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Don Lapre's face appears on seemingly every item of literature that leaves his offices.

Six months later, Lapre's on the Better Business Bureau's bad apple list and a frequent target of consumer-advocacy columns in newspapers nationwide. Customers allege Lapre himself is the primary beneficiary of his money-making schemes. Some have spent thousands on Lapre's programs, and they want their money back. Former employees are clamoring to get paid. Creditors are frothing at the mouth.

None of these details bothers Lapre, however, who's focusing his energies on yet another wealth-building concept.

"I just want to have fun creating ideas and selling them," Lapre says. "I wish I had a big ego, but I really don't give a rat's ass about what people think about me."

Don Lapre (pronounced la-PREE) grew up poor in Sunnyslope. His mother worked at a U-Totem, and his father, who was laid up for two years with back trouble, owned a house-painting business. One of five kids, Lapre is proud of the times he helped make ends meet by gathering cast-off furniture in alleys and selling it down at the Park 'N' Swap.

"I've seen the pain and the suffering and the poor side of the world," he says.

A credit shy of graduating from Sunnyslope High School -- a full-time job pulled him away from his studies -- Lapre hired on with his father's company in 1988. He soon launched his own enterprise, a dating service called the 1828 Club.

Around that time, Lapre met Sally Redondo, who would become his partner in business and marriage and mother of their two children. With $110 in their pockets, and no money for wedding rings, Sally and Don drove to Las Vegas to get married. When they returned to Phoenix, Don told his bride he was $35,000 in debt. Just two months after the dating service opened, Lapre declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

Lapre says he rebounded with a successful business, painting houses.

"Any normal guy would have been crippled by a lack of confidence," Lapre says. "But I was too naive to be negative."

Capitalizing on their own experience as debtors, the Lapres in 1990 opened a credit repair business called Unknown Concepts, offering credit cards, cash loans and discount vacations. Their ad read: "Visas/Mastercards/Erase bad credit/Cash loans to anyone!!"

The 148 customers who paid $37 for the package learned that the Lapres did not issue credit cards but only provided names, addresses and information about companies that offered credit cards. The discount vacation information contained in the package merely suggested the consumer check with a travel agent for last-minute discounts.

The Arizona attorney general sued the couple for violating the state Consumer Fraud Act. The Lapres were barred from participating in any credit services organization and were ordered to pay civil penalties and more than $5,000 in restitution to complainants.

That didn't stop Lapre. His next venture involved writing and selling a 36-page manual explaining how to recoup a Federal Home Association insurance refund after paying off a home mortgage. The manual cost 60 cents to make and sold for $85. Lapre placed an ad in the Tribune and claims he was soon making more than $1,000 a day.

A friend set up Lapre with a 900 number. Over the course of a year, Lapre placed 1,100 ads in newspapers across the country advertising $2.99-per-minute 900 lines. He says he began raking in $50,000 per week.

Don Lapre was white hot.

In 1992, Lapre stepped into the bright lights of television infomercials, an industry that generates more than $500 million a year in product sales. Alongside exquisite models endorsing miracle diets and exercise equipment that requires no effort, celebrities plugging anti-baldness remedies and psychic healing and chefs raving about must-have kitchen aids, Lapre preached the gospel of prosperity on The Making Money Show With Don Lapre. He told viewers how anyone could easily earn $50,000 a month with a 900-number business.

For several years, the half-hour spectacle maintained top-10 status at Jordan Whitney Incorporated, a California-based outfit that ranks infomercial companies according to media budgets and frequency of broadcast.

Lapre's wee-hour special markets his Money Making Secrets package, a stack of business how-to manuals crammed with common-sense tips on how to get filthy rich -- fast. Buying and Selling divulges golden nuggets such as "decide on what you're going to buy and sell" and "don't quit your day job." The Secrets to Don Lapre's Most Successful Campaigns!!! offers exclusive tips for operating a 900 number, including, "check your [900] line often to make sure it's working properly." In the Custom Internet Web Site Set-Up Guide, Lapre reveals how to establish profitable Web sites without a computer.

The real showstopper is a 36-minute video titled Lapre's 11 Secrets to Success. Persistent and whiney, like an adolescent making a case for the car keys, Lapre exhorts viewers to surround themselves with winners ("Get rid of your ugly friends!") and maintain a solid constitution ("Your health is worth a billion dollars!").

More than nine million U.S. adults buy at least one item from a TV offer per year, and Lapre's special brand of sincerity guaranteed him a substantial share of the pie.

"He's fairly unique in terms of his own kind of rags-to-riches persona," says John Kogler, publisher for Jordan Whitney. "With the exception of Carleton Sheets [another infomercial guru], he's probably the longest-running show."

In spite of their efficacy, infomercials are deservedly viewed as lowbrow, and Lapre is often singled out as the butt of jokes. In June, a columnist for opened a piece on a completely unrelated topic with a reference to a TV appearance by "some animated Don Lapre-lookin' wing nut. . . ."

Don Lapre sells Money Making Secrets through New Strategies, whose parent company is Tropical Beaches. He also sells a host of programs under four other monikers, all operating as one enterprise, making it difficult to keep the books straight.

During an emergency bankruptcy hearing, Alisa Lacey, a Lapre lawyer, said, "One of the problems with this company is that the accounting controls were not as diligent as they should be, so to be quite honest with you, the company is on a daily basis determining what its payables are."

Once viewers buy the first program for $39.95, they are contacted within days by a cheerful sales rep who offers additional psychic, sports, dating and chat 900 lines, plus free Web sites. Marketers call this the "back end," and it involves repeatedly capitalizing on willing prospects.

"I would say if we did not have a 900 service on the back end, we couldn't survive just selling the packages," Lapre told a reporter in 1995.

While a 900 line costs $100, some customers have spent thousands to launch their new business. Lapre insists that a handful of viewers have made millions. Others crashed and burned. And they blame it on Lapre.

Consider Andre Schweizer, a transplant from France. The Las Vegas resident spent approximately $8,000 in December 1998 on the Money Making Secrets package and other Lapre products.

"I saw it advertised on TV, and they made it look like you could make a couple thousand dollars in the first few months," says Schweizer, who at the time feared losing his job at a casino.

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