Biogenesis Just Hints at Florida's Anti-Aging Catastrophe

Outside a $600,000 Coconut Grove condo, the pool glittered blue in the afternoon sunlight and tennis balls popped off a green asphalt court. Inside, a tornado hit. Sharon Cohen watched her heavily tattooed Spanish husband, Alvaro, slam his head over and over against a TV set.

She'd recently filed for divorce, and when she refused Alvaro's demands to sign paperwork to help him stay in the country, he'd flipped, yelling and attacking the TV. Then, suddenly, he grabbed a kitchen knife from the counter. He rounded on Sharon, who screamed and sprinted into the laundry room. Alvaro followed, bellowing. As he backed her into a corner, he held the knife to her throat and punched her again and again in the stomach. "I'm going to kill you if you don't do what I say!" he hollered.

Sharon Cohen, a short, beautiful 44-year-old, couldn't believe it had come to this. But she knew exactly where it had started: three years earlier, with the couple's visit to a charismatic anti-aging doctor in South Miami. Alvaro had bought steroids, abused them, and become impotent. Now she barely recognized him.

"My husband became isolated, hostile, and violent," Sharon told state investigators two years later. "He lost his sex drive and blamed me for it."

Today, the doctor Sharon blames is internationally famous. Sham physician Tony Bosch's face has been plastered across newspapers and ESPN updates ever since a January Miami New Times investigation revealed that his Coral Gables clinic, Biogenesis, was selling performance-enhancing drugs to professional athletes, including superstar Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez. This summer, Major League Baseball suspended 14 players — including A-Rod for a record 211 games — over their ties to Bosch. It was the single biggest round of drug suspensions in American professional sports.

Sharon Cohen's story of love turned violent shows that millionaire ballplayers weren't the only ones whose lives Bosch destroyed. Hundreds of ordinary clients were also his victims.

Her tale also illustrates the dangers of lax regulation in Florida, where the underfunded, dysfunctional state Department of Health has for years allowed clinics such as Biogenesis to sell restricted, potentially dangerous drugs to just about anyone willing to pay cash.

Though the DOH investigated Bosch's clinic in 2009 and again in 2011, the agency took no action. And that's par for the course. A three-month New Times investigation has found the department's enforcement bureau — the only state agency chartered to go after both charlatans like Bosch and real doctors and pharmacies who abuse their power — is systemically flawed and has been castrated under Gov. Rick Scott.

Among the specific findings:

• In the past four years, the DOH has referred 206 cases of unlicensed practitioners like Bosch to law enforcement agencies. Those cases have resulted in only four convictions.

• Less than half of the $610,175 in penalties levied by the bureau in that time has been paid.

• In just the past three months, more than a half-dozen experienced agents and supervisors in the Bureau of Enforcement's unlicensed activity program have quit or transferred out. At one point, there were five investigators for the entire state, including one for Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

• Budget cuts and mismanagement have left agents without readily available unmarked cars and access to vital prescription databases, poisoning a work environment in which supervisors discourage pursuit of criminal charges.

• Multiple clinics and pharmacies are owned by or closely tied to felons arrested for everything from burglaries to DUIs to the illegal sales of anabolic steroids.

• Perhaps most significantly, clinics busted in the past for selling drugs to athletes have quickly and quietly reopened.

As a result, Florida now has 549 anti-aging clinics, the most in the nation. "We need to apply the same kind of rules and regulations that we're currently applying to pain clinics to these operations," says Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat. "Felons should not be allowed to operate these clinics and they should be open to inspection by the state... This needs to become a priority in Tallahassee."

When Alisa Jaffe first met Brian Yusem, he told her everything she wanted to hear. Jaffe had recently turned 45, worked a high-stress job as a financial adviser, and was feeling worn down.

Yusem, a buff man in his late 50s with dark, wavy hair, promised to fix all of that with science. His Boca Raton clinic, Maxim Life, claimed to work miracles. "We don't treat symptoms," Yusem wrote on his website. "We go to the underlying problem that is the cause of the symptoms and eliminate it."

After a round of blood tests, Yusem concluded Jaffe's hormones and nutrition were out of whack. She needed a two-year program of body cleanses and drugs, including thyroid medication. "It sounded like an interesting program," she later told Health News Florida. "It certainly was a good sales job."

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Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink