updated 10/12/2011 AT 5:00 PM ET
•originally published 10/15/2011 AT 4:00 PM ET
For “King of Infomercials” Don Lapre, life had looked as upbeat as his high-energy TV ads for moneymaking kits.
Married with two daughters, the charismatic go-getter’s website boasts about his “3 best friends :-)” – his two daughters and wife of 23 years – and seemed to be enjoying a booming business, his infomercials so familiar they were parodied by David Letterman and Saturday Night Live.
But in June it all came crashing down. Lapre was charged with 41 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and promotional money laundering. Arrested and indicted, he allegedly scammed more than $50 million from at least 220,000 people between 2004 and 2007.
Then on Oct. 2, two days before he was stand trial on charges that could have sent him to federal prison for 25 years, Lapre was found dead in his Arizona jail cell of an apparent suicide.
It was a shocking end to a life that couldn’t have been lived much larger, stunning those who both admired and resented the pitchman.
“I made my fan site as soon as he went to jail,” David Salinas, one of his earliest customers and the founder of Free Don Lapre, tells PEOPLE. “My friend and I were freaking out when we heard about his death. We didn’t expect it.”
Born in Providence, R.I., Lapre moved to Phoenix with his family when he was a child. In 1988 he married Sally Redondo, and two years later the pair started a credit repair business called Unknown Concepts.
Lapre began broadcasting The Making Money Show with Don Lapre in 1992. He made it sound like anybody could make money as easily as he had. For several years the show was ranked among the 10 most frequently broadcast cable infomercials.
The principal product was his “Money Making Secrets,” a package of booklets, tapes and common-sense tips for placing ads and operating a 900-number business.
One of the first people to be sold by him was Salinas.
“I’ve always been the type of person who wanted to start my own business,” he says. “I ordered his packages and read through his material, and I made calls, and everything was real. A lot of people have started their own businesses because of him. They were inspired by him.”
But in the last few years, authorities had taken notice of his one of Lapre’s newer projects, “The Greatest Vitamin in the World.” Customers were told they could earn commission checks of $1,000 or more by getting people to buy vitamins through customized websites that sold Internet advertising packages. According to federal prosecutors, the marketing was mostly ineffective and full of pop-up and banner ads.
In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration cited the entrepreneur for his claims that these vitamins were for diseases – diabetes, stroke, heart disease, insomnia, cancer and arthritis – warning him in a statement that his “products are not generally recognized as safe and effective.”
A year later, the FDA warned Lapre once again about his misleading claims. His business was raided by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. By the beginning of 2008, his “Greatest Vitamin in the World” sites were no longer functioning. His fraud investigation lasted four years until June’s indictment by a federal grand jury, then came the discovery of his body this month.
His death remains under investigation and few details have been released.
“Investigators recovered a weapon, but they did not describe it,” Ken Alltucker, a health reporter for the Arizona Republic who has written about Lapre extensively, tells PEOPLE. “It’s unknown how he secured a weapon in prison and how he was allowed to harm himself without first being detected by prison guards.”
A Goodbye Message?
Lapre’s apparent suicide was not his first attempt.
On the day he was supposed to appear for his arraignment in June, he was found near a local fitness center with deep cuts in his groin area. Apparently living inside of a gym for a day and a half before he was found, he underwent emergency surgery and was arraigned at the hospital.
Leading up to his death, Lapre posted what seemed to be a farewell statement on his website, saying that he was “left to fight a battle that will for sure destroy what energy I have left inside.”
He added, “I tried to create the best product on earth, paid out millions, made very little trying to make it a success. I have been accused of something I did not do. I did not have the perfect company but never once did I allow one thing to be done that would violate any law.”
He concluded by thanking his supporters and telling them to “never stop dreaming.”
“For all those who sent me testimonials of what you did because of some of my help,” he wrote, “I am grateful I made a small difference in your life.”