Grass doesn't get any greener than on the fields of Major League Baseball spring training, when vivacious, young hopefuls play catch with millionaire all-stars. That was the scene on a February morning at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, where the Florida Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals limbered up for the season ahead. Fans relaxed in the spring air. Parents and grandparents ate hot dogs and sipped beer as children in ball caps clung to the chainlink fence, begging for fragments of broken bats or old balls.
One year ago, this area wasn't so serene. Federal agents were assembling in a parking lot a few miles away, in the commercial area of this wealthy retirement and golfing town. With a battering ram, they raided the quiet third-floor offices of the Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center (PBRC), in a dark corner of a three-story building on Indiantown Road. They hauled out computers, file cabinets, and bins of papers, as well as packages of stanozolol, a synthetic anabolic steroid, and cartridges of Genotropin, the brand name for synthetically produced human growth hormone (HGH).
The case has highlighted the region's other, far less all-American/apple-pie place in pro baseball: Investigators contend South Florida is not only a major spring training destination, but also the epicenter of a network distributing illicit prescription steroids and HGH.
HGH has made national headlines since December, thanks to former Sen. George Mitchell's report to MLB detailing the illegal use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs by its players. The Mitchell Report, the result of a year-and-a-half-long, $60-million investigation, says rejuvenation centers like PBRC "troll the Internet for customers," while corrupt physicians write prescriptions for patients they have not seen and pharmacies "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."
The February 2007 raid on PBRC resulted from a joint investigation initiated by the Albany County District Attorney's Office in New York, and included the DEA, FDA, IRS, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and New York State Bureau of Investigation. At that very moment, simultaneous raids were taking place at Signature Pharmacy in Orlando, Infinity Rejuvenation in Deerfield Beach, and Oasis Longevity and Rejuvenation in Delray Beach, along with other "antiaging clinics" in Texas and New York. The raids brought about more than a dozen arrests and seizures of truckloads of customer records.
Yet today PBRC and other Florida-based businesses remain open; indeed the PBRC clinic on Military Trail in Palm Beach Gardens is bustling and the parking lot is full of luxury cars. The company's website, www.pbrcenter.com, is still up, imploring visitors to call for a free consultation to learn more about HGH, even though the only acceptable conditions for which HGH should be prescribed are exceedingly rare: short stature associated with Turner's syndrome, hormone deficiency in children that causes short stature, adult deficiency due to rare pituitary tumors, and muscle-wasting associated with HIV/AIDS.
Investigators claim businesses like PBRC were no more than boiler rooms or call centers, set up to streamline illegal drug sales over the Internet by connecting crooked doctors with the most desperate players in the game. Their patrons were young athletes striving to make it onto a major-league roster, or journeyman veterans willing to do anything to extend their career another year. They are pro athletes, but most are far from household names: Paul Byrd, Jay Gibbons, José Guillen, Darren Holmes, Ismael Valdez, Steve Woodward, and Jupiter's own Rick Ankiel, all of whom, the Mitchell Report claims, purchased HGH from South Florida rejuvenation centers.
A Minor League Baseball player interviewed by New Times at his apartment in Palm Beach County, who spoke on condition of anonymity (we'll call him J), is exactly the kind of client the centers catered to, according to investigators.
A late-round draft pick out of high school only a few years ago, J entered professional baseball at the bottom of the minor leagues. He had mild success his first season but got hurt halfway through. He was injured again early in 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 went to his computer and Googled HGH. Near the top of the search results was the link to PBRC. The site advertised more muscle mass, less fat, more strength, more stamina, more (and better) sex, and no unwanted side effects. Within two weeks, J was opening up his first batch of drugs. 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."
J received drugs from Signature Pharmacy at least three times, paying about $1,000 for a combination of steroids and HGH generally used for a one-month workout cycle. "There were a bunch of little bottles of liquid and syringes," he said, describing the first package, which included "growth hormone, testosterone, muscle builder, stuff to balance it all out. It was more complicated than I expected." He says he called PBRC for instructions. "I didn't want to inject the wrong thing — this into that or in the wrong order or whatever, and have something bad happen."
Doctors believe the combination of HGH and steroids is popular among athletes because HGH helps the muscles get bigger and the anabolic steroids then make the muscles stronger. But the long-term dangers include nerve pain, elevated cholesterol and glucose levels, and an increased risk of cancer — growth hormone causes everything on the body to grow, the logic goes, especially tumors. Side effects of steroid use include testicular atrophy, back acne, and psychological instability.
Albany prosecutors say operations like PBRC appeal to tech-savvy young athletes who might not know the damage they are doing to their bodies.
J said 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."
The idea behind the scheme, prosecutors allege, was to create a profitable pipeline. A doctor stamped the prescriptions, for which he was paid $5,000 a week. Signature could legally make the drugs itself, often from raw ingredients originating in China and not approved by the FDA. Then PBRC simply needed to drum up potential HGH consumers, taking advantage of the most powerful (black) marketing tool ever: the cavernous anonymity of the World Wide Web.
The doctor was Robert Carlson, of Sarasota, a youthful 51-year-old heart surgeon with a successful practice before, prosecutors say, he got involved with Signature. In 2002, Carlson — who did not return repeated phone messages from New Times — bought into a business with his brother-in-law, Joseph Raich, a muscular 45-year-old whose family has lived in Palm Beach for several generations. Rounding out the team were two brothers, Glenn and George Stephanos, from the Northeast. Glenn was PBRC president, and George was the marketing director. They opened the Indiantown Road office, which became the call center that dealt with customers like J. (Neither Raich nor the Stephanos brothers responded to New Times's calls for comment.)
Earlier that year, the U.S. Supreme Court had established the legality of compounding pharmacies, which manufacture prescription drugs from raw ingredients in their own labs — instead of reselling FDA-approved substances. The ruling created what is now an estimated $2-billion industry.
Signature's equipment could 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. 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. In 2002, Signature did about $500,000 worth of business. In 2006, prosecutors say, the pharmacy made an estimated $40 million.
Last July, Raich pleaded guilty in Albany to one count of felony conspiracy. He was ordered to pay $200,000 in fines and agreed to testify against the Stephanos brothers and the Signature owners. He was also sentenced to four years of probation. Three weeks after Raich pleaded, Carlson, his brother-in-law, followed suit, pleading guilty to one count of felony insurance fraud. He agreed to testify against Signature owners and anyone involved with PBRC who didn't plea. Under the agreement, Carlson must pay $300,000 in fines but will likely be able to continue practicing in Florida.
The prosecution says establishments like PBRC are operations that began without ever intending to provide legitimate services. Defense attorneys, however, say the PBRC case, which could go to trial by summer, is an issue of technology, and laws that haven't kept up.
Back at the spring training fields in Jupiter, fans were discussing New York Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte, whose press conference to address his use of HGH had been playing around the clock on ESPN. "Do I think I'm a cheater? I don't," Pettitte had told a swarm of cameras and reporters.
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A man on 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 the ballpark.
As for the PBRC crew, the Stephanos brothers remain free on bail. There is still no trial date set in New York; there are motions to dismiss the charges on technicalities. The defense remains confident that if this case goes to trial, it will be a landmark in the field of tele-medicine.
By late February, J was still at his apartment, not at spring training. He wasn't invited this year, he said, though he believes he still has some options to continue playing, "possibly outside the U.S." In the meantime, he said, he will keep working out on his own.