Richard Rodriguez checked the $97,000 Rolex on his wrist again. A crowd milled outside the gate at Miami International Airport, waiting for boarding that was supposed to have begun five minutes ago for an early-morning flight to L.A. What was the holdup? The 37-year-old gym rat with a razored scalp and trimmed goatee fought off a rising panic.
A few minutes earlier, he'd received a frantic text message from a manager at Iron Addicts, the popular Arts & Entertainment District gym he owned. Federal agents had swarmed the place, ejected dozens of sweat-drenched bodybuilders, and barged into Rodriguez's office one floor above the neat rows of weights. As he stared at the plane idling outside February 22, 2017, Rodriguez knew the feds were hauling boxes of his records past musclebound clients on the sidewalk.
If the damn plane would just start boarding, though, he might just make it to the West Coast before the feds found him.
But then a U.S. Marshal and several local cops stormed into the terminal. "Is Richard Rodriguez here?" one of them demanded as they scanned the passengers.
Rodriguez raised his hands and stood up. The agents slapped on handcuffs, carted the gym owner through the bustling airport, and drove him to his oceanside Miami Beach condo tower. He watched as agents in body armor led out his shackled wife, Nancy.
"I felt like I was the Pablo Escobar of steroids," Rodriguez says today, speaking by phone from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn.
In fact, as the feds soon laid out in court, Rodriguez had built one of the largest online steroid operations in U.S. history. While celebrity bodybuilders flexed on Instagram inside his gym and hawked drugs from his website, Wellness Fitness Nutrition — WFN for short — Rodriguez sold nearly $10 million worth of steroids in two years. He bought a McLaren and a Mercedes-Benz SLS, gifted his wife Cartier jewelry and trips to Europe, and became famous in pro bodybuilding, where he was widely known as Dr. Rodriguez even though he had no medical degree.
Now, after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and awaiting sentencing, Rodriguez has offered New Times an unprecedented look at how a steroid operation works today.
Interviews with the steroid kingpin and his associates, hundreds of pages of court filings, and thousands of sales records from his business make two things clear: Scores of clients, from attorneys to medical doctors to cops, brazenly bought his illegal products online before he was busted, and five years after New Times exposed the Biogenesis steroid clinic — which eventually led to an unprecedented round of suspensions in Major League Baseball — Florida authorities still have little interest in slowing the rise of unregulated steroid clinics in the state.
With drugs shipped in bulk from China and then mixed in legal pharmacies or Rodriguez's own labs, it was almost comically easy for WFN to sell powerful compounds banned by the FDA for human consumption. If a pair of snitches hadn't ratted out Rodriguez to the feds, he might still be lording over a musclebound Miami empire rather than spending his days in a New York prison cell.
"Florida is a vanity-driven state where the market for steroids is enormous," Rodriguez says. "Most of our profit didn't come from power builders or pro athletes; it was just regular guys like you and me."
Rodriguez grew up in a tough corner of the Bronx and learned early that charm was often as effective as brute force. Both of those assets would later come in handy as he built a steroid empire in South Florida, where the master marketer combined his love of bodybuilding with a natural knack for sales.
He was born in Staten Island in 1979 to a Puerto Rican mom and a Cuban dad, who ran off before Rodriguez's mother gave birth. "We were pretty much homeless for the first six years of my life after my father abandoned me," Rodriguez says. "I had a very rough life."
His mom, Marcolina Ojeda, later married another man, and the family moved to a housing project in the Bronx. That new stability, though, came with a heavy price.
"His stepdad was always abusive toward him and his mom, so he stayed at my place a lot," says Bobby Liu, a childhood friend.
As a kid, Rodriguez was hellbent on escaping that poverty and violence, in part because his family's rough-and-tumble block lay just outside Riverdale, a prosperous community on the banks of the Hudson. He saw what money could do and dreamed of life on the other side of the tracks.
"He was always very motivated," Liu says. "He would always look at the people in Riverdale and say, 'I'm gonna make it too.'"
At John F. Kennedy High School, Rodriguez turned to martial arts and the weight room to avoid the streets. Then he found the early-'90s samizdat of photocopied steroid guides and learned the dark arts of chemical muscle-building. He wasn't a steroid user himself, he says, but he happily gave juicing advice to his friends playing football.
"I was the geek in high school reading the medical journals," he says. "I felt like I already knew more than the endocrinologists."
But he showed another trait that would eventually lead to his downfall. "He's always been too nice and trustworthy of a guy," Liu says. "He gives out a lot of trust to people who don't deserve it. Back in high school, he'd hang out with a crowd he should have stayed away from."
Still, he was a solid student who avoided real trouble. He moved out of his abusive household at the age of 16, persuading his mom to cosign a lease on an apartment and working at a grocery store to help pay the rent. After graduating from high school, he went to community college, started a freelance ad company, and then enrolled at Empire State University. One day while waiting for the train, he hit it off with a caramel-skinned beauty with a CPA degree, Nancy Melo, whom he'd later marry.
Rodriguez continued hanging around gyms and cozying up to bodybuilders while he honed his other natural talent: marketing. "He was a very good salesperson for us," says Peter Janover, a vice president at ITAC, a business consulting firm in New York where Rodriguez worked for several years after college. "He was very good at getting in the door to see a company, which is one of the hardest things to do."
By 2011, Rodriguez and his wife decided it was time for a change. "My wife was pregnant, and we started looking at two-bedroom places in New York and said there's no way we're spending millions on a little shithole," he says.
He was intrigued by a boom in so-called anti-aging clinics across Florida. With virtually no regulation, hundreds had begun popping up around the state. They marketed testosterone — an anabolic steroid — human-growth hormone (HGH), and other powerful drugs. Under state law, anyone could own a clinic, even a convicted felon, and there was no requirement to list a licensed doctor on staff as long as the clinic was cash-only and didn't accept insurance.
The gray-market industry combined Rodriguez's passions: money, marketing, and bodybuilding drugs. "I quickly informed [my wife] of my plans for us and just forced her to get on a plane with me and start to search for apartments throughout Collins Avenue," Rodriguez says.
The couple ended up in Mid-Beach, and Rodriguez edged his way into the business by working as a consultant for a physician directory service. He also hung out at local gyms and began to formulate a plan. Why did anti-aging clinics have to operate out of a physical space? he wondered. Why not set up a website where clients could send in bloodwork, get doctor-prescribed drugs, and never have to leave home?
Then, just as he was plotting his dive into the anti-aging business, a New Times investigation revealed that Biogenesis, a clinic in Coral Gables run by a fake doctor named Tony Bosch, was selling steroids and HGH to scores of Major League Baseball players, including superstars such as Alex Rodriguez.
Richard Rodriguez watched the epic fallout. Bosch was driven out of business and later sent to prison, and his clients, including some of the biggest names in baseball, like Ryan Braun and Nelson Cruz, lost millions amid long MLB suspensions. But Biogenesis' downfall didn't deter Rodriguez; it did quite the opposite.
"I looked at Tony Bosch and thought, Hell, I'm smarter than that guy," Rodriguez says. "I figured if he could make that much money, I could do it better and stay out of trouble."
By February 2014, he set up WellnessFitnessNutrition.com and started working up a business plan.
"I wiped out our life savings and cleared my 401(k)," he says. "My wife was an emotional wreck... She literally called me every name in the book: loser, irresponsible, poor future role model to my son."
He started by distributing drugs produced by other people, as well as steroids he got by "renting" a prescription pad from a local doctor. (Rodriguez declines to name the doctor, but one reason Florida has seen a boom in anti-aging clinics is that the hundreds of retired physicians around the state let clinics use their FDA numbers in exchange for "consulting" fees.)
Soon, Rodriguez was selling thousands of dollars' worth of drugs per month through WFN. He began frequenting bodybuilding conventions around the United States. At a Pittsburgh event, he says, a dietician friend introduced him to John Ferrell, who had worked with the dietician in the past producing steroids.
The pair hit it off, and Rodriguez says he flew Ferrell to Miami to handle WFN's logistics. With demand booming, WFN began importing its own raw steroid powders from China. For just a few thousand dollars, Chinese companies will ship kilos of the powder anywhere in the United States; anyone with basic lab equipment can turn the substance into injectable drugs.
According to Rodriguez and the feds, Ferrell helped orchestrate the Chinese purchases and then found a chemist named Jacob Liff in Arizona, where Ferrell set up a lab called Desert Formulations to transform all of that raw product into sellable drugs. (Ferrell has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering in federal court; his attorney didn't respond to multiple messages from New Times.)
WFN opened a warehouse in North Miami Beach and hired a half-dozen local bodybuilders to pick up boxes, repack steroids, and ship them around the country.
Rodriguez insists he always intended for his site to go legit. He planned to hire doctors, obtain FDA approval for his compounds, and operate totally in the sunlight.
But screenshots from the site show Rodriguez was openly selling drugs that aren't approved for human use, such as Equipose, a powerful steroid made for horses; and turinabol and clenbuterol, FDA-banned steroids used by hard-core bodybuilders.
Either way, he had no shortage of customers. Rodriguez watched his sales jump to tens of thousands per day. Orders poured in from across the nation, and suddenly, the celebrity bodybuilders he'd idolized as a kid were lining up to work for him.
Stan Efferding, a cartoonishly proportioned powerlifter in his late 40s with two world records, signed on as a WFN consultant in mid-2014, Rodriguez says. He was soon followed by Flex Wheeler, a superstar who won the Arnold Classic — the sport's biggest gathering — a record four times. Between them, the two strongmen had more than a half-million followers on Instagram, exactly the kind of gym rats and aspirational bodybuilders who would be interested in Rodriguez's illegal wares.
"You've got these guys who are literally legends of the industry backing him and telling his clientele that what he's doing is perfectly legal," says Abe Panian, a California businessman who manufactures peptides and briefly worked with Rodriguez. "That's a powerful message."
Efferding and Wheeler talked up Rodriguez's product on weightlifting YouTube shows, where they praised "Dr. Rodriguez" as a genius marketing perfectly legal products. Sales skyrocketed.
With cash pouring in, Rodriguez took another step forward in fall 2015 by partnering with Mike Rashid, a heavyweight powerlifting star with 735,000 Instagram followers, to open Iron Addicts Gym in a prime location just outside Wynwood on NE 17th Street. They licensed an even bigger celeb — weightlifting champ C.T. Fletcher, who boasts more than a million followers for his fitness channel on YouTube — to stamp his face on the gym.
Soon Iron Addicts became a haunt for the biggest names in weightlifting whenever they passed through Miami. When Rodriguez visited the Arnold Classic or other weightlifting expos, he was famous in his own right — even if the short, modestly built CEO of WFN often got lost in the sea of giant weightlifters with social media empires.
"At the grand opening for Iron Addicts, people kept asking me for my ID," Rodriguez says with a laugh. "They all thought Rashid was the only owner."
Even if he could never compete with the fame of his celeb spokespeople, the money was so good he couldn't complain.
"I was buying a fucking Rolex every week," he says. "When I went to buy my wife jewelry, I'd show up with $100,000 in cash. They'd talk about financing, and I'd just laugh and open the bag."
Mike Rashid glares into the camera, his gargantuan biceps straining inside a gray hoodie. "A lotta people are just running their mouths, not knowing what they're talking about.
Then Rashid takes aim at the man who he says is to blame, the man who lied to him: his Iron Addicts co-owner, Richard Rodriguez.
"I'm not gonna sit here and hate him and cuss him out. He made mistakes, and I hope he can atone for his actions," Rashid says. "I shed tears over this shit. It affected me. It was painful."
As news rippled through the bodybuilding community that the feds had busted WFN and taken down Rodriguez, celebrity bodybuilders such as Rashid couldn't sprint away from him quickly enough. While Rodriguez struggled to understand how he'd gone down like Tony Bosch, he stewed over the weightlifting stars' betrayals.
"I never used to bullshit people," Rodriguez says today. "Then the second I get arrested, a lot of them go up on YouTube to talk smack that they didn't know what WFN was doing was illegal. Fuck you — you knew exactly what was going on."
What Rodriguez didn't know was that almost from the beginning, moles inside his company were feeding information to the feds. Even as Rodriguez was building his steroid empire, DEA agents were following his every step — tapping phones, tracking shipments, and building a carefully crafted case to take down the operation.
In August 2015, the first witness approached the DEA, which quickly landed a second cooperating snitch who was a former WFN employee. Rodriguez says he now knows who they are but declines to identify them before his July 27 sentencing. A source who has reviewed the government's sealed evidence tells New Times the cooperating witnesses played significant roles in Rodriguez's company.
Rodriguez says he thinks they snitched simply because he was too harsh as a boss. "I'm not always an easy person to work with," he says. "I push people, and some people can't handle that."
But one of the snitches had another good reason to help the DEA: Seven months before he spoke to the agency about Rodriguez, the source pleaded guilty to a narcotics charge in New Jersey. The feds agreed to hold off on his sentencing and to ask for a lighter prison term in exchange for his cooperation.
The two sources quickly gave the feds plenty of information. To start, they handed over a list of names of all WFN employees and the labs and warehouses where Rodriguez and Ferrell shipped their raw materials. The DEA checked with U.S. Customs and Border Protection for any recent steroid seizures and quickly found a hit. Between April and May 2015, CPB had intercepted three packages containing more than 20 pounds of raw steroid powder produced in China. Rodriguez hadn't exactly been cautious — one of the packages was being sent directly to his 21st-floor condo at 57th Street and Collins Avenue.
The feds' snitches laid out how the business worked: Ferrell would order the raw powder, which would arrive in U.S. ports and then be shipped to their Arizona lab, where it would be mixed into finished products and sent back to WFN's North Miami warehouse for distribution.
Federal agents began watching the Arizona lab, where they saw workers in rubber gloves dump trash bags that later tested positive for raw steroid powder. At the unmarked North Miami warehouse, agents observed a team of bodybuilders slapping WFN labels on finished glass vials full of steroids and then mailing them to customers
Records the feds seized from Stamps.com, a postal website, showed how successful Rodriguez's business had become: In almost two years, the North Miami warehouse shipped at least 56,000 packages of steroids around the country.
The feds caught an unexpected break in January 2017 thanks to North Miami cops, who happened to be staking out an H.H. Gregg store when a gray Toyota pulled up to a parked Mustang. As cops watched, the driver hopped out and traded a stack of cash for a package before speeding off. When the cops stopped the Toyota, the driver — a tattooed, bearded 29-year-old named Erick Vittitow — began "visibly shaking" and "breathing heavily." He had good reason to be nervous: The cops found in his trunk 80 boxes full of banned steroids such as trenbolone. Vittitow said he worked in WFN's North Miami warehouse.
The arrest spooked Rodriguez, who ordered the lab in Phoenix to quit shipping packages to North Miami. But it was too late to evade the feds; they easily tracked packages from Arizona to WFN's new warehouse off NE Second Avenue in Little Haiti.
As they watched the operation, the feds also bought more than $30,000 in illegal steroids through the site. And they learned that Rodriguez's employees weren't ignorant about the operation. The feds recorded one call between their snitch and Bernard Duran, a WFN salesman, who noted that Rodriguez was getting "paranoid" because their entire business was "illegal." (Asked about the exchange, Rodriguez says, "That was some bullshit with Bernard. He was a fucking doofus. I was never
The snitch also told the feds the ring wasn't limited to U.S. customers. One of Rodriguez's employees would stuff steroids into Muscle Milk bottles to ship them to Canada and hide them inside stereo speakers for buyers in the Middle East.
Rodriguez continued bringing home real cash. Between January 2015 and October 2016, he deposited nearly $10 million in a company bank account; he withdrew $2.3 million to fund his increasingly lavish lifestyle. He funneled $350,000 to China to pay for the raw materials, and $761,000 went to Iron Addicts to buy gym equipment.
As the feds were closing in, Rodriguez says, he was moving toward taking his company legit. In late 2016, he began working with local attorneys to craft a strategy to skirt FDA bans on bodybuilding steroids. He even hired a local doctor.
That physician, Mark Zhuk, had made a small fortune running medical imaging clinics around Miami but was embroiled in a devastating divorce case when he met Rodriguez. The steroid dealer says that Zhuk agreed to help him turn WFN legit and that he paid the doctor thousands as a consultant. "Zhuk lied to me about the possibility of getting FDA approval and bringing the site into compliance with the law," Rodriguez claims. "He even lied at one point that we were already aboveboard with the FDA."
Through a spokesperson, Zhuk — who was never charged in the case and has an active medical license in Florida — acknowledged he worked with Rodriguez but says he broke off the relationship as soon as he realized WFN was illegally selling steroids.
By early 2017, Rodriguez knew he was in trouble. But he'd found another, more clearly
By February 2017, Rodriguez was ready to go all in. There was big profit potential in the peptides without the risk of anabolic steroids. The morning of February 22, he headed to MIA to board a flight to Los Angeles to meet Panian in person for the first time.
He never made it. Instead, he spent the night in federal lockup.
But if Rodriguez was going down, he wasn't about to go quietly
"We're joined again by Richard Rodriguez, the former owner of WFN and Iron Addicts Gym Miami. He is calling in directly from the Brooklyn federal prison," says the man, Arizona-based bodybuilding journalist Jon Bravo. "I have in my possession Richard's personal laptop, which he has not had since his arrest. None of the text messages or documents we will show today have been altered."
The 20-minute video uploaded in February was just the latest broadside in an all-out war Rodriguez has unleashed since his arrest. He's gone after celebrities he says were his former clients. He's gone after prosecutors and the U.S. government in Instagram rants about why steroids should be legal. And after being released on a $300,000 bond in March 2017, he even began selling drugs again through his website — until the feds threw him back in prison.
The bizarre strategy has left the pro-wrestling world scrambling for answers and his attorneys working overtime to keep him out of even bigger trouble. But the way Rodriguez sees it, his outrage is justified. "The thing with me, what got me in trouble was my selflessness," he says. "I always wanted to see the good in people. And what I got were these motherfuckers who were clearly rats."
When the hammer dropped February 22, 2017, the feds launched dual raids in Miami and Arizona. In the predawn hours, they tracked down Rodriguez at the airport and took in nine of his employees around Miami and Phoenix, including Ferrell, Liff, and Rodriguez's wife Nancy, whom the feds accused of running the accounting side of the operation. Agents carried boxes full of equipment and documents from the lab outside Phoenix and, hilariously, lugged out every sweat-drenched weight machine from Iron Addicts Gym while bodybuilders broadcast the raid live on Instagram.
When Rodriguez bonded out a month later, he launched a fundraising page, asking for $100,000 and promising to expose "the real masterminds" who are "out laughing at what has occurred to us." Then he filmed YouTube videos slamming Rashid, Efferding, and Wheeler, who he claimed lied about not knowing that WFN was selling illegal drugs.
(Neither Rashid nor Efferding returned messages from New Times asking for interviews about Rodriguez; Wheeler replied in an email: "Sorry, but no way in Hell!" None of the three men was ever charged in connection with Rodriguez's steroid ring and all have insisted they had no idea he was breaking the law.)
By early April, Rodriguez was back in the game. He launched a new site that sold peptides and other compounds. The government was not amused. On May 9, a judge signed an order revoking his bond, and he was thrown back in jail.
His attorney, Richard L. Cooper, argued that the peptide sales were so blatant they could only be legal. "The shipping address is... Rodriguez's home address; in fact, the website URL is RodriguezRichard.com," he wrote in a motion. "Certainly, someone selling illegal substances would be more sophisticated."
The argument worked — but Rodriguez soon violated his bond again by trying to fly to California.
But even back behind bars, Rodriguez wasn't done wreaking havoc. After catching wind of a four-part YouTube documentary Bravo had produced about his steroid bust, Rodriguez got in touch with the filmmaker and offered to send him a laptop full of his business records.
His goal: to expose some of his famous clientele. If his former celebrity bodybuilding friends wouldn't stick up for him in his time of need, why should he protect anyone? Besides, the more eyeballs Bravo got on his videos, the more support his online fundraising might garner.
His videos with Bravo began publishing last summer, with Rodriguez calling in from prison to slam his critics and to promise he would expose famous clients. Their biggest splash went on YouTube this past January 11, when they named Roman Reigns — arguably the biggest pro-wrestling star today — along with actors Mark Wahlberg and Josh Duhamel as WFN clients. In all three cases, Rodriguez claims, he first sold them drugs either through an intermediary or his site but later became a confidant. (Wahlberg quickly denied the claims and said he had no idea who Rodriguez was; Reigns also denied the accusations, as did Duhamel in an interview with TMZ.)
The accusations briefly roiled WWE, which takes steroid accusations seriously. The entertainment company had found itself in the crosshairs after a 2007 DEA bust of Orlando-based Signature Pharmacy — a massive steroid dealer — that revealed many top stars were doping. In response, WWE instituted regular drug testing.
"They absolutely do care about steroids, and their wellness policy is fairly strict," says L. Aaron Varble, a journalist who covers pro wrestling. "In fact, Reigns was already suspended once in 2016 for failing a test."
Bravo promised at the end of the 13-minute clip that Rodriguez would soon reveal more documents that proved his claims. The allegations were written up everywhere, from TMZ to Forbes. But when Bravo finally published the followup on March 16, it landed with a thud. Rodriguez walked back his claims on Reigns by claiming more evidence was on another laptop, which the feds hadn't yet returned.
Bravo did produce text messages that allegedly showed Duhamel corresponding with the steroid dealer, but they weren't conclusive. The network also showed texts and order receipts that seem to show several trainers who work with WWE stars buying thousands of dollars' worth of drugs from WFN, but it's largely Rodriguez's word that those steroids were then passed on to wrestlers.
"They promised these big revelations, but they didn't really come through," says Dave Meltzer, another journalist who covers WWE. "It felt almost like a fraud."
Rodriguez insists there's more to come once the feds release the rest of his business computers. "It's 100 percent certain after my sentencing that we'll be releasing another YouTube video," he says.
But Rodriguez was selling millions of dollars' worth of steroids to someone. Who was really buying all of these illicit drugs? Through Bravo, the steroid dealer provided New Times with a database of roughly 2,300 clients in Florida.
The records are difficult to authenticate because those clients could use any name they wanted when placing an order. (In one video, Bravo even notes that a wrestling trainer who regularly bought enormous quantities of steroids purchased them under the name "Jesse Ventura." Only after researching the buys did Bravo learn it wasn't the former Minnesota governor and ex-pro wrestler.)
The records do provide a fascinating snapshot. Many of Rodriguez's Florida customers fit the exact stereotypes you'd expect: Men and women who compete in local bodybuilding tournaments, work as personal trainers, and post lovingly lit Instagram photos of their gleaming deltoids and biceps.
At least two law enforcement officers and one firefighter appear to have used their real names on the site, as did at least five medical doctors and several registered nurses. At least four attorneys bought products from WFN, calling into question just how closely they studied criminal law.
Without Rodriguez's full records, though — most of which remain in federal custody — it's impossible to know for certain exactly what any of these people actually ordered from WFN. As a result, New Times isn't naming them.
But Rodriguez does say that at least 75 percent of his sales came from steroids (and a majority of the rest came from sexual enhancement products). So it's a safe bet most customers weren't buying WFN merch.
"Of the $30,000 in sales we made daily, I'd say at least $26,000 were purchased by normal, everyday people," Rodriguez says. "That's the reality of steroids in America today."
In 2013, a New Times investigation detailed how lax regulation had encouraged the gray market in steroids and anti-aging drugs to explode in Gov. Rick Scott's Florida. Five years later, more than 500 such clinics still operate around the state, and easy-to-close loopholes, such as requiring clinics to list medical directors or banning felons from owning the businesses, remain open.
The compounding pharmacies that mixed steroid cocktails for Biogensis owner Tony Bosch's clinic were never punished by federal regulators — and, in fact, Rodriguez used some of the same facilities, he says.
Like Bosch's case, Rodriguez's prosecution shows the feds have little interest in going after licensed doctors, pharmacies, and clients who buy steroids. Only guys such as Rodriguez and Bosch — unlicensed drug dealers, essentially — are ever likely to face jail time.
"The bottom line is that people will use them because cops bust hookers and not johns," says Anthony Roberts, a journalist who writes about steroids and the bodybuilding industry. "That's just how it goes."
In federal court in Brooklyn, the case against WFN is winding down. Six of the ten defendants have pleaded guilty, including Rodriguez, who changed his plea February 22. He's due to be sentenced later this month and faces up to seven years in prison.
Is he remorseful?
"When the judge asked, 'Do you regret what you've done?' I said no!" Rodriguez says. "I've provided a healthy life and confidence for thousands of people who didn't have it before. I've done a great thing for them."
Tarpley Hitt and Molly Minta contributed to this story.
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