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Metabolife founder indicted on weapons charges in San Diego

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Michael J. Ellis, a convicted felon who founded Metabolife International Inc. and built it into a diet empire selling a now-banned herbal supplement, was indicted Tuesday on federal charges of illegally possessing firearms and ammunition.

Ellis, 52, who has a drug-related conviction for his role in a methamphetamine lab, is barred from possessing either weapons or ammunition.

Prosecutors accused him of possessing guns and ammunition at his 200-acre cattle ranch east of San Diego in Julian, including three loaded handguns, a .22-caliber rifle and more than 600 rounds of ammunition. Federal authorities found the weapons during a raid in 2002.

A federal grand jury indicted Ellis, the son of a Lebanese immigrant, on four counts of illegal weapons possession and one count of conspiracy. Each count carries a maximum of five years in prison.

"We're fully prepared to meet these charges and we think they are without merit and will prove so in court," said Charles LaBella, a former U.S. attorney representing Ellis.

Jan Strode, a Metabolife spokeswoman, called it an individual matter that did not involve the company. Ellis is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court in San Diego.

The gun charges are the latest legal blow for the formerly high-flying Ellis, whose company was so flush with cash that he offered the Russian space agency $15 million in 1999 to put Metabolife's logo on an International Space Station rocket.

Both Ellis and Metabolife are fighting federal charges of lying to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about the dangers of Metabolife 356, a popular diet supplement containing ephedra, the now-banned herbal stimulant linked to 155 deaths. Both Ellis and his company have pleaded not guilty to the charges. No trial date has been set.

The charges involving the FDA stem from a 1998 letter to federal regulators in which Ellis claimed no customer had registered even a single health complaint about Metabolife 356, his signature product. It was a claim the company repeated a year later.

In fact, according to prosecutors, the company was receiving a cascade of complaints -- some 14,000 from 1997 to 2002. Among them: 18 heart attacks, 26 strokes, 43 seizures and five deaths.

At the same time, Ellis was getting rich. Between 1999 and 2001, Ellis and two other company owners were paid a total of $146 million, Metabolife's vice president of finance testified in a deposition. Ellis paid cash in 1999 for the ranch in Julian, his ex-wife said in a court document.

Michael Blevins, 54, a high school friend whom Ellis made a Metabolife board member was indicted in 2003 for federal gun charges. Like Ellis, Blevins was barred from possessing weapons for his role in the same 1988 meth lab bust. Blevins served time in prison; Ellis, who worked as an undercover FBI informant, received probation.

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