successful crackdown ever on performance-enhancing drugs did not begin as a
hunt for steroids. It started with a probe called Operation TKO, the goal of
which was to cut off the supply of ketamine, a dangerous hallucinogen popular
with ravers. In 2003, as a result of TKO, U.S. and Mexican authorities shut
down a Mexico City--based company, Laboratorios Ttokkyo, which produced
80%-to-90% of the ketamine found in the U.S.
Jack worked on
the operation and noted that Ttokkyo had also manufactured veterinary steroids,
which are most commonly used to hasten the growth of beef cattle. What caught
his attention was that many of the steroids were sold in pet stores and
farmacias (pharmacies) in Mexican border towns and tourist destinations like
Canc�n and Ensenada--and were bought almost exclusively for human use, largely
by Americans. ( Mexico's veterinary-steroid industry stepped up production for
use by humans to meet the demand created after the Anabolic Steroid Control Act
of 1990 toughened penalties for illicit steroid sales within the U.S.) Aware of
the growing steroid problem, Jack wondered what other companies might be making
or distributing supposed veterinary steroids that were really aimed at
bodybuilders and young athletes.
Bob, the department's prescription-drug expert, sent investigators to visit all
eight of the DEA's domestic labs, where steroids captured in the U.S. are sent
to be analyzed and, ultimately, destroyed. Bob and his team painstakingly
pulled every steroid vial and file, and they created a database for the origin
of each drug. "What surprised us was that every lab, whether it was
Chicago, New York, or Miami, had steroids from Mexico," Jack says. Further
analysis showed that 82% of the steroids seized in the U.S. were made south of
the border. "It was shocking," says Jack. "We thought we'd see more
from Asia or Europe."
The target was
too tempting to pass up. "In the drug game, if you make a one percent
difference, that's phenomenal," says assistant U.S. attorney Laura Duffy,
who attended the March 2004 meeting of agents, prosecutors and others at which
Operation Gear Grinder was laid out. "What got us motivated is that we
thought there was a chance we could make an 82 percent difference."
Not that he
needed it, but Jack found more motivation in the summer of '05 while watching
TV with his sons. Flipping through the channels one Sunday night, he stopped on
60 Minutes, a show he normally never watched. Don Hooton was on camera telling
correspondent Jim Stewart about Taylor's suicide and lamenting that steroids
were so easily available to kids. "I have not seen an interest in taking
responsibility for this problem and taking active steps to stop it," Hooton
"I wanted to
reach through the TV," Jack says, "to grab him and say, 'Don't worry.
We're going to do something.'"
The charges the
U.S. Attorney's office hoped to pin on the eight targeted companies and on
owners like Saltiel-Cohen were plain enough: conspiracy to import anabolic
steroids into the U.S., conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids and
conspiracy to launder money obtained by illicit acts. To prove these felonies,
however, Jack and his team first had to establish that the owners, managers and
distributors knew that the steroids were destined for the U.S.
It was obvious to
the DEA that the companies' websites were geared toward U.S. users. Many of the
sites were available only in English, complete with American flags on their
home pages. "The websites are how they made a lot of their money," Jack
says, "but we also felt that was their Achilles' heel."
The DEA set up a
website of its own, bio-power-meds.com, purportedly backed by a distributor
flush with cash and ready to serve as a conduit to customers in the states.
Informants also posed as distributors looking to buy large quantities of
steroids. Sites such as anabolicsclub.com and mexicansteroidsales.com allegedly
sold steroids to the feds from Saltiel-Cohen's three companies, Animal Power,
Denkall and Quality Vet, and shipped them to P.O. boxes set up by the DEA. In
all, agents seized or tracked some 360,000 doses of anabolic steroids. IRS
investigators tracked the payments.
DEA agents and
informants communicated with sellers using BlackBerrys, and the e-mails were
routed to an FBI Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory to be indexed as
evidence. The DEA also targeted e-mail accounts it suspected were being used by
distributors and set up wiretaps. Transcribers marveled at how well-spoken the
alleged traffickers were. "They are used to drug suspects who use a lot of
slang," Jack says, "but these men were proper, they were businessmen,
they were highly intelligent."