Keith Middlebrook had been out of jail for two days when someone threatened to send him back. I was on the phone with Middlebrook, whom the FBI arrested in late March for seeking investors for a company he claimed had a cure for COVID-19, when he arrived home to find an irate man just inside the gate to his Newport Beach home.
“Where are my kids? Somebody’s gonna go to jail for kidnapping my kids!” the man yelled.
Moments later, when he got away from the angry visitor, Middlebrook explained to me that his girlfriend and her daughters were staying with him and that the man was the children’s father. “The two girls love me because I’ve coached them into fitness and wellness and goals and good grades and spirituality and all that,” he said.
After a few tense minutes, the man finally left. Middlebrook must have been relieved. He has enough to worry about.
Over the years, the talkative 52-year-old has described himself as a “director,” “producer,” “writer,” “real estate mogul,” “genius,” “super entrepreneur icon,” “businessman,” “educational speaker,” and “actor.” He calls himself the “Real Iron Man,” a moniker that he tried to trademark, unsuccessfully. He claims to be an expert in credit score repair, reverse-aging technology, fitness, spirituality, and law. He amassed more than half a million followers on Twitter and 2.4 million on Instagram before his accounts were shut down.
The FBI took note when he tried to add another line to his resume. In March, as the COVID-19 crisis intensified, Middlebrook announced on social media that he had invented a pill that could prevent the disease caused by the coronavirus, as well as an injectable serum that he claimed could cure it. His supposed miracle concoction includes ingredients derived from green tea leaf extract, cocoa bean, coffee bean, the herb ma-huang, and white willow bark. Federal prosecutors were unconvinced. Following a brief investigation, the FBI alleged the whole thing was a scam. Later that month, he became the first person federally charged in a criminal case relating to the disease.
In a series of interviews, the first since his March 25 arrest for alleged wire fraud, Middlebrook loudly proclaims his innocence. He insists his anti-COVID-19 products are legitimate and that he plans to move forward with manufacturing and marketing them.
“I created a combination of the most 12 powerful antivirus agents in the world,” he says. “I put it together in one package to create an immunity package, and also the cure vaccine…to get the nation and the world back to work. And I can save lives. That’s what I’ve done.”
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Middlebrook says his father was in the military and that his family bounced around before settling in Washington state. After high school and a brief stint as a bounty hunter, he moved to California in the late ‘80s and immersed himself in motivational books by the likes of Tony Robbins and Donald Trump. He began working at fitness centers and then started two bustling gyms of his own.
Middlebrook built up a nifty nest egg, but he claims he lost all of his savings in a nasty custody battle for his daughter. In 1997, he filed for bankruptcy, and as he tried to recover, he figured out how to clean up his credit. At that point, he started a business fixing other people’s credit, eventually taking on celebrity clients.
As he worked on celebrities’ finances, he immersed himself in Hollywood. He attended award shows and parties and booked small roles in movies like Iron Man 2. In 2011, he appeared on the cover of Star magazine, identified as a “party pal” of Lindsay Lohan. His Instagram feed featured images of him with private jets and luxury cars, and he posted YouTube videos doling out self-help advice. He saturated social media and started company after company: KM Legal Power LLC, Keith Middlebrook Promotions LLC, Reverse Aging Technology Inc., even the Law Offices of Keith Middlebrook LLP. (He never went to law school.) Trump retweeted him at least seven times in spring 2015, right before he ran for president.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 17, 2015
Like all aspiring Masters of the Universe, Middlebrook made a few enemies along the way. One woman, Wendy Schack, says she rented a house from him for $6,700, only to find it was already occupied. She tells Los Angeles it took almost a dozen phone calls to reach Middlebrook, and that when she posted a complaint about him on Scambook.com, someone pretending to be her added an apology under the original post. Middlebrook says he does own the property in question, and that someone was illegally squatting there and still is. He provided Los Angeles with what appears to be a property profile from a title insurance company listing him as the owner. He says he refunded Schack’s money.
In another online review, on RipoffReport.com, a man claims that Middlebrook bilked him out of $15,000 during a credit repair. Middlebrook says the man missed payments to creditors, despite his help. An apology in the man’s name appears under the original post. The man declined an interview, but confirmed that he wrote the apology.
Then in 2011, attorney and legal recruiter Harrison Barnes, who had hired Middlebrook for credit repair, sued Middlebrook and another man for allegedly costing him almost $5 million in damages. “Keith apparently had this website where he was touting his ability to fix people’s credit and had all these pictures of stars and everything on it, so I ended up giving him all this money,” Barnes says. “Nothing happened. He just disappeared.”
Middlebrook says Barnes did not adequately serve him papers in the lawsuit and so the case was litigated without his involvement. (“He was served in like 15 different ways, and the court was satisfied that he was served properly,” Barnes says.) Middlebrook blames the other defendant for preventing him from being able to fully provide his services to Barnes.
The final docket entry in the case is a default judgment filed by Barnes. Barnes’s firm issued a press release saying it won the case; Middlebrook says he won and that a contact at the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office helped resolve the issue. The person he named could not be reached for comment, and Barnes disputes that such a person got involved, given that it was a civil case and there is no docket entry after his judgment.
There’s one recollection they appear to agree on: “I told his secretary, if I meet this guy, I drive to Malibu now, I will snap his neck in half,” Middlebrook says. Barnes recalls hearing about this, though he says he heard it from another lawyer, not his secretary. They also agree that Barnes hasn’t collected any money from Middlebrook from the case.
The credit repair business also caught the attention of the FBI, which arrested Middlebrook in 2014. The indictment alleged he had sought “clients who were famous, wealthy, or otherwise high-profile,” and that he had created fraudulent documents claiming to be from businesses, government agencies, and creditors, stating that debts could be deleted. He allegedly forged government seals and client signatures. He faced 15 counts of mail fraud, four counts of use of a fraudulent government seal, one count of bankruptcy fraud, and 15 counts of aggravated identity theft. He pleaded not guilty.
“They lied and said that I defrauded celebrities and pro-athletes, when I did the exact opposite,” Middlebrook says. “I cleaned their credit to 800…and I educated them on credit and finance and business and real estate.” The case was dismissed because enough time had passed that the government said it “may have” violated the Speedy Trial Act.
But the FBI wasn’t done with Middlebrook. This March, a cooperating witness from the credit repair case approached the bureau with a new tip: Middlebrook claimed to have a cure for COVID-19 and was seeking investments.
That much appears to be true. Even though he believed the coronavirus fallout was a conspiracy to destroy Trump’s economy, and that it only impacted older people with preexisting conditions, Middlebrook saw the crisis as a business opportunity. He believed an initial public offering could be $1.6 trillion.
Asked how he found a cure when no one else has been able to do so, he says, “Because I think omniscient, I think limitless. I think on a different scale…. I don’t do standard, average, basic, status-quo thinking.” He says he developed the formula himself based on his “own research of cell tissue and biochemistry,” and that he was talking to potential manufacturers.
In March, Middlebrook sent a document to prospective investors. “I shot it out to ten private friends. I didn’t send out some mass email to millions of people,” he says. He listed NBA veteran Magic Johnson under the company directors and officers. He also posted Instagram videos about the products. He said in one that he had just spoken with Dr. Robert Goldman from the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services, whom Middlebrook said offered to help get accelerated Food and Drug Administration approval from Trump. (An HHS spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.)
FDA approval usually requires laboratory and animal testing, then testing in humans, and review by the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Drug development and approval typically takes ten years, though the FDA can speed up the process for priority cases. Trump has said the FDA should “remove every barrier” to approve potential treatments for COVID-19.
Middlebrook allegedly wrote in the comment section of one of his Instagram videos that he had tested his injection on three people, and he allegedly told the cooperating witness that a patient in Los Angeles had received his injection. He says he has not gone through any FDA approval process.
On March 25, as Middlebrook showed up to collect payment from a would-be investor, the FBI arrested him. The investor was an undercover agent. The same FBI special agent who arrested Middlebrook in the previous case was again involved. “I got, I don’t know, at least 20 guns to my back and my head and my chest,” he says. He was booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center and inhabited “the same cell that Robert Downey Jr.” was once in, he says. (Downey served primarily in county and state facilities, not this federal facility.)
Scammer arrested after promoting fake cure for #COVID19 and a pill to prevent #coronavirus infection. Keith Middlebrook charged in first federal criminal case related to health emergency.https://t.co/CoISYs6gDA
— US Attorney L.A. (@USAO_LosAngeles) March 26, 2020
Federal prosecutors argue that Middlebrook attempted to defraud investors by soliciting money for Quantum Prevention CV Inc., the company behind the pill and serum. According to the federal complaint, a representative for Magic Johnson said the basketball legend “had never met, spoken to, or seen” Middlebrook; the corporations Middlebrook mentioned to investors did not appear in official databases; the business address he gave investors was for a UPS store; and there was no record of his having filed a patent (though the complaint says patents are confidential for at least 18 months after filing).
The prosecutors also point out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there currently are no approved drugs or therapeutics to prevent or treat the disease, and that the World Health Organization says the same.
“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 field office in Los Angeles, said in a statement about the case. “The last thing Americans need are con-artists who hawk miracle cures they know are not tested, guaranteed, nor approved.”
Nicola Hanna, the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, said in the statement, “While this may be the first federal criminal case in the nation stemming from the pandemic, it certainly will not be the last.”
Since Middlebrook’s arrest, the Justice Department has announced charges in a dozen more cases related to COVID-19, and the Federal Trade Commission has issued dozens of warnings to alleged scammers. The FBI warned that fraudulent “cures” can be physically dangerous or even fatal, and that “one of the most lucrative schemes for criminals is offering you an opportunity to invest in a cure or treatment for the virus.”
Middlebrook continues to insist that his products work, and he also says that Johnson “knows who the hell I am,” and that the retired basketball player told a mutual contact of theirs that he “went into defense mode” when questioned about Middlebrook. A representative for Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.
To explain why his LLCs might not have appeared in databases, Middlebrook says he sometimes registers what are known as “anonymous LLCs,” a process that keeps certain ownership information confidential. He provided me with what appears to be an email from BizFilings.com confirming the order for Quantum Prevention CV 2020 LLC, the main company in the complaint. A representative for BizFilings confirmed certain order details, but said the order had been canceled due to lack of payment and never filed with the state. Questioned further, Middlebrook says his card had an incorrect fraud hold and that he had not been able to rectify the issue because he was incarcerated.
As for using the address for a UPS store, he says he did so to keep his real address private. He also points out that in his videos, he didn’t ask for money, so the prosecutors should not consider those solicitation. He says patents for the pill and serum are pending.
Middlebrook faces up to 20 years in prison if he’s found guilty of the fraud charge. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 26. He plans to fight the charge and even sue the government, perhaps, he says, for defamation. “For them to lie and call me a scam and a con artist, they’re the ones that are lying completely,” he says. He wants to appeal to Trump: “I’m gonna fly out to get him to case-dismiss on this.”
He also plans to move forward with the products. And he has an idea for a new one: a breathalyzer-type device that would light up green or red if the person blowing into it has the coronavirus. (Among his other products “in development” is an “artificial-intelligent, bionic half-person half-cyborg” doll with “the same skin tissue texture as a 20 year old,” that can be used for sex and can chauffeur its owner in a car.)
“I’ve literally helped thousands of people in credit, in finance, in the power of positive thinking, the power of goal setting, spiritual power of the universe, and nutrition, and training, and health, and wellness, and fitness, and business, and finance, and real estate,” he says. “And I’m the guy that you treat this way because I put my focus and mind on that cure vaccine and also the prevention pill to get people back to work?”
To call him a con man, he adds, is the “pathetic, horrible, negative thinking of losers…. How could I be a con man if all I do is help people?”