Moneyball," could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. It was not immediately clear whether he had an attorney.
The indictment comes after Attorney General William Barr ordered U.S. attorneys last week to prioritize cases involving coronavirus-related fraud, as the Food and Drug Administration continues to warn against phony covid-19 remedies. The Justice Department brought its first civil case over the weekend, obtaining a temporary restraining order against a website peddling fake covid-19 vaccine kits.
In Middlebrook's case, the FBI received a tip on March 13 from a person whom Middlebrook allegedly tried to solicit for investment, federal prosecutors said.
According to the criminal affidavit, the tipster received a text message from Middlebrook that week in which he declared, "I have Developed the Cure for the CoronaVirus COVID-19." Middlebrook claimed a patient in Los Angles who tested positive for coronavirus "got up and walked out 51 hours after my injection," according to the affidavit. He offered the tipster a finder's fee if he could bring on investors, seeking initial investments of $300,000 with a guaranteed return of $30 million.
He even claimed, falsely, that basketball legend Magic Johnson was on his board of directors, prosecutors say.
The feds say Middlebrook's alleged company for mass producing and marketing the drugs, QP20, was a "nonexistent entity."
Still, sitting in his home office in Newport Beach, California, with electric guitars in the corner and platinum records on his wall, a tanned, muscled Middlebrook appeared on video and assured his Instagram followers that mass production was on the way. He said the drugs had already been tested on three patients and worked — another false claim, prosecutors said.
"Hey, everybody, this is Keith Middlebrook," he began, in a video viewed more than 1 million times. "Yes, I created the cure that shuts down the covid-19, that makes the cells from the coronavirus detach, release and die within 48 hours. That took me about six weeks and two decades of study."
In another, he said he "just got off the phone" with Robert Goldman, a physician who serves on the President's Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, and was "going to Mar-a-Lago" to get an "emergency order" authorizing his drugs. He promised viewers that, if they took his pills, they would no longer have to be afraid to go to supermarkets, gyms or anywhere in public.
Besides, he said, the entire pandemic was a hyped up nothingburger designed to hurt Trump.
"It's the mainstream media and the left that are trying to take down Donald Trump, who's created the No. 1 greatest economy in history," he charged. "You don't have to go along with a mainstream media pandemic havoc environment, a pandemonium environment created by the mainstream media. This is your time to shine."
The tipster who alerted federal authorities helped connect an undercover FBI agent with Middlebrook, pretending that he had found an investor, according to the affidavit. During a phone call, Middlebrook asked the agent to invest between $750,000 to $1 million and provide his banking information.
He told the agent that he could give him and his mother pills if he wired $9,999.
Instead, while trying to deliver the pills, Middlebrook was taken into custody Wednesday.
"As the country reacts to the current crisis, and while many suffer from losing a loved one or losing their livelihood, the last thing Americans need are con-artists who hawk miracle cures they know are not tested, guaranteed, nor approved," Paul Delacourt, the assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office, said in a statement.
Middlebrook was previously indicted in federal court in 2014 for allegedly trying to defraud celebrities and athletes by offering expensive services to help improve their credit, despite not actually being able to help them. The case was dismissed due to a speedy trial violation, prosecutors said, and was not refiled.
He is expected to make his first appearance in court in the fraud case on Thursday.