Kazkal Posted February 27, 2007 Report Share Posted February 27, 2007 timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=566985&category=&BCCode=HOME&newsdate=2/27/2007&TextPage=1Albany DA raids Fla. steroids centerYearlong investigation of Internet drug sales may expose use by pro athletesBy BRENDAN J. LYONS, Senior writerClick byline for more stories by writer.Last updated: 1:44 p.m., Tuesday, February 27, 2007Copyright © Times UnionORLANDO, Fla. -- A downtown pharmacy was raided by a law enforcement task force on Tuesday, the climax of a large New York state grand jury investigation into Internet drug sales that could expose widespread illicit steroid use by professional athletes and thousands of people across the nation.The unprecedented inquiry, led by Albany County's district attorney, has taken New York narcotics agents and an Orlando-based federal task force deep inside a maze of shadowy pharmacies and Web sites that have reaped millions of dollars in profit by allegedly exploiting federal and state prescription laws, according to court records.More than two dozen doctors, pharmacists and business owners have been, or will be, arrested in the coming days in Alabama, Texas, Florida and New York on sealed indictments charging them with various felonies for unlawfully distributing steroids and other controlled substances, records show.The Times Union has learned that investigators in the year-old case, which has been kept quiet until now, uncovered evidence that testosterone and other performance-enhancing drugs may have been fraudulently prescribed over the Internet to current and former Major League Baseball players, National Football League players, college athletes, high school coaches, and a former Mr. Olympia champion and another top contender in the bodybuilding competition.The customers include Los Angeles Angels center fielder Gary Matthews Jr., according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.Sources also said investigators from the New York Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, which is part of the state Department of Health, recently interviewed a top physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers about his alleged purchase last year of roughly $150,000 of testosterone and human growth hormone.In the past several years, Internet-based pharmacies have become the new drug delivery system for tens of thousands of customers nationwide, displacing smugglers, overseas mail-order companies and so-called ``gym rat'' dealers who sell steroids from the trunks of their cars, according to state and federal investigators.Tuesday's raid of Signature Pharmacy, an Orlando business that did an estimated $36 million in business last year, could expose a long list of sports figures, celebrities and others who have turned to Internet pharmacies for illegal drugs such as steroids, authorities said.``I don't know the names of a lot of the athletes,'' Lt. Carl Metzger, commander of the Orlando Metropolitan Bureau of Enforcement, said outside Tuesday's raid.``This is a criminal investigation, not an administative investigation,'' Metzger told a gaggle of TV reporters, who had hurried to the scene. ``I think that some of their business was legitimate,'' he said, adding that ``much of it was illegal.''In a press release, Orlando police said the raid was targeting steroids and human growth hormone. ``People forget about the damage steroids can cause,'' Metzger said. ``It goes all the way down to the high school level.''Albany County District Attorney David Soares said his office pursued the case, in part, because New York has some of the strictest prescription drug laws in the country. In addition, Signature Pharmacy last year did an estimated $10 million in business in New York, he said.Soares said his critics will probably question why a local New York prosecutor is pursuing the case.``We're arresting young men on street corners every day for selling drugs,'' he said. ``Signature did $30 million last year ... $250,000 in Albany County.''Corruption in the Internet pharmaceutical industry, which has received lax oversight from federal authorities, has been organized and systemic, prompting Congressional hearings on the issue and a crackdown in recent months by federal agencies.Some companies have enlisted unethical doctors who blindly write prescriptions for as little as $25 each, giving pharmacies the authorization they need to dole out thousands of illegal prescriptions, according to court documents filed in Albany and in a related federal case in Rhode Island.Customers usually have to pay high retail prices for their drugs, in part because many purchasers avoid seeking reimbursement from insurance carriers to avoid detection. Mostly, they use cash, checks and credit cards to pay for the drugs.Some federal agents have complained that until recently the Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal agencies had rarely filed criminal charges in such cases. Instead, they were content to revoke the operating permits of pharmacies that have doled out controlled substances, including addictive painkillers, to customers who have not been properly evaluated by a physician.In part, an agent said, the unwillingness to prosecute the cases criminally has been a result of federal prosecutors in certain areas of the country being reluctant to take on the complex and time-consuming investigations.While cases involving heroin, cocaine and other addictive street drugs receive enormous federal resources, law enforcement has been slow to catch on to the Internet pharmacies practices, said the agent, who spoke on condition he not be identified.In New York, investigators have interviewed numerous suspected steroids buyers, including physicians who prescribed or bought large quantities, an Albany narcotics detective, a top Mr. Olympia bodybuilder and the host of a popular cable television program, sources said.Last month, a New York investigator who has been tracking suspicious purchases from Signature Pharmacy flew to Pittsburgh to interview a top physician for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers about why he allegedly used a personal credit card to purchase roughly $150,000 in testosterone and human growth hormone in 2006.The physician, Richard A. Rydze, who won a silver medal in platform diving in the 1972 Olympics, told the investigator the drugs were for his private patients, according to a person briefed on the interview. Rydze is an internist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He also is a consulting physician for the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration.There are no allegations Rydze violated any laws. Many doctors are allowed under Pennsylvania rules to order and dispense prescription drugs. But investigators in New York said his orders of testosterone piqued their interest because of the large volume, his position with an NFL team and because he allegedly used a personal credit card.``The doctors pretty much have reign to do anything they want,'' said Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.But Catizone, who has served as an expert witness for the DEA and other law enforcement agencies in criminal trials, said the credit card purchases raised questions.``I've never seen a doctor pull out his or her own credit card ... it just doesn't make sense,'' Catizone said. ``Unless you are trying to build frequent-flyer miles on a credit card, I'm not sure why they'd be using a personal credit card.''Rydze and two spokesmen for the Steelers' organization declined repeated requests for comment over the past two weeks. Pennsylvania state medical board officials also declined to comment.The retail value of the drugs allegedly purchased by Rydze, who tends to Steelers' players during their home and away games, is about $750,000, according to an investigator in the case.In a related case in Mobile, Ala., two owners of Applied Pharmacy Services have been indicted by an Albany County grand jury. Their customer list allegedly includes former professional boxer and heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield, Los Angeles Angels centerfielder Gary Matthews Jr., and retired baseball star Jose Canseco, an admitted steroid user.A law enforcement source involved in that investigation said authorities have not identified what types of products allegedly were ordered by Matthews or Holyfield, whom they said used the name ``Evan Fields'' when placing orders.Still, the other high-profile customers represent just a fraction of pharmacies' business, which law enforcement authorities said is centered largely on dispensing performance-enhancing drugs.The Orlando pharmacy is owned and operated by a Florida couple, Stan and Naomi Loomis, who are both licensed pharmacists. In 2002, the company reported revenue of about $500,000. Then, driven by a booming Internet prescription market, and the referral business Signature received from various Web sites, revenue topped $35 million last year, authorities in the case said.Among Signature's customers was Jason Grimsley, the former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher who left baseball last year after mail-order steroids were seized at his Scottsdale home by federal agents from San Francisco involved in an ongoing investigation targeting steroid use in professional sports. Grimsley has not been charged with any crimes, but federal agents said he told them about widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by Major League Baseball players.In an affidavit from a federal agent who questioned Grimsley, the agent said Grimsley claimed another player, later identified in an ESPN report as former Baltimore Orioles first baseman David Segui, had advised Grimsley how to obtain human growth hormone from a ``wellness center'' in Florida.But authorities said they believe Signature's steroid and human growth hormone customers extend beyond baseball to other sports.During surveillance of the pharmacy last year, investigators said they saw a Philadelphia Eagles football player enter the pharmacy, though they are not certain why he was there. They also identified a member of the Washington Redskins as being a Signature customer, according to an agent in the case.The pharmacy is located in a two-story, $3.2 million facility on Kuhl Avenue in the heart of Orlando. It contains a small retail store that sells mostly bodybuilding supplements, a high-tech drug-manufacturing laboratory and executive offices on the second floor. A mix of federal and state agents spent Tuesday removing computers and records from Signature's offices.In the past year, investigators have closely monitored the business with wiretaps. An Orlando investigator also has sifted through the pharmacy's discarded records, removing customer lists and other records, sources in the case said.People expected to be arrested Tuesday were to be arraigned on sealed felony indictments in New York. They will face extradition hearings over the next several days unless they waive those hearings and agree to appear in Albany on the charges, authorities said.Brendan J. Lyons can be reached at 454-5547 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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