Sept. 24, 2007 — -- In a four-day series of daylight raids that ended Sunday, Drug Enforcement Administration agents shut down 26 underground steroid labs and made more than 50 arrests across the country, capping what agents are calling the largest performance-enhancing drug crackdown in U.S. history. The DEA also has identified 37 Chinese factories that purportedly supplied the raw materials for the labs, a DEA spokesman told ESPN.
The raids capped an 18-month probe that has netted a total of 124 arrests in 27 states and closed 56 labs. The agency also seized $6.5 million and 532 pounds of raw steroid powder -- 308 pounds of it in the past week. Most of the raids took place in quiet suburban neighborhoods.
The investigation also focused on message boards where advice is traded about obtaining raw materials, as well as on the Web sites that help the labs sell finished products to the public. Hundreds of thousands of e-mails were intercepted, according to Dan Simmons, a San Diego-based special agent for the DEA. Simmons said that no professional athletes have been implicated so far but that the e-mails are being compiled into a massive database of names and are being analyzed.
In this storage locker on Long Island, DEA agents discovered trash cans and bins full of illegal performance-enhancing drugs."I don't think we even know what we have yet," he said. "There's no part of the country that wasn't impacted by this."
The crackdown, dubbed "Raw Deal," grew out of a 2005 operation targeting eight Mexican labs that were responsible for 80 percent of America's underground steroid trade. Several large Chinese factories had been supplying the Mexican labs. When the Mexican labs were closed in what came to be known as "Operation Gear Grinder," those Chinese factories redirected their pipeline to the U.S.
"We came to find that 99.9 percent of the steroids in the U.S. were coming from China," Simmons said.
Drug agents in Mexico, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Thailand cooperated in the Raw Deal probe, setting up shell companies to order the raw materials. They also focused on the makers of kits that help underground drugmakers turn raw materials into sellable drugs.
"This wasn't us going after one organization," said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman in Washington, D.C. "We went after lots of little cells. There's no one ringleader."
In Westbury, N.Y., the DEA raided the home of an unidentified 38-year-old resident who had boxes of Chinese steroid powder stacked in his garage beside a shiny white Corvette. Agents carted away an estimated 800,000 doses of steroids from the Long Island home, which was described as newly renovated with flat-screen TVs in every room. A lab in the Midwest was so coated with steroid powder that agents said they created footprints in the living room when they entered.
"We want 17-year-olds to know that the stuff they're buying on the Internet isn't what they think," Payne said. "A lot of the time, what they're putting in their body has been mixed in someone's dirty kitchen sink."
In a tragic turn, the subject of another raid in the New York area committed suicide last week after being arraigned on charges of conspiracy and money laundering, according to a law enforcement source familiar with the death. No further information was immediately available.
Agents take away an unidentified suspect charged with running an underground steroid lab in New York. It is unclear what impact the case will have in China, where the Chinese government is preparing for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Already reeling from a series of food and drug scandals that led to the execution of the head of its state Food and Drug Administration earlier this year, the government has promised the cleanest Olympic Games in history. But it is also keenly aware that performance-enhancing drugs are a source of great profit. The World Anti-Doping Administration estimates that Chinese factories are responsible for as much as 70-80 percent of a $600 million black market in human growth hormone, or up to $480 million worldwide, annually.
Simmons said he and other agents traveled to Beijing to brief their Chinese counterparts in February and handed over information on 10 labs. Since then, he said, the DEA has received information about only one of those 10 being closed. The government reportedly has floated several reform proposals, including banning steroids in pharmacies around Beijing and lowering export quotas to stem the flow of steroids and HGH. But so far, no definitive steps appear to have been taken.
"We're keeping the Chinese in the loop and asking them to do the same," Simmons said.
The DEA is particularly eager to stem the flow of Chinese HGH, which is not approved for sale in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration. Because it often sells illegally for one-third the price of approved brands, Chinese-made growth hormone is proving irresistible for anti-aging clinics and pharmacies that specialize in making generic drugs.
Among the items seized in a Long Island raid is this box, thought to contain raw steroid powder sent from China.In a separate probe, the Albany, N.Y., district attorney has indicted more than two dozen doctors and pharmacists for running bogus prescription mills for HGH and, in so doing, has helped reveal the widespread use of HGH in sports. St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Rick Ankiel and New England Patriots defensive back Rodney Harrison are among those who have acknowledged getting prescriptions from the main pharmacy in the Albany case, Signature of Orlando. Ankiel insists he received a legitimate prescription while rehabbing from elbow surgery in 2004.
Albany prosecutors have met with officials from Major League Baseball and the NFL, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has remarked that he has no reason to believe any other player will be linked to HGH. But the existence of a separate, and much larger, roster of names in Operation Raw Deal is certain to create a new round of concern.
Simmons said the DEA intends to share the Raw Deal names with other law enforcement agencies and Congress. He also said the agency expects to be making arrests based on the evidence for months, if not years.
"In Gear Grinder, we didn't target the end user," he said. "Now, we have investigative leads everywhere."
News conferences about the operation are scheduled for Monday in Kansas City, Mo.; Providence, R.I.; San Diego; Houston; and New York.
Shaun Assael is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also the co-author of "Sex, Lies, and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment," which is available here. His second book, "Steroid Nation," will be released in October.