Three dozen Chinese companies sent massive quantities of steroids, human-growth hormone and other illicit bodybuilding drugs to a sprawling underground network of distributors throughout the United States, authorities said in five states on Monday, proclaiming a breakthrough in the largest steroid enforcement action in U.S. history.
The operation revealed a much wider, more diffuse commerce in performance-enhancing drugs than previously known, with a latticework of bathroom and basement manufacturers and distributors. That contrasted with the more centralized drug network from past years tapping into established pharmaceutical pipelines.
A network of Internet-based chemical wholesalers, anonymous e-mail services and password-protected chat rooms fueled the trade, federal and state officials said.
“There is no kingpin here,” said Steve Robertson, a spokesman for the DEA in Washington. “We’re going after individual distribution cells. There’s no godfather of steroids.”
The bulk of 124 arrests — including 50 over the past week — were traffickers who bought chemicals in bulk from China, which as host of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing has been under pressure to deliver a drugs-free games. The traffickers set up labs in their own homes — notably on Long Island — to press them into pills or cook them into injectable liquids, the Drug Enforcement Administration said. Buying and selling was conducted with presumed anonymity on the Internet.
DEA agents are compiling a computerized database of thousands of buyers of the products, which are illegal without a prescription.
No users of the drugs were identified Monday, although the DEA said it was trying to establish their identities and may share that information with professional sports leagues and anti-doping officials if their athletes are involved.
“They may not all be prosecuted, but we will be identifying them,” said John P. Gilbride, special agent in charge of the DEA office in New York. “We have names. We have addresses. We have thousands of names but I cannot give you an exact number.”
The FBI, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the National Drug Intelligence Center also worked on the two-year investigation, dubbed Operation Raw Deal. In addition to the United States and China, eight other countries were involved in the investigation.
Authorities seized $6.5 million in cash, 25 vehicles, three boats, 27 pill presses and 71 weapons while executing 143 search warrants at 56 makeshift steroid labs and other locations, the DEA said. Two distribution rings on Long Island alone accounted for more than $13.5 million in steroids, Gilbride said. One of the suspects, a 36-year-old Melville man arrested Sept. 12 with his mother and wife, committed suicide last week. The family’s attorney did not return calls for comment.
The investigation grew out of a similar investigation into Mexican steroid manufacturers that targeted eight companies in 2005.