A friend gave me the two-page order form and asked me what I thought of it. I glanced at the sheets and said I thought it was remarkable.
"It is nothing for someone on Steroids to gain 20...30...or even 40 pounds of muscle in just 12 weeks or less!" the pages screamed. "Isn't it about time that YOU make your bodybuilding dreams a reality!! Make all that hard work pay off! TAKE ACTION NOW!" The form was from a Toronto company called Mass Machine, and it offered most of the anabolic steroids I'd heard of in my sporting and sportswriting careers.
"Can this be real?" my friend asked. I said I didn't know. It is illegal to sell or to use steroids for nonmedical reasons in the U.S. and Canada, but there have long been smuggling pipelines and underground sources for these drugs that are so coveted by bodybuilders and others seeking a shortcut to manliness. I told my friend I would try to find out what was going on.
The most direct way to find out, I reasoned, was to order some drugs from Mass Machine and see what happened. I sat at my kitchen table, and I went down the list: Dianabol, Anadrol 50, Winstrol, Anavar, Halotestin, Testosterone Undecanoate, Deca-Durabolin, Testosterone Cypionate, Equipoise. What would the Boz have chosen, or Steve Courson, or the late Lyle Alzado? If I were a 19-year-old weightlifting male with a frail ego—and I decided that was the sort of person most likely to find an order form like this irresistible—what would I tick off the list?
I checked Dianabol, 5-mg tabs, 100 tablets to the bottle. The granddaddy of them all. What the heck, I'd better get three bottles. At $28 a pop, it seemed like the kind of thing a kid wouldn't pass up. I knew the bodybuilder's cynical credo: Die young, die strong, Dianabol. But does that worry the hundreds of thousands of adolescent males in the U.S. who currently take illicit steroids to try to pump themselves up, or the thousands of other kids who try to get the drugs and can't? Does it worry the professional wrestlers, football players, runners, shot-putters, weightlifters, swimmers, boxers, tennis players—yes, tennis players—who are looking for an immoral edge? Not much, it seems. Die young? I recalled the battle cry of the steroid-abusing players on the University of South Carolina football team a few years back: "Bury me massive!"
But I knew about the potential side effects of steroid use, from the relatively benign—baldness, acne—to the serious: endocrine-system damage, heart and liver problems, tumors, cholesterol buildup, strokes, and shrinkage of certain—ahem—male body parts. And I knew also about Void rage, the mental mayhem that often grips users. Every athlete who had ever told me about using steroids had described the edginess, the irritability and the open hostility that rose within him during his cycle.
And so I couldn't believe that a person could simply order all this illegal stuff through the mail the same way you could order a sweater or boxed fruit. My friend had been given the order form by a man who works with him at his real estate office, who had received the form in the mail, unsolicited, at his house. The only thing this original recipient had done that might have made him a candidate for receiving the order form was to subscribe to a couple of running magazines and to Joe Weider's Muscle & Fitness magazine. "That doesn't mean I want steroids," he had said.
My friend thought that perhaps I could get to the bottom of the matter.
I wanted my request to look legit—not so big that it would draw attention and not so small that it would be dismissed by the purveyors as unworthy of their response. I checked off a bottle of Winstrol for $28, a bottle of Halotestin (2-mg tabs, 100 to a bottle, $35), a box of Periactin Appetite Stimulant for $22, four vials of Deca-Durabolin for $48, four doses of Sustanon for $48 (though I had no idea what it was) in 1-cc preloaded syringes (I was compelled by the "danger" element of the syringe), two 10-cc bottles of Testosterone Cypionate for $50, one bottle of Winstrol-V for $65 (wasn't that the juice of choice for disgraced Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson?) and one bottle of Equipoise for $85.
I added up the numbers, threw in the $6 postage charge and sent a check to Mass Machine for $471, a substantial but not unreasonable amount, I felt. (The "$471 for steroid purchase" may be the most unusual item I've ever put on my company expense form, however.) The front page of the mail-order form said that minimum orders were $75; that all new customers would receive a free copy of the 72-page Steroid Users Guide Book, a "professional manual" that showed "how to take steroids safely and effectively"; and that the order would arrive in plain packaging marked NUTRITIONAL SUPPLEMENTS. No registered letters would be accepted. All checks had to be filled out with the payee line left blank.
I made arrangements with one of SI's lawyers: I would call him if and when my package arrived; together we would photograph it, open it and document its contents. Then I called an account officer at my local bank and asked her to let me know as soon as my check was cashed. There was nothing else to do except wait. This was in late October 1992.
On Nov. 20 the account officer called to tell me that the check had come through; it had been stamped "All-Star Fitness," and though I had sent the check to a post office box in Toronto, it had been deposited in a Bank of Montreal branch in Montreal. That, I assumed, was a means of skirting the law. Now all I could do was wait for the goods.
I waited and waited. The notion that this was all a scam fixed itself in my mind. That had always seemed the most likely explanation; but then, I wondered, how could anyone expect to get away with it? The trail leading to the culprit or culprits would be thick with canceled checks, ads, deposit slips, bank records, signature cards, the post office box. Police would nail the crooks in a heartbeat. That is, if anyone complained to the police. Complaining to authorities might mean confessing to an attempt to purchase steroids.
I waited some more. No package. In mid-December I visited my bank again, and the officer used numbers on the canceled check to track down the precise location of the bank branch office. She called the bank and talked to an employee there, inquiring about the status of the All-Star Fitness account. The account is active, the bank employee reported. A man comes in regularly to make deposits and withdrawals.
I considered going to Montreal, befriending the bank authorities, sitting in the lobby and waiting for the teller to signal when the bagman arrived. The account officer thought that sounded adventurous. So did I.I pondered the practicality of it. Say I spot the guy. Then what? Do I grab him and demand my steroids? What does he do to me?
Instead I phoned my old pal Anthony Pellicano, private eye, Los Angeles. Actually, calling Pellicano a private eye is like calling Roseanne Arnold a housewife; he is the gumshoe to the stars, having worked for Sylvester Stallone, Ed McMahon, Kevin Costner, James Woods and, yes, even Roseanne herself. These days Pellicano is trying to extricate Michael Jackson from some. uh, unpleasantness. When I called him in early 1993, he sounded like the same old Pellicano I had known when I wrote a newspaper story about him in '74, when he was a flamboyant, up-and-coming Chicago sleuth.
Now I asked him if he could help me track down the steroid salesmen. Sure, he said. Just fax me your notes. I offered to pay him something for his efforts. Say, $250? There was wild, staccato laughter. "Don't make me laugh," he said.
Time passed. Pellicano was busy with other jobs. Finally, in March, he called. There are three guys in this steroid ring, he told me. They send out mailers to people who buy certain muscle magazines. It's a rip-off of the first degree. The Canadian cops have been on to it for a while and are ready to move. He faxed me the other names the outfit has used on its fliers: Mr. Big, Power Growth, Anabolic Plus, Gym Teck Training, Athletes in Motion. Pellicano said that I should call Marie Drummond in the morality bureau of the Metropolitan Toronto Police for the rest of the info.
I called Detective Drummond, and she told me that three people had been charged with a variety of offenses in the scam, including conspiracy to defraud the public and mail fraud. Two of the men had been arrested; they were brothers, Peter and Paul Fuller, 36 and 32, respectively: the third. Michael Murphy. 28, was on the lam. All of the men were Canadian citizens. They never sent any steroids to anyone, said Drummond. Nothing? I asked. Not even a couple of Dianabol tablets?
"This scam could have been for anything," she replied, "but they saw the market demand for steroids. One of them was a bodybuilder. They've been doing this since 1987."
Who was their market?
"Americans," she said. "Young men. The Fullers and Murphy spent big bucks to get the subscriber lists from bodybuilding magazines and then sent out fliers. They had a rented postal meter that could send out 171 letters a minute. They had spent over $60,000 [Canadian] on postage. These fliers trickled down to high school associations, and in time Canada was perceived as a big steroid deliverer."
How did this go on so long?
"Complaints were minimal," Drummond said, and she added that most victims no doubt didn't want to take their folly public.
And did these guys make much money?
Drummond paused, then said, "Let me just say that a very conservative estimate of their take would be a million dollars." She paused again, and I read in her silence that the figure might be much higher. "However, we don't know where the money has gone. They've hidden it."
I called Toronto attorney Edmund Peterson, the lawyer for the Fuller brothers, and asked him if I could speak to one or both of his clients, who were out on bail. No dice, said Peterson when I called back a few days later. The brothers did not want to talk to me. "This is going to be a lengthy, drawn-out battle," Peterson concluded, speaking of his defense work.
Well, now what? Is there such a demand for dangerous, illegal, muscle-building drugs in this country that people would willingly throw their money down a rathole hoping to get some? Apparently. Arnold Schwarzenegger used steroids at one time. Former University of Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth did too, and in 1987 he signed a 10-year, $11 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks after he had been caught using them. What sort of message does that send to kids? According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, 57% of teen steroid users said they were influenced to use the drugs by reading muscle magazines; 42% said they decided to use steroids because of the famous athletes they were certain were using the drugs.
In August I flew to Toronto to see if there was anything else to learn. Murphy was still in hiding. The court date for the Fullers would be chosen on Nov. 24.
I looked up a producer who works for CBC-TV in Toronto, a young man named Michael Turschic, who had jumped through some of the same journalistic hoops that I had on this affair. He had received a flier, ordered steroids, sent a check. But nothing had happened. He had gone to the post office where the con artists had a box, and he had staked it out for a while. "I saw one of the guys on the first day I went to the post office," said Turschic. "But I didn't take my car, so I couldn't follow him. He was a big guy."
Like me, Turschic had had no idea what he would do if he had to confront the scammers. He got his flier from a Buffalo physician, who told Turschic that teenage patients of his had sworn they had gotten drugs from Mass Machine.
"I watched the box after that first visit," Turschic continued, "but I never saw the guy come again. They never sent any drugs, and we had other things to do at the station." Turschic shook his head, thinking about the appeal of steroids to young men. "I was a skinny kid on the high school football team."" mused Turschic. "I might have been interested in this stuff." I told him I knew what he meant.
My last stop was the office of John Scutt, the government's prosecuting attorney in the case. Scutt was concerned with not divulging any information that might be prejudicial to his case. He was also interested in saving the good taxpayers as much money as possible. In that regard, I informed him, I was willing to be a witness for the prosecution at my own expense. He pondered this, knowing that a reporter's purposes are seldom as simple as stated. He said, though, that he would consider using me as a witness.
"I doubt you'll get your money back," he said after a time. "In a sense this is just your standard fraud case. Like purchasing swampland in Florida." He added, though, that most of the victims in this case were "nickeled and dimed," that my order was one of the largest ones. He would call if he needed me, he promised.
On the plane home I realized that what I really wanted was just to see the con men. I wanted to look at them in court and ask them what they thought they were doing. Did they really think they could get away with this scam? I wanted to ask them if they had realized the world was as twisted and muscle-mad as it is. Were even they surprised by the huge response to their illicit pitch? So many people dying to change their bodies. Think of it. Say the take in this scam was $2 million and the average victim sent in $100, both of which seem reasonable. That means there were 20,000 people who liked what the Fullers and Murphy were offering.