The Muscle Men
Grass doesn't get any greener than on major-league baseball's spring training fields. It's the annual dawn of each season, when vivacious young hopefuls play catch with millionaire all-stars. That was the scene on a February morning at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, spring training home of the St. Louis Cardinals. Dozens of players who likely will never play an inning of a meaningful game in the big leagues struggled to impress assistant coaches in fielding drills and batting practice — perhaps their only chance to wear the famed Cardinal red. Fans relaxed in the spring air. Parents and grandparents ate hot dogs and sipped beer as children in ball caps clung to the chain-link fence, begging for fragments of broken bats or old balls, calling their heroes by name: "There's Troy Glaus!" "Hey, Pujols! Albert Pujols!"
When Pujols — the most popular Cardinal — was done taking batting practice, fans wanted to know where the second most popular player was. He was the best story in sports in 2007, the man people compared to Robert Redford's character in The Natural. Where was Rick Ankiel?
Still, there were enough sights and smells to satiate even the most curious children and autograph seekers. There was even a tiny St. Louis fan who played a resident of Munchkinland in The Wizard of Oz telling stories by the bleachers.
One year ago, this citadel of major-league baseball wasn't so serene. Investigators contend that South Florida is not just a popular spring training destination but also the epicenter of a nationwide network distributing illicit prescription steroids and human growth hormones.
Officers were assembling in a parking lot a few miles away in the commercial area of this wealthy retirement and golfing town. Federal agents brought a battering ram when they raided the quiet third-floor offices. They hauled out computers, file cabinets, bins of papers. The sign in front of the building said "Anti-aging clinic," but the name of the business was Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center. A line of employees — mostly muscular young men — exited the building while PBRC owners spoke with agents inside. Officers also carried out packages of stanozolol, a synthetic anabolic steroid; and cartridges of Genotropin, the brand name for synthetically produced human growth hormone.
The raids were a result of a joint investigation initiated by the Albany County District Attorney's Office in New York state. Deemed "Operation Which Doctor," it included the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the IRS, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the New York State Bureau of Investigation. Albany D.A. David Soares was, at that very moment, at a simultaneous raid of Signature Pharmacy in Orlando. More agents were raiding Infinity Rejuvenation in Deerfield Beach and Oasis Longevity & Rejuvenation in Delray Beach, along with other "anti-aging clinics" in Texas and New York. The raids brought about more than a dozen arrests and seizures of truckloads of customer records.
Former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) released a report to Bud Selig, commissioner of major-league baseball, last December detailing the illegal use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs by players. The Mitchell Report, which followed more than a year and a half of investigation and cost $60 million to produce, said rejuvenation centers like PBRC "troll the internet for customers, corrupt physicians who write prescriptions for patients they have not seen, and compounding pharmacies [which make drugs from raw ingredients] that fill these dubious prescriptions and deliver performance enhancing substances to end users by mail." The report describes allegations about Roger Clemens and the widespread steroid dealings of former New York Mets batboy Kirk Radomski but says, "As serious as Kirk Radomski's illegal distribution network was before it was shut down by federal agents, the threat to baseball posed by illegal sales of performance enhancing substances over the internet is greater."
District Attorney Soares' office claims these businesses were no more than boiler rooms or call centers set up to streamline illegal drug sales over the internet by connecting — through cyberspace only — crooked doctors with the most desperate players in the game. Star players like Clemens and Barry Bonds have personal trainers to procure their drugs (allegedly), but patrons of these rejuvenation centers are young athletes striving to make it onto a major-league roster or journeyman veterans willing to do anything to extend their careers another year. They're pro athletes, but most are far from household names: Paul Byrd, Jay Gibbons, Jose Guillen, Darren Holmes, Ismael Valdez, Steve Woodward, and Jupiter's own Rick Ankiel, all of whom, the report claims, purchased HGH and prescription drugs from South Florida rejuvenation centers.
At a time when the steroids issue so pervades sports and prescription drugs inundate our culture, many see an operation like this and shake their heads. Fans want to see men with bigger chests and arms hit baseballs harder and farther. They want to see towering pitchers well into their 40s burn fastballs past men half their age. Ticket prices are up. Attendance is up (except at Marlins games). Television revenues are up.
Athletes make personal sacrifices, but even if they don't get paid millions of dollars, they get to play a game for a living.
So desensitized are we to steroid talk and hearings that new news seems like old news. Many fans would rather not hear about the latest players linked to clinics or dirty clubhouse assistants. These fans wonder, "Who's the victim?"
The first time he got the package in the mail, he wasn't sure what to do with it. "There were a bunch of little bottles of liquid and syringes," he says. "Each stack had six or seven different things in it. Growth hormone, testosterone, muscle builder, stuff to balance it all out. It was more complicated than I expected."
He is a minor-league baseball player we'll call J. He is exactly the kind of client the rejuvenation centers were built for, according to investigators. He received drugs from Signature Pharmacy at least three times. His name appears on records seized from Signature during the raid but has not been disclosed publicly or, to his knowledge, to his team. Last month, at his apartment in Palm Beach County, he agreed to discuss his steroid use on the condition of anonymity.
J says he paid about $1,000 per stack. A "stack" is a combination of steroids and HGH that comes as a package. It's generally used for a one-month workout cycle. When his first stack arrived, he says, he called a number he had for Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center to figure out how to use it. "I didn't want to inject the wrong thing — this into that or in the wrong order or whatever, and have something bad happen." The conversation was awkward initially, but he got the information he needed.
Near the television in his apartment, J has a photo of himself and two friends posing in a weight room. He was a late-round draft pick out of high school only a few years ago. The signing bonus offered to him was less than $100,000, but it was enough for him to decide to forgo college (and scholarship eligibility) and move straight into rookie-league ball, the bottom of the minor leagues. He had mild success his first season but got hurt halfway through. He was injured again early into his second season.
"That's when I started thinking of ways to heal faster," J said. "By then, everyone was talking about how HGH can get you healthy and strong again fast."
He says he didn't want to risk bringing up the topic of buying the substances around the clubhouse — "too risky if someone doesn't like you or something," he says. Instead, he went to his computer to Google. He typed in H-G-H. There, near the top of the sites Google found, was a link to Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center. The site advertised more muscle mass, less fat, more strength, more stamina, more (and better) sex, and no unwanted side effects. J filled out a page saying he wanted more information about the uses of human growth hormone. He entered his phone number.
A representative from PBRC called him the next day, J says. "He talked a little about how safe it was and how it can fight off aging." He says he told the man he wanted to heal quickly and get stronger. "He said something about better sex, like trying to tell me that was the right thing to call it." J says he read his credit-card number over the phone. The representative told him he would need to have blood work sent in. He went to a doctor the next day and said he needed work done for a physical.
Within two weeks of his first visit to the website, J was opening up his first stack. He says he doesn't remember the name of the prescribing doctor on the label, but "I had never heard the guy's name before."
Each stack came with several vials of liquid and syringes. The liquids were synthetic human growth hormone protein and stanozolol, an anabolic steroid that sometimes goes by the brand name Winstrol, along with other testosterone boosters. The packages also came with two bottles of pills: clomiphene citrate, a female infertility drug steroid users employ to counteract estrogen buildup, and anastrozole, a breast-cancer drug that blocks water retention.
Doctors believe that the combination of HGH and steroids is so popular among athletes because HGH helps the muscles get bigger and the anabolic steroids then make the bigger muscles stronger. "Guys would sometimes talk about HGH being a last resort because it actually makes your body grow," J said. "It's not like a monster or anything or like the head-swelling stuff you hear about Barry Bonds. It's just noticing your glove is a little tight, so it's just time to buy a new glove."
Odd growth is just one of the side effects of HGH on FDA lists. Long-term dangers include nerve pain, elevated cholesterol and glucose levels, and an increased risk of cancer — growth hormone makes everything on the body grow, the logic goes, especially tumors. Side effects of steroid use can include testicular atrophy, back acne, and psychological instability.
Even if J had met with a physician, a better sex life is still not one of the FDA-approved reasons to prescribe HGH. In a 2004 import alert, the FDA detailed the dangers of HGH, specifically the unregulated raw HGH coming in illegally from China. This cheaper product is especially popular, the alert says, among compounding pharmacies. The FDA says the only acceptable conditions for which HGH should be prescribed are exceedingly rare: hormone deficiency in children that causes short stature, short stature associated with Turner's syndrome, adult deficiency due to rare pituitary tumors, and muscle wasting associated with HIV/AIDS. Not bad sex. Not bigger muscles. Not baseball injuries.
Albany prosecutors say the type of operation PBRC was running appeals to tech-savvy young athletes who might not even know the damage they're doing to their bodies.
J says he believed he was making an investment in his future. He says he was desperate to maintain his lifestyle. Even if it was a poor existence as a minor-leaguer, it was all he knew.
"I've never had a real job that wasn't playing ball," he said. "If I decide I'm done with this, I might as well start working on a boat somewhere or mowing lawns."
Before she was the first physician to plead guilty in the Albany investigation, Dr. Ana Maria Santi was a popular doctor. A native of Poland, Santi, who is 69, survived the Holocaust there. Her father resisted Hitler's soldiers, hiding guns in the girl's bed to escape detection during Nazi searches. From Poland, she moved to Argentina and attended medical school. From there, she moved to the United States, settling in Queens, New York, and working as an anesthesiologist.
In New York, her life began to spin out of control. In 1990, her medical license was suspended for one year and she was sent to rehab after she admitted practicing medicine under the influence of alcohol. In 1999, her license was permanently revoked for the same thing. Records show that witnesses saw her consume alcohol while working. After losing her license, she continued to work in a doctor's office, though not as a physician.
By 2005, records show that Santi, who has described herself in court as an alcoholic, had discovered a new source of income. Working out of her home and from local copy stores, Santi began signing prescriptions sent to her from Oasis Longevity & Rejuvenation Center in Delray Beach. Despite the fact that her license and DEA number had been revoked, prosecutors say Santi wrote more than $150,000 worth of prescriptions for Oasis between January 2005 and September 2006 without ever seeing a patient face to face. She was paid $25 per prescription.
Instead of signing her own name and using her defunct DEA number, Santi assumed the identity (and DEA number) of Dr. Abdul Almarashi, a former colleague. She signed prescriptions: "A. Almarashi." Santi was signing off on thousands of prescriptions being filled by both Signature and Applied Pharmacy, another compounding pharmacy under investigation in Alabama. She made $7,500 a week, authorities say. During that time Almarashi lived in a nursing home in San Diego.
Even after Applied was raided in 2006 and investigators confronted her with evidence of her crimes, Santi did not stop signing bogus prescriptions. When she was arraigned last year, the Times Union in Albany reported Santi was asleep in her jail jumpsuit, curled up on a bench in the courthouse.
Santi pleaded guilty to criminal diversion of prescription medications, a class D felony. When she was sentenced in January, she told Albany County Judge Stephen Herrick that she was sorry for everything she had done. He cited the audacity of her prescription approval even after being confronted by authorities. She was sentenced to three to six years in prison.
The investigation that snared Santi began four years earlier as a combination of happenstance and good detective work, says Albany County District Attorney spokeswoman Heather Orth. "New York State has one of the best prescription screening processes in the country. [New York's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement investigators] started noticing a doctor, David Stephenson, signing off on way too many scripts, and most of them were for steroids." Stephenson ran a website selling narcotics and steroids out of his upstate New York home. "It became clear that the number of prescriptions he was signing was more than the number of patients he saw," Orth said, "and signing a prescription without a face-to-face meeting is illegal in New York."
In 2004, an investigator placed an order through Stephenson's website, www.docstat.com, requesting methadone, hydrocodone, Ritalin, and testosterone. The investigator said he was an overweight pilot addicted to alcohol and heroin and needed the prescriptions because "I want to get high to fly." The drugs arrived in the mail a few days later.
Stephenson pleaded guilty to criminal sale of a controlled substance, but prosecutors say they realized they had just pricked the surface of a network more complicated than the infield-fly rule. Stephenson was a small player in what investigators learned was an internet-based black market making steroids and human growth hormone available to everyone from wily geriatrics looking for better sex to teenaged athletes with credit cards who heard their favorite pros talking about the healing effects.
"It became clear that there was a network — doctors, so-called rejuvenation clinics, pharmacies — and they were making controlled substances available illegally; that's what it all boils down to," Orth said. "Doctors have made a conscious effort to part ways with their oaths."
Mark Haskins, a senior investigator with the New York Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, wanted to know more about where the prescriptions were coming from. In 2006, he went undercover in cyberspace. When informed of the operation, the Florida Department of Health provided Haskins a medical license and drug-prescribing number. Haskins created a bogus résumé full of degrees and fished it out over the internet. He created a website and company name — NuLife HRT, which he said was based in Albany. He used the address of a county office building.
Soon, he had a bite with Oasis Longevity. In court documents, Haskins says he negotiated a price of $50 per prescription, twice what Santi was getting. Offers from other clinics were being faxed to the number Haskins provided, which led to the prosecutor's office. Then Oasis began mailing him prewritten prescriptions they expected him to sign, all of them for steroids.
The investigation also netted other doctors. One was a dentist in Florida whose license had been revoked for incompetence. Another was Dr. Claire Godfrey, an obstetrician and former beauty queen from Florida in her mid-30s. Godfrey pleaded guilty to the same felony charge as Santi and was sentenced to five years of probation. She was involved with Infinity Rejuvenation in Deerfield Beach, and her name appeared on about $1.3 million worth of prescriptions in the six months before her arrest, most of which were filled by Signature. Prosecutors say Godfrey was recorded during surveillance of Signature asking if she would be paid all the money owed to her. She was concerned some scripts may have been stamped with her name without her knowing — and she wanted to make sure she would be paid for all of them. In the two years before her arrest, Godfrey was paid more than $200,000 for her prescription signing.
Dr. Robert Carlson of Sarasota had a successful practice before prosecutors say he got involved with Signature. A heart surgeon, Carlson was featured on local news shows because of his cutting-edge surgical techniques. An Eagle Scout, Carlson is an incredibly young-looking 51. The mansion he shares with his third wife, Julie, is valued at nearly $3 million, and he has a stable of horses on his property.
In 2002, Carlson was preaching the miracles of treatments using "bioidentical hormones" or "hormone balancing." On his website and in lectures, Carlson, who did not respond to repeated phone messages from New Times, told prospective patients how human growth hormone can fight the effects of aging. He said it can help you lose weight, get stronger, build muscle definition, and enhance your sex life, and he was living proof: a youthful, energetic, attractive, two-time Ironman.
By the end of that year, Carlson bought into a business with Julie's brother, Joseph Raich. Glenn Stephanos, an acquaintance of Raich's, was the third partner, and Glenn's older brother, George, was the marketing director. They chose a name that sounded tropical, soothing. They decided on Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center.
The idea, prosecutors allege, was to create a profitable pipeline for steroids and human growth hormone. Carlson could take advantage of his good name and stamp the prescriptions, for which he would be paid $5,000 a week. Signature could take advantage of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and make the drugs themselves, often from raw ingredients originating in China and not approved by the FDA. Then Raich and the Stephanos brothers needed only to drum up potential HGH consumers, taking advantage of the most powerful (black-)marketing tool ever: the cavernous anonymity of the world wide web.
Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center started advertising by the end of 2002, not long after Signature Pharmacy went into business. Earlier that year, the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal for compounding pharmacies to advertise. Compounding pharmacies manufacture prescription drugs from raw ingredients in their own labs instead of reselling FDA-approved substances. The ruling legalized businesses like Signature and created what is now an estimated $2 billion industry. As the court saw it, compounding pharmacies were necessary to fill specific prescriptions larger pharmacies couldn't, for patients with particular allergies, for example.
The Mitchell Report mentions that Signature owned a lypholizer, a vacuum freeze dryer that can convert a single gram of raw HGH into thousands of doses — the way an internet business can turn a few drug purchasers into thousands or a few dollars into millions. In 2002, Signature did about $500,000 worth of business. In 2006, prosecutors say, the pharmacy made an estimated $40 million.
The Stephanos brothers grew up in Beverly, Massachusetts. Glenn, 52, married and moved to Palm Beach when he was young. George, 59, lived in New York and New Jersey much of his adult life. According to the Gloucester Times, George was on Beverly High's undefeated football team in 1964, and Glenn was captain of the basketball team when he graduated in 1974.
Glenn married the daughter of Otto DiVosta, a wealthy home builder. George ran a nightclub in Manhattan called Rascals. In 1992, he was sued by an insurance company after they accused him of beating a man at the club. Both brothers are tall, with Tarzan builds, strong chins, and long, flowing hair.
Joseph Raich, a muscular 45-year-old, is from a family that has lived in Palm Beach for several generations. He is known as a youth wrestling booster who has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the sport.
They went into business in office space on Indiantown Road in Jupiter, a mile or so from the beach. All three men own property near the light-green building. It was this space that, authorities say, became the call center that dealt with customers like J.
PBRC began canvassing the internet and placing ads in bodybuilding publications. Like thousands of other new businesses storming the internet in the early part of the decade, they advertised the wonders of hormones. Broad-shouldered spokesmen appeared on television singing the praises of the drugs. The real-life fountain of youth, they called it: lean looks, happy feelings, and they never failed to mention the potential for better sex. The implication was clear: The drugs make everything grow. They called themselves anti-aging clinics, and, prosecutors say, they existed solely as an online marketplace.
A single HGH dose might cost a consumer $150 or more. That same dose, investigators say, cost PBRC about $18 and cost Signature about $4.
They were successful businessmen, all with large houses within minutes of the office. Glenn lives in a country club community, between the ocean and a golf course. Raich owns a peach-colored mansion down the road, with wide double doors in the front and an immaculate balcony overlooking a large pool. Raich has another property in Palm Beach, with a professional chef and an indoor gym.
In 2004, the U.S. Olympic wrestling team stayed at Raich's house. They reportedly threw down mats and practiced in his gym. The U.S. Olympic Committee did not return phone calls regarding Raich, but last year, Gary Abbott, director of communications for USA Wrestling, told the New York Times, "We only know him as a wrestling leader in Florida, and we are not aware of his business dealings." Raich also did not return calls.
When the Jupiter office was raided, Raich's wrestling connections became a problem. The Florida High School Athletic Association began investigating Jupiter Christian's wrestling program, which in 2006 became the smallest school to win a state wrestling championship. Raich had been a longtime booster of Jupiter Christian's and reportedly had wrestlers living at his house at some point. Chris Ruh, son of Jupiter Christian wrestling coach Robin Ruh, was an employee of PBRC. Agents found HGH and steroids in Chris Ruh's desk as well as Raich's. Robin Ruh resigned four months later.
Raich told the Palm Beach Post, "Absolutely, positively, never, ever was any student at Jupiter Christian or any other high school anywhere given any performance-enhancing substance by me or anyone associated with me."
The FHSAA did not find evidence of students using HGH or steroids from PBRC. Jupiter Christian agreed to distance itself from Raich. Raich also sold his portion of PBRC to Glenn Stephanos, a deal the Stephanos defense teams says was in the works before the raid.
In July, a woman named Sara Jiminez of Palm Beach Gardens filed a sexual-harassment suit against Raich and Glenn Stephanos. The suit alleges that both men made unwanted sexual advances while she worked at PBRC and that when Jiminez questioned the legality of PBRC's business, she was fired.
Less than a week after the suit was filed, Raich pleaded guilty in Albany to one count of conspiracy in the fourth degree, a class E felony. He was ordered to pay $200,000 to the Albany County D.A. and agreed to testify against the Stephanos brothers and the Signature owners. He was also sentenced to four years of probation.
A source close to Raich's family says he was dealing with personal problems at the time of the plea and didn't want to deal with the Albany case hanging over his head any longer. Three weeks after Raich pleaded, Carlson, his brother-in-law, followed suit.
When Carlson was arraigned in Albany the week of the raids, his attorney, Charles R. Holloman of Ocala, began the defense in the media by telling anyone who would listen that his client received bad legal advice. Carlson had been led astray, they said, and they even had the name of the culprit — Rick Collins, a New York attorney, former amateur bodybuilder, and author of a book about steroids called Legal Muscle. His client was shocked by the charges, Holloman told the Palm Beach Post. "It was like walking down a street and a safe falls out of the third floor of a building on your head," he said after Carlson was charged with seven felony counts. "It's a screw-up of galactic proportions. By greed or neglect or sloppy record-keeping or all of those."
Carlson and the owners of Signature had been told, defense attorneys claimed, that if patients had blood work done and sent to the approving doctor, the prescriptions would be legal, even without the face-to-face meeting.
Collins then sent an open letter to the editor of the Times Union defending himself and his legal advice. "My firm has always made clear to our clients that the current law does not permit anabolic steroids to be prescribed for other than a legitimate medical purpose and within the usual course of professional practice in a valid physician-patient relationship," he wrote. "My stance has been critical of certain laws regarding anabolic steroid use by mature adults under the supervision of knowledgeable physicians. I have condemned steroid abuse by teenagers... [and] by cheating competitive athletes."
Signature defense attorneys in Florida and New York told the press that it was not the responsibility of the pharmacy to make sure the doctor had the required proper relationship with the patients.
In August, Carlson pleaded guilty to one count of insurance fraud, a class E felony. He agreed to testify against Signature owners and anyone involved with PBRC who doesn't plead guilty. Under the agreement, Carlson must pay $300,000 to the District Attorney's Office and will probably be able to continue practicing in Florida.
"Carlson could have gotten some bad legal advice the second time," said David Holland, a New York-based attorney defending the Stephanos brothers. Neither Glenn nor George Stephanos returned phone calls. "He didn't have to plea," Holland said. "As this case unfolds, we'll see this is more about the cutting edge of medicine and technology — if it ever goes to trial, which it honestly might not because there are so many holes in the prosecution's case."
The prosecution says establishments like PBRC are operations that began without ever intending to provide legal services. Both Stephanos brothers, along with the heads of Signature — owners Robert Stan Loomis and his wife, Naomi, and Robert's brother Kenneth Michael Loomis — are charged with enterprise corruption, a class B felony. "It's the state's version of federal racketeering charges," Orth says.
"Enterprise corruption means they're saying there was never even any intention of a legal business," Holland says. "That's just totally false."
Holland says that the PBRC case, which could go to trial by this summer, is an issue of technology and that laws haven't kept up. "What this case is really about is telemedicine," he says. "A new age of technology and doctor-patient relationships. Technology allows doctors to meet with patients over things like teleconference. This could be a landmark case in the field."
There is no evidence to suggest Carlson — or any other doctor charged in relation to Signature — met with patients via teleconference. Surveillance tapes of Signature do show that during one 60-day period in 2006, Carlson approved 3,100 prescriptions sent to the pharmacy, all of which came from PBRC. They were almost all for testosterone or HGH.
The fact that patient blood work was done for at least some patients — it's not clear what percentage — constitutes at least some relationship, the defense contends. "New York, as a state, has shown that they care about issues like telemedicine and that they are in favor of advancing the field. It's just that the laws might not have caught up to the technology," Holland claims.
Besides, Holland says, the law in New York isn't as clear as the prosecution has made it out to be. "The reputation is that New York has much stricter prescription laws, but nobody has shown us the law that specifically states a doctor must see a patient in person, face to face, every time." When asked about the specific code or what the exact wording of the law in New York is, the D.A.'s spokeswoman said she would get back to New Times but did not by presstime.
The clientele were also not the bodybuilders and pro athletes the prosecution makes them out to be, Holland says. Rather, most were men in their late 40s and 50s, often with erectile dysfunction. They were seeking confidential treatments for personal issues. (Dallas Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson has said he purchased HGH from PBRC for this reason. The NFL suspended him for five games.) And while the prosecution has suggested that upward of 10 percent of PBRC's customers were residents of New York, Holland says he thinks the number is less than 1 percent. He says prosecutors have not been forthcoming with evidence.
It's also odd, the defense says, that in a criminal enterprise case, the PBRC corporation was not indicted. And during the raids, four search warrants were issued, but only three were served. Holland says that's because authorities reported seeing what looked like "legitimate medical practices" at the fourth location, a PBRC clinic on Military Trail in Palm Beach Gardens. That facility, which is still open and operating, provides Botox cosmetics, laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, and other anti-aging treatments. Holland says as far as he knows, neither PBRC location (the clinic on Military Trail or the offices that were raided) were ever the call centers Soares likes to depict. "The Albany D.A. is raiding offices in Florida," Holland said. "He had reporters and camera crews with him. He certainly doesn't shy away from publicity."
Soares is not commenting on Operation Which Doctor right now because it is an ongoing investigation, Orth says. In September, Soares told the Times Union: "Our intention from the beginning was not to delve into this professional sports realm. It's distracting us. We want to keep the focus on the dangers presented by these internet pharmacies. We're not just talking about steroids; we're talking about other prescribed and controlled medications.
"The idea that an individual no longer has to travel to neighborhoods to purchase narcotics and can get them delivered to their door because of the computer that sits in their office or bedroom is a frightening thought."
No story was more emotional for fans than that of Rick Ankiel. In 1997, while still at Port St. Lucie High School, Ankiel was USA Today's High School Player of the Year. A hard pitcher with a deadly curveball, he was a minor-league all-star in his first season. At 20 years old, he was a big-league starter with St. Louis. He was second in the league in strikeouts per nine innings.
But in the 2000 playoffs, Ankiel lost control. He started the first game of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. The Cardinals scored six runs in the first inning, but Ankiel struggled. He escaped bad situations in the first and second innings but in the third didn't fare as well.
It was as bad as it gets in the pros: He allowed four runs on two hits, walking four batters and throwing five wild pitches before being removed with two outs. There were no physical ailments; Ankiel just couldn't throw the ball straight anymore. He was the first person since 1890 to have five wild pitches in an inning. In game two, Ankiel was pulled after only 20 pitches, five of which went past the catcher. It was an unprecedented mental breakdown.
Ankiel refused to answer questions about his problem. He slipped down the ranks of baseball until he got to the Rookie League. Eventually, he seemed to regain his control, working back up through the minors as a relief pitcher. In 2004, he was called back up to the Cardinals, where he seemed to have everything together. But that offseason, Ankiel's troubles returned. Before the 2005 season, he announced he was retiring as a pitcher and would try to make it as an outfielder.
The switch beckoned comparisons to Babe Ruth, who also began his career as a pitcher. Through that year, Ankiel batted his way up the ranks of the minors for a third time. In August 2007, like a baseball fairytale, Ankiel got another call-up to the Cardinals.
In his first at bat, he received a standing ovation from the St. Louis crowd. In the seventh inning, Ankiel hit a three-run home run that helped seal the win. Over the next month, he batted .358, with nine home runs and 29 RBI. On the night before the New York Daily News reported Ankiel was linked to a rejuvenation center in Palm Beach Gardens and had received HGH from Signature, he hit two home runs and had seven RBI. It was the single best hitting day of his career.
The report detailed HGH purchases from 2004. He told reporters at the time: "All and any medications that I have received in my career has [sic] always been under a doctor's care, a licensed physician."
The Mitchell Report chronicles the revelations. It was game seven of the American League Championship Series when news broke that Cleveland Indians pitcher (and possible starter that night) Paul Byrd purchased $25,000 worth of HGH from PBRC. Byrd had played for several teams at that point. He later told reporters he had been prescribed the drug for a pituitary tumor. Baltimore Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons received six shipments of HGH from Signature between October 2003 and July 2005. His prescriptions were signed by "A. Almarashi." Journeyman pitcher Ismael Valdez ordered $2,500 worth of HGH and had it shipped to the Texas Rangers ballpark in Arlington.
Back at the spring training fields in Jupiter, fans were discussing New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, whose news conference to discuss his use of HGH had been playing around the clock on ESPN. "Do I think I'm a cheater? I don't," Pettitte told a swarm of cameras and media members. "Because from the bottom of my heart, and God knows my heart, I know why I was doing this. Was it stupid? Yeah, it was stupid. Was I desperate? Yeah, I was probably desperate."
A warm breeze blew across the practice field as a man in the bleachers mumbled, "So many of 'em are on juice. You can't even think about it when you watch 'em."
"There should be a designated steroids-free player like they have the designated hitter," joked a man who'd brought his son to see spring training.
As for the PBRC crew, the Stephanos brothers remain out on bail. There is still no trial date set in New York; there are motions to dismiss the charges on filing technicalities pending, and a patients' rights to privacy ruling in Florida is still up in the air. The defense remains confident that if it goes to trial, this case will be a landmark in the field of telemedicine.
District Attorney Soares' office continues to pursue what it says is a vast criminal enterprise. On the D.A.'s website, www.albanycountyda.com, visitors can view a Mafia-style flow chart of Operation Which Doctor targets with headshots of the charged participants. At the top is Palm Beach Rejuvenation, and in the center is Signature Pharmacy. Over some of the pictures, like Carlson's and Raich's, are diagonal red stamps that say "Pled Guilty."
Meanwhile, Signature and PBRC are both still open for business. Though the office prosecutors say was the call center on Indiantown Road is now empty, the clinic on Military Trail in Palm Beach Gardens is still bustling, and the parking lot is full of luxury cars. The PBRC website, www.pbrcenter.com, is also still up and still implores visitors to call for a free consultation to learn more about human growth hormone.
Rick Ankiel declined New Times interview requests. In an email response, Ankiel wrote, "I would rather look forward to the upcoming season then[sic] look back. I appreciate your email and support. Rick."
At Roger Dean Stadium, as Ankiel neared the batting practice field, the calls began. "Hey, Ricky!" "Good luck this year, Rick." Ankiel gave a quick wave of acknowledgment. He stepped into the batter's box. He took four or five pitches batting lefty, then five more from the other side of the plate. Then Ankiel switched back to batting left-handed. He connected on his first pitch and zapped a line drive deep into right field. The kids gripping the fence gave him a smattering of applause.
On January 18, Ankiel signed a one-year contract with the Cardinals that will pay him $900,000. With performance-based incentives, it could be worth $1 million (still less than half of his first pitching contract). He is projected to be the starting center fielder.
By late February, J was still at his apartment — and not at spring training. He wasn't invited this year, he says, though he believes he still has some options to continue playing, "possibly outside the U.S." In the meantime, he says, he will keep working out on his own.
Asked if he still uses steroids, he said, "I'd like to say I don't."
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