By the summer of 1983, Charles J. Radler of Pittsburgh was one of the five biggest dealers of anabolic steroids in the U.S., a member of an elite group of operatives, each of whom grossed upwards of $1 million a year illegally selling prescription drugs to athletes, coaches and smaller dealers. But he wasn't satisfied with Top 5 status: "I wanted to be No. 1 in America. That was my goal."
He succeeded. When he was busted by Pennsylvania narcotics agents in July 1984, Radler was running the most lucrative steroid-dealing operation in the U.S. His records showed he was grossing $20,000 a week and that in the last nine months of 1983 he had salted away more than $673,000 in four different bank accounts. And Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Greg Nescott, who prosecuted Radler, says, "We really don't know how much more he made. He was stuffing thousands of dollars in his pockets." Wayne Babish, the narcotics agent in the Pennsylvania attorney general's office who put the first collar on Radler, says flatly, "At the height of his operation, Charlie was definitely No. 1 in the country."
Charlie Radler is now in jail serving one to two years on 18 counts of illegal sales of prescription drugs and one count of racketeering. He also must pay a $115,000 fine. He has become the star witness in the joint investigation by the FDA and the Justice Department, and, thanks to his cooperation, the Feds are expected to make moves against some of the U.S.'s biggest steroid dealers.
Radler spoke at length with SI's Armen Keteyian, detailing his career as a steroid dealer. The two interviews took place at the Greens-burg State Regional Correctional Facility in southwestern Pennsylvania. Radler is 36, a pale and bloated behemoth of a man, 6'4" and 285 pounds. He wore a bland brown prison uniform, and his body sort of sagged and flowed over a swivel chair as he told his story.
The son of a Pittsburgh truck driver, he began using heroin when he was 18 and got hooked on that and alcohol. He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in December '74, and saw the light almost instantaneously. "I was in AA for three days, and I made a commitment to God and asked Him to help me and set me free of guilt. I changed. I became honest. I got this job at $2.65 an hour learning how to cook. I got married, and I went up to $2.75, $3.25 an hour, moving around on jobs in Pittsburgh."
In 1980 Radler opened a pizza shop and around the same time began having trouble with his religion. "There was this God who had, like, saved me out of drug addiction and from being a real scumbag, but now I wasn't satisfied with the things He provided for me. I wanted something they call 'the lusts of the flesh.' Everyone takes those to mean sexual things, but it's also power, success, fame, glory and stuff like that."
This led Radler to bodybuilding and weightlifting, which in turn led to his bizarre introduction to steroids. "I put an ad in the paper for steroids. Some guy walked into the pizza shop and said he'd get me some. This was around October '82. I was afraid, you know, with my history of being an addict, but then again I justified it." Radler began taking several pills daily from a Pittsburgh doctor who routinely wrote prescriptions for lifters.
Soon Radler was looking for a cheaper way to get drugs. He heard about a drug company in Colorado, and he phoned. "They told me they'd send me anything, and I said, 'Well, isn't this illegal?' They said no, because they were a licensed wholesaler. That caught my attention. I studied the process for getting a license in Pennsylvania. I didn't think they'd license me because of my record, you know; I'd been an addict. But there was a friend I knew in the state police, and he vouched for me. Of course, I was a pretty legit person from what he knew about me."
When Radler started weightlifting in 1982, he weighed 185 pounds. His wholesaler's license came through in January '83, and with his own cut-rate supply of steroids, he increased his intake tremendously and eventually blew up to 310 pounds. His business boomed, too. "With the pizza shop, I was probably making a couple of hundred a week. Then I got this powerlifting magazine, and I looked up names of competition directors in the back. I sent out fliers in the mail to those guys. Then I started getting responses.
"In the beginning we're dealing low figures, like, I'd say from January till June 1983, I was making probably a few thousand dollars a month. Then it just doubled. I couldn't keep up with it. I thought there were a few weightlifters in a few weight rooms who used steroids. Then I started to find out: Everybody uses steroids. It's the bodybuilders, the powerlifters, it's about every sport there is. I started getting calls from college football teams. That surprised me at first. Now it would surprise me if there was a college football team out there that isn't using steroids. I'd get all kinds of calls like 'I'm a boxer, what should I do?' I had this illusion I was helping people. I spent hours on the phone passing on information."
At first the business was confined to a bedroom in Radler's house. Then it spilled over into the garage. Eventually, he had 18 employees, his own office building, four phone lines and a huge account with United Parcel Service.
Through the summer of 1983, Radler's reputation was spreading, mostly by word of mouth. Then, in October, The CBS Evening News did a short piece about steroids, and the reporter mentioned Radler's operation. Did this wreck the business? Exactly the opposite: "Now everybody started calling us. People were calling up saying things like, 'I saw your ad on television.' Business zoomed."
Charlie Radler was zooming, too, in the fall of '83. "I was loaded with steroids and very aggressive. Sexually, I got much more aggressive, too. I went wild. My marriage was wrecked. Most of the people who had been my friends were staying away from me because I had become so belligerent and arrogant."
While the rest of his life disintegrated, Radler's financial condition was never better. "I had a Cadillac, and I had gold. All kinds of gold chains. A gold bracelet, a gold watch, a diamond ring. Tons of money. Guns, too."
Then in late November, divine power moved into his life once more: "My wife got born again. I got born again, too. I moved back in the house, and we started to reconcile the marriage. By Christmas, I had taken everything and thrown it out. I threw into the garbage can, at the church close to $70,000 in drugs."
When suppliers called, Radler sometimes stunned them by saying, "I don't think God wants me to do this anymore." On Dec. 7, 1983, Babish got a search warrant and raided Radler's offices. He found more than 1,000 invoices for prescription drug orders placed by 437 customers in 38 states and the District of Columbia. A state health department embargo was placed on Radler's supply of drugs. Times were tough for him. Then in May 1984 he decided to start lifting weights again. "I was going to be a powerlifter for Jesus, but by this time we were selling stuff to try to live," he said. Radler went back into the steroid business early last summer. There was a grand jury looking into his earlier dealings. "I figured I was going to need money for an attorney, and I went back and did it again."
On July 19, 1984 the grand jury indicted Radler on 55 counts of selling steroids and the one count of racketeering. Meanwhile, he had started operating out of his house again.
Radler also started using heroin again after having been off it for a decade. "I should have woke up 'cause now it was like Thanksgiving and my wife's due to have a baby, you know. I'm strung out bad on heroin. I didn't know how to deal with it. Then on a Saturday, God made a way for me to get hold of some meth [methadone]. And I quit."
The next Tuesday, Nov. 27, Radler phoned his office and learned that the police were raiding the place. "I panicked. I just hung the phone up. That was Tuesday. So Tuesday night my wife went into labor. Wednesday came, and she had the baby. And when I went to visit her, that's where Babish picked me up. They revoked my bond and slapped me in the slammer."
Radler offered to turn state's evidence the same night he went to jail. "So I told them I'll tell you what I know about the steroid market in hopes it'll all collapse. I really hope that."