Joseph Fox Batista calls himself a relative of the Batista clan that used to run Cuba, a self-taught inventor and microbiologist who claims to have discovered the fountain of youth through a natural enzyme and yogurt bacteria.
Some other people call him a crook.
At least they do now. Investigators say Fox, 55, duped dozens of dazzled investors into buying $380,000 worth of stock in his Miami Beach company, Telogenesis Inc., which they say he promptly spent on fancy apartments, booze and lavish dinners.
His yogurt cream purports to grow hair on balding men, turn hair dark from gray and generally reverse the aging process.
Fox is jailed at the county's MetroWest Detention Center awaiting trial on charges of grand theft and organized scheme to defraud.
In a rambling jailhouse interview, Fox insisted his ``telomerase'' yogurt product is on the verge of a breakthrough, but he is being persecuted by shady forces, possibly members of the powerful and very jealous hair transplant industry.
Fox insisted he never misspent investors' money.
``Obviously, I have to be paid. I'm the CEO of a corporation. The CEO gets at least $100,000 a year,'' Fox said last week. ``I'm actually paying myself very little -- at times, nothing. I have running costs. I have to pay my rent. I have to feed myself. I'm doing the work of 1,000 people.''
Even supporters who still believe in his science agree that Fox misused investor money.
`A GENIUS, BUT'
``He's a genius, but he can't conduct business. He scams everyone with his stocks,'' said Miami Beach customer Peter Graves, 69, who thinks the product has delivered a few new hairs but not the ``Astro-turf'' he'd hoped for. ``Some of it is paranoia. He doesn't want anyone to steal it.''
Four years ago, Fox appeared in South Beach, a slender man with green eyes, bowl haircut and a penchant for white Panama hats, guayabera shirts and sparkly dress shoes.
``He had so much faith in himself. I don't even think he knows he's crazy,'' said former roommate David Dobrin, 20. ``He truly thinks he's the smartest person in the world.''
Homeless at first, Fox began pitching his ideas -- and spinning his life story -- to pedestrians on Lincoln Road in 2007.
Within a few years, flush with investor cash, he was living at the posh Flamingo condo in South Beach.
Born Luis Miguel Hernandez Batista, Fox claims he is the nephew of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, a story investors say he peddled to prove he is politically connected.
His family changed his name as a youth in Los Angeles to ``protect me from the Castro regime,'' Fox said.
However, Batista's grandson says Fox isn't a relative. ``I know a lot of uncles and aunts and cousins, and I've never heard of him,'' said Miami lawyer Raoul Cantero, a former Florida Supreme Court justice.
Fox's career as a con man began in California, police say. In 2002, he was convicted of grand theft and spent 272 days in jail.
The scheme he peddled, via the Web: the ``Fox Gold Detector,'' a machine that purported to weigh the amount of gold in any object. Nine clients spent a total of more than $20,000 to buy the machines, which Fox never delivered, according to Manhattan Beach police.
Fox insists the machines were real. But he said he couldn't deliver the devices, which he said could be used to expose fake gold bars at Fort Knox, because they were seized ``by the secret police, or whoever controls the currency.''
After his jail stint, Fox says he began experimenting with the ``Fountain of Youth'' yogurt.
At the heart of his so-called invention is a naturally ocurring enzyme known as telomerase, discovered in the early '80s, which scientists believe stems the decline of cells. But the research is still basic, and has not shown that successfully introducing the enzyme into the body can reverse aging in older humans, experts say.
Fox asserts he can get the enzyme into the body through yogurt bacteria. That's a dubious claim, said Michigan clinical physician Dr. Michael Fossel.
``Total waste of time,'' said Fossel, a Michigan State University professor and author of the 2004 book Cells, Aging, and Human Disease. ``On the face of it, scientifically, it's got to be'' bogus.
But Fox pitched it well, throwing around scientific terms with authority and accuracy, said Dr. Andrew Pastewski, a pulmonologist at Jackson South Community Hospital who in 2007 invested $2,000 in Telogenesis.
Pastewski knew the idea was a long shot. He never got a return on his money, but did received monthly e-mails from Fox histrionically touting riches to come, and showing photos of new little hairs growing on a bald man.
``You CAN make your OWN little production for a YOGURT PARTY, say, for your friends and family as you desire, with this wonderful FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH YOGURT!'' Fox proclaimed in one e-mail.
Pastewski joked: ``I've spent more money on golf . . . I got my money's worth in entertainment alone with this guy.''
Other investors were not laughing. John Efta, 47, of Kenai, Alaska, lost $28,000 in the company. Efta thought the investment would yield good returns, and also hoped the science would help cure his diabetes.
``I want him hung on the wall,'' Efta said of Fox. ``He had a hell of a good time at my expense.''
Efta complained to Florida's Office of Financial Regulation, which dispatched Patricia Perez to investigate Fox's business. She declined comment.
Fox insisted the investment money went to lab testing, clinical trials, production and marketing. But Perez found that virtually none of the money invested between July 2007 and November 2009 went to building the company, according to an arrest warrant.
Combing through bank records and interviewing victims, Perez found that most of the money went to Fox's daily living expenses, the warrant said. One investor, Peter Walton -- who even moved to South Beach from Oregon in a failed attempt to support the business -- told Perez that Fox frequently withdrew investor money for ``alcohol or drugs.''
Walton's son, John Walton, and his friend Dobrin lived with Fox for six months and said Fox developed a drug problem. They said he blew thousands weekly on expensive dinners for friends.
Once, Fox bragged about handing out wads of cash to patrons at the Lost Weekend bar in South Beach.
``It was common for him to hand out $100 bills to homeless people,'' Dobrin said. ``He literally just gives his money out to look like a big shot.''
From jail, Fox swore he didn't live an extravagant lifestyle on investors' dimes. Instead, he blames the Waltons, Efta and Perez for conspiring against him.
``Patricia Perez apparently doesn't believe in telomerase, or the Fountain of Youth,'' Fox said. ``She's trying to steal my invention from me, essentially.''