A diet doctor is gunned down in an alley outside his storefront clinic, and it looks like the kind of murder case San Diego homicide cops loathe: the professional hit, with a lengthy list of suspects. Dr. Kent Delong, a 47-year-old, outwardly straitlaced Seventh Day Adventist from Redlands, proprietor of the DermaLaser Clinic on Midway Boulevard, had been catering to the vanity of his patients for more than ten years. Some of them said they were devoted to him, but had one of them killed him? Was it a partner in one of his many money-losing Internet schemes? A disgruntled creditor or patient? Or was it more personal than that?
Bruce Morse, an inventor and ex-studio musician and jazz drummer, says he was a longtime friend of DeLong's. He can't fathom why anyone would want to shoot DeLong. "He was the nicest guy you could know. Very positive and upbeat. No pretensions at all. He dressed like a regular guy. Pair of slacks, a shirt, regular old shoes you buy at Price Club, a little white lab coat, and that was about it. The van he had was a Ford, an Aerostar. My brother has one just like it, as a matter of fact, and it's from the '80s," says Morse, who met DeLong three years ago at his clinic in La Mesa. Morse, who had stopped by to visit with DeLong at his office on the afternoon of Thursday, February 1, a few hours before DeLong was shot, was one of the last people to see the doctor alive. "He struck me as the most unobtrusive gentlemen that I've ever met. He seemed very intelligent; he seemed to be very nonconfrontational."
But not everyone felt the same way about Dr. DeLong. Educated at Wayne State University in Michigan, he moved to San Bernardino County, becoming a resident in internal medicine at Loma Linda University, an Adventist school, in the mid-1980s. Records show he operated a commodities-investment business on the side. In the early'90s, DeLong emerged as one of the state's earliest and most prolific purveyors of Fen-Phen, the "miraculous" cocktail of diet drugs. When in 1995 the combination was found to be causing heart-valve defects in at least a third of the patients who took it, the formula was yanked off the market, and the doctors who prescribed it, including DeLong, were sued by ex-patients.
As a result of selling Fen-Phen over the Internet, DeLong lost his license to prescribe controlled substances, and his medical license was placed on a five-year probation by the state medical board. The doctor then went into the herbal weight-loss business, selling nonprescription products laced with ephedrine, the methamphetamine relative linked to heart attacks, strokes, and seizures.
He turned to the Internet, where he bought and sold domain names and weight-loss websites through a netherworld of brokers and dealers of questionable repute. His biggest success came in 1999, when he sold the domain name Vitamins.com for a reported seven-figure sum. Within the last year, he had branched into the latest storefront medical fad, performing laser skin treatments and tattoo removal. In between, DeLong, a military-history buff, managed to write two books on army heroes, run for a seat in Congress, and volunteer as an "attending physician" at reunions of aging Congressional Medal of Honor winners. A biography on one of DeLong's websites claims he was an "army officer, a private pilot, a former member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and founder of a 46-location medical clinic in California."
Wherever he traveled, DeLong seemed to leave behind a trail of lawsuits from landlords and other creditors trying to collect bad debts. The doctor's personal life was no less complicated. Married once, with three teenage children, he reportedly left his wife in the '90s and took up with another woman, an attractive business associate. Two years ago, friends and associates say, he met yet another woman and had a child by her, with another baby expected in April.
But that wasn't the Kent DeLong that Bruce Morse says he knew. Morse, who says he was a drummer for rock sensations Iron Butterfly, Frank Zappa, and Little Richard in the '60s and '70s before turning full-time to inventing and marketing sports-training devices. ("I just continued to do studio work for a long time. I played jazz for a [while], just clubs around the country, and I played jazz in Del Mar for many, many years and tried to make something go of that. But it just wasn't a situation that I liked, so I backed off it, and this came to fruition, you might say.")
Morse says he combined his experience as a drummer and his familiarity with baseball to come up with his pride and joy: a device he calls Pro-PowerBT, the "Professional Batting Trainer used in Major League Baseball & Around the World." According to a description on Morses's website, the Pro-PowerBT "Elevates & Advances the Body's Natural Proficiency to accomplish the task by applying extremely escalated amounts of stimulation to the exact motion required."
"The level of Baseball Swing Muscle Memory generated using Pro-Power is incredible," says DeLong's endorsement of the Pro-PowerBT on Morse's website. "Add its nerve-path stimulator that multiplies that memory 20 or 30 times as it does, and you have a serious scientific training tool. This 'technology' has never been available in Baseball Training." On the website, DeLong is said to have been "LA Dodgers' Team Physician for seven years." Others who knew the doctor remember DeLong saying that he had been with one of the team's minor-league clubs. Other endorsers listed on Morse's website include "Merv Rettenmund; SD Padres Hitting Coach" and "Ron 'Pappa Jack' Jackson; Chicago White Sox Hitting Coach." Says Morse: "When I do something I go right to the top. This is a fantastic device."
Morse says that DeLong took an early interest in his invention and offered him tips and advice on how to market it. Morse remembers that he and DeLong would get together frequently to talk about their businesses. "We would sit around and banter about different ploys, or different techniques of advertising, or different approaches, you know, to making money," recalls Morse. "Just sort of brainstorming, feeling out different venues of advancing a product.
"He had that underlying type of get up and go, but I don't know how many irons he had in the fire. A couple here or there. He always seemed to be more or less looking for irons. He certainly seemed to have his nose in the air, like a bird dog, trying to sniff up something, anything that might come along that interested him that could make some money."
Morse recounts with fondness DeLong's female associate, whom Morse took to be married to the doctor. "She was wonderful, very warm, very intelligent. A very together woman," says Morse. "She could think very well. She was definitely a nice-looking girl, probably early 40s. I saw her with him in the clinic three or four times. I just assumed they were man and wife.
"She was absolutely a positive human being. To me they were both genuinely positive people. As a matter of fact, when I come in there, a couple of times when I was down about a couple of things that I had -- attacks on my website, lost money, been to see the FBI, and so forth -- she especially was quite positive about the type of approach that should be taken as far as just working your way through it and going on with your life."
DeLong and the woman, Morse says, were "absolutely 100 percent straight-and-narrow. They were very much into health as far as I could see. Drugs never even crossed my mind, nor did alcohol. We just talked about the positiveness of trying to get ahead.
"I met his son a couple weeks ago. He seemed like a product of the two of them. A very nice kid. I spoke with him the day Kent was killed and exclaimed on how well-mannered his kid was, because he reminded me of my boy. You don't see many boys like that running around."
The scene of DeLong's murder is a tiny strip mall on Midway Boulevard, just down the street from F Street, a dirty-book store, and a biker bar. A week after the killing, DeLong's storefront is locked up tight, but through the plate-glass window can be seen a gray-carpeted, neat waiting room, lined with display cases featuring a variety of boxes and bottles of "organic" and "herbal" weight-loss potions. Hanging over a white coat draped on the receptionist's chair is a stethoscope. A large painted sign on the glass says "DermaLasers, Laser Tattoo Removal, Laser Hair Removal, Laser Skin Rejuvenation. Most Reasonable Prices in Town. Walk-ins Welcome."
Taped to the front door is a typewritten three-by-five card listing the clinic's operating hours "Thursday, 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, 12 p.m., to 3 p.m." Thursday has been scratched off and changed to Wednesday. DeLong also ran a clinic in Oceanside. Those hours are listed as "Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.." A woman who works at the typewriter-repair shop next door says that after DeLong was forced to give up his Fen-Phen business, traffic had fallen off. "They used to be lined up around the block," she says. "Now, it's okay. Just not that crowded."
The woman says that, owing to his infrequent hours at the clinic, DeLong was not well known to his neighbors at the strip mall. "He was tall, didn't dress formal. We used to get mail delivered here by mistake, and he'd come by and pick it up. That was about the only time we'd see him."
The woman's boss, a small Hispanic man of about 40 wearing brown designer slacks, says he was the one who first noticed that a tire on DeLong's van, parked along the back wall of the strip mall, had been deflated. "I walked over and told him about it. He went back there, I thought, to change it." Not long after, about 6:15, the neighbors say, they heard "popping noises" emanating from the alley between the strip mall and a store called "Comics 'n' Stuff." DeLong's body, slumped over the steering wheel in his still-idling van, went unnoticed until 20 minutes later, when someone from the comic store happened by and made the discovery. "I expected that he'd change the tire back there," the typewriter-shop owner says, "but instead I guess he was trying to drive over to the tire shop on the flat. That really ruins your tires, you know. They caught him in the alley as he was driving out."
One who thinks that DeLong's involvement with Fen-Phen might have provided the killer a motive is San Diego attorney William Dougherty, who represented many former patients in lawsuits against the doctor.
"I have heard that he was the largest distributor of Fen-Phen products in California. Now whether that's true or not, I don't know. I also had a number of clients tell me that he would refer to it as the 'Golden Pill.' I don't know if that was golden for him or golden for the client. Now I'm realizing it was probably golden for him."
According to Dougherty, most of the Fen-Phen cases have already been settled out of court or are on the verge of settlement. American Home Products, maker of the drug, is picking up the multibillion-dollar cost of the settlement and indemnifying the physicians who prescribed the medication. But money, Dougherty says, may not be enough to satisfy some angry ex-patients.
"This is sheer speculation, but some people did have some relatively serious physical problems resulting from Fen-Phen, or at least it appeared that the taking of the Fen-Phen and serious problems coincided." Dougherty continues. "And I suspect it might well be some disgruntled person who maybe had watched a loved one -- although I didn't recall anyone really dying from the use of this -- but the only thing I can think of is, yeah, someone took this stuff and figured they got ripped off, they got sick, whatever, so they blamed it on the doctor.
"Of course, the other explanation would be some disgruntled employee along the way, but he had had so many different clinics, it would be difficult to keep up with who might have a real bitch against the guy. I suspect that Fen-Phen was a very small part of his operation. It looked to me what he was doing was he'd set up the clinic, then he'd hire other doctors, pay 'em by the hour, whatever, he'd get retired doctors to come in and actually dispense the medications."
Another figure from DeLong's past who remembers the doctor's devotion to Fen-Phen is Steve Tuckey, who says he met DeLong while Tuckey was working as a reporter on a small newspaper in Banning, about 30 miles east of Redlands. Tuckey, who now writes for a an insurance trade journal in New Jersey, covered DeLong's failed 1994 Republican congressional primary campaign against thenPalm Springs mayor Sonny Bono. Tuckey recalls that DeLong's main issue was the halting of illegal immigration, and he made a trip to the San Ysidro border crossing to make a television commercial attacking the flood of illegal aliens.
During the campaign, Tuckey says, DeLong asked him to become co-author on a book DeLong was writing that was later published as Mogadishu, Heroism and Tragedy, which a blurb on Amazon.com describes as "a sensationalized account of the US military's October 1993 mission to capture Mohammed Farrah Aidid and his top lieutenants. Based largely on the testimony of military personnel, the book recounts in detail the action of October 34 with a focus on the bravery and heroics of the American servicemen, particularly the 18 men tragically killed." The book had a forward attributed to Ross Perot, in which he proclaimed "Every American should read this book in order to gain a clear insight about military combat and war."
DeLong had written another book, entitled War Heroes. "In this extraordinary book," says the description on Amazon, "15 recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor tell the stories of the actions for which they received their awards. The stories themselves present true examples of valor, courage, and sacrifice. More than stories, however, they recount moments of significance in the life of our country."
A December 1999 review on Amazon authored by "Camden Douglas" lauds War Heroes as "very easy to read and actually quite amazing. Most people don't know what happened with these guys, and this book did a great job telling the story in a very readable way. Both my son and I enjoyed this book very much and are awed by the sacrifice of these brave soldiers." Whether by coincidence or not, one of DeLong's clinics near Redlands is called Camden Wellness Medical Group. "Camden Douglas" also offered a favorable review of Mogadishu.
"Yeah, he was really well-connected with the military guys," says Tuckey of DeLong. "He knew his stuff. I think he was in the military. Maybe not a combat veteran. I don't know." A spokesman for the Congressional Medal of Honor Society in Alexandria, Virginia, confirmed that DeLong had been an "attending physician" at various meetings and reunions held by the society, which is composed of the approximately 300 living recipients of the medal, many of whom are World War II veterans in their 80s and 90s.
Tuckey says his friendship with DeLong cooled after his relationship with a female business associate became more than just business.
"There was kind of a partner, a business partner. Kind of a life partner, too," Tuckey remembers. "I did not really like her. He left his wife and stuff. I guess everything kind of changed, and I was kind of part of the old life, with the family and stuff. She was in weight-loss stuff, she ran that, the Fen-Phen stuff.
"I don't know if she was involved in the vitamins or this stuff. I don't know if they're even still together. She was real hotsy-totsy. I just remember her son was, like, a basketball star [in high school]. He was a big deal, and I just sat next to her at a game once, and the kid just made a mistake or something, and I just saw the look on her face. I guess that's what it takes to be a basketball star with a mother like that."
Tuckey says the pair had met through common business interests.
"Kent had a number of businesses. He had a service for lawyers who needed testimony, and she was involved in some sort of business like that. They met in some sort of business like that. He had tons of businesses; he always had tons of little things. He worked with lawyers, developing testimony, expert-witness kind of stuff, or he'd look at their cases, give them expert opinion on that. He reviewed cases that lawyers would send him and tell them what chance he thought they had. She had some sort of business like that too. Their paths crossed."
DeLong and the woman soon began selling Fen-Phen at swap meets together, according to Tuckey. "I remember there was a swap meet down in San Diego, and they had a little booth there with them and the Fen-Phen stuff. The patients would go behind a little curtain for exams. It just mushroomed after that. They'd work out of chiropractor offices at night and stuff. She helped him run the books.
"It got bigger and bigger. There was a lot of hiring of nurses and stuff. She was quite an integral part of the business. There's just a lot of people involved. It grew and grew into different areas, and he was only one doctor, so you want to try to get other people to do as much of this stuff as you can, up to the limits of what a nurse can do."
That facet of DeLong's business career collapsed in 1997, when state medical officials, along with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, closed in and charged that he had been illegally prescribing Fen-Phen over the Internet. After agreeing to a settlement in which he gave up certain of his prescribing rights, he became more deeply involved in the Internet.
A December 1999 story in the Los Angeles Times identified DeLong as vice president of Internet Development Corp., which the paper called "a Reno-based domain name speculator." Nevada records show that the firm is registered in the name of one of DeLong's female associates. According to the story, Internet Development had listed 200 Web-domain names for sale, including Skateboards.com and CaliforniaWines.com. Other names currently registered to Internet Development, according to the online dot-com registry maintained by Network Solutions, include WhiskeyStore.com, MoneyGambler.com, and NevadaWhorehouses.com.
"The Internet is the Wild West of business nowadays, and the quality of individuals you're dealing with is important because there are an awful lot of hucksters out there," DeLong was quoted as saying in the Times story. "If you can deal with a company that has a good reputation, it makes the business aspects of this Wild West a lot easier."
DeLong's biggest Internet score came in early 1999 when he sold Vitamins.com to a Virginia company run by Robert Haft, former president of Crown Books. Haft, noted for his "Books Cost Too Much!" television commercials of the 1980s, had been forced out of Crown by his father, Herbert Haft. In March 2000, a year after Robert Haft bought the Vitamins.com name from DeLong, Haft sold the site to an Emeryville, California, "health-care advice site" for $103 million, according to an account that month in the Washington Post.
According to the Post report, "Haft bought the Web domain address Vitamins.com from a San Diego physician and nutritionist, Kent DeLong, for about $3 million in cash and stock in the private Vitamins.com. DeLong maintains his practice but also became the medical director of Vitamins.com and answers about 100 questions a week from people browsing the site.
"At the time DeLong sold the Web name to Haft, the physician was selling vitamins to three or four people a day, Haft said. But now Haft said Vitamins.com offers products from 200 manufacturers and has had 200,000 people make purchases since October. He said the biggest-selling item is vitamin E." (Calls seeking comment from Haft about DeLong's murder went unreturned.)
After the sale of Vitamins.com, DeLong set up other websites and registered more Web names but never seemed to be able to duplicate his earlier success. Two weeks after his death, a site called Slim.com was still online. It features a small, fuzzy photo identified as DeLong and advertises, "We have been checking out all the weight-loss products for the past 15 years and have tried most all of them. We needed products that work, easy to live with, easy to follow, and inexpensive."
Last fall, an offer to sell Slim.com began to show up on various auction websites specializing in Internet "business opportunities." "Slim.com, premier internet domain name site for weight-loss information and products for those desiring to lose weight," says one such listing, dated September 2000. It claims that Slim.com is valued at $2.7 million, with bids starting at $150,000.
Though not identified by name, DeLong is described in the listing as an "MD physician Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Addiction Medicine with a full-time specialty in Bariatric (Weight Loss) Medicine, owner and Medical Director of seven medical weight-loss clinics throughout California, principal and Medical Director of highly successful Vitamins.com website, CEO of Internet Development Corporation (developers of Vitamins.com and Skateboards.com), extensively published author, former Medical Director of the Siess Medical Group with medical weight-loss offices in 46 locations, CEO positions with financial institutions (lead syndication of successful S-18 public funds and several Reg D private placements)."
When contacted about the listing, the proprietors of two of the auction sites, Sugarpine Sierra West in Incline Village, Nevada, and Yahot Classic Investments, said that Slim.com was "no longer available for purchase." Each professed to know nothing of DeLong's demise and would not discuss how or why the listing had been placed with them. They referred a caller to other domain-name brokers in other parts of the country, who also said they knew nothing about Slim.com.
DeLong's wide-ranging business activities and unorthodox life style seem to perplex even his closest friends in the closely knit Seventh Day Adventist community centered in Loma Linda and Redlands. "I knew Kent's ex-wife and Kent when they were married," says Lois Heischober, wife of Dr. Bruce Heischober, one of DeLong's partners in a medical clinic. "She married him right out of medical school. When she found out there was another women, she filed for divorce." Heischober, who lives in Redlands, said she heard DeLong was engaged to another woman and had taken out a license to marry her when he met a third woman, with whom he had a child, now 17 months old. Another DeLong baby by that woman is due in April. "I think she's naming him Kent."
DeLong's funeral was held a week ago Sunday at the Calimesa Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Yucaipa near Redlands, says Heischober. "It was a very nice service. His mother was there from Michigan. His father is dead, died of a heart attack some time ago, I think. Pete McCloud, a real good friend of Kent's from Michigan who's living out here now, did the eulogy. Afterwards there was a very nice dinner." Meanwhile, San Diego police are keeping mum on what they know about the case. No arrests have been made, and rumors and speculation continue to mount.
Bruce Morse, the ex-jazz drummer and DeLong's inventor friend from La Mesa, says he's troubled by an unusual call he received on his cell phone the day after the murder, before he knew that DeLong was dead.
"When I heard about this I was coming back from Office Depot, and I had just received a very unusual phone call, about 12 o'clock noon. I was on my way to a meeting and picked up my cell phone, and the gentleman asked me if Kent was there, and I said, 'Don't be ridiculous,' and I inquired about whether he was under a medical emergency, or did he need Kent's phone number.
"It was Friday, and I said I could probably get a message to [DeLong] if it was necessary, or did he need to seek out medical treatment and the gentleman just sort of babbled as to why Kent would have my phone number, and I said, 'Well, I'm a friend of his,' and he just went on and then he said, 'Well, thank you for calling.'
"And so I immediately went to my Caller ID and found out the number and called it a couple of times, and it's a fax number. Then I came home and I tried to send a fax to the number, and it didn't go through. Since then I've given the number to the police, so we'll see if they can trace it. It was a very, very unusual call.
"It was later on that afternoon that my brother called me -- my brother knew Kent just briefly, he went to his clinic one time, I think. And he told me what had happened to Kent, and I just could not believe it. The only type of circumstance I could imagine would be a robbery, but I know Kent was the kind of guy that, as far as I knew him, would say, 'Take it,' and you wouldn't have to say you had a gun or whatever, he would just say, 'Take it, I'm insured.' "