PLANO, Tex. â€” A black Hummer pulled into the Hooters parking lot as dusk fell. Arthur Dale Atwood, a professional bodybuilder with a 61-inch chest, opened the tailgate for a police informant to deliver more than 100 bottles of fake drugs made from vegetable oil.When Arthur Atwood was arrested, he wasnâ€™t charged with a drug violation because of a continuing federal investigation.
For months, city detectives had been watching as Atwood, 34, amassed steroids, human growth hormone, Ecstasy and exotic thyroid stimulators. Last May, the police made their move. Outside the Hooters lot, officers pulled over the Hummer. But instead of filing drug charges, they turned Atwood over to federal prosecutors running a more ambitious investigation.
Three days later, federal agents began arresting seven other bodybuilders across the state. One of them, David C. Jacobs, 35, known to friends as Bulletproof, publicly boasted of having evidence to link players for the Dallas Cowboys and the Atlanta Falcons to steroids. No such evidence has been revealed, and those teams have strongly denied his statements.
Prosecutors could have tried Atwood and Jacobs on multiple counts of drug conspiracy, seeking to make an example of two bodybuilders suspected of distributing steroids. But instead, they made deals that could keep both men from serving any prison time. Law enforcement officials would not disclose the final targets of their investigation or say whether the names of steroid customers would ever be revealed.
The deals struck with Atwood and Jacobs , indicate a shift in steroid prosecution methods and goals. As the use of performance-enhancing substances draws concern from the halls of Congress to the offices of high school coaches, prosecutors have turned their onetime prime targets into partners in a broader endeavor.
Atwood and Jacobs were enlisted to cooperate in Operation Raw Deal, the federal governmentâ€™s most aggressive drive yet to interrupt the importation and traffic of performance-enhancing drugs through nutrition stores, gyms and Web sites. In September, authorities in 10 countries coordinated the arrests of more than 120 people, seized more than $6 million and collected 11 million steroid doses, 3 boats and dozens of weapons.
Since then, prosecutors from San Diego to Rhode Island have been making deals with distributors to build their cases. The distribution networks for steroids are amorphous, unlike the traditional narcotics cartels led by strongmen. They thrive on the anonymity of the Internet, the discreet camaraderie of the locker room, and the reckless entrepreneurship of home laboratories and pharmacies.
â€œOur goal is to go after the bigger fish,â€ said Steve Robertson, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration. â€œYou start looking at other dealers, customers, things like that.â€
Although customers were rarely prosecuted in the past, the names of police officers, prominent athletes and entertainers have appeared in news accounts of several cases around the country. Customer lists have not been revealed.
â€œIt runs the gamut,â€ said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the D.E.A. â€œLots of different kinds of athletes, weekend warriors, gym rats, girls, dealers/remailers, a lot of traffickers, people who have never taken steroids in their life but make a lot of money selling them.â€ From 2001 through 2005, when prosecutors focused their efforts on sophisticated, high-end laboratories, only 46 people were sentenced under the federal guidelines for steroid trafficking, according to the United States Sentencing Commission. In the past four months, however, at least 10 people have pleaded guilty to federal steroid-distribution charges, court records show.
Drug policy experts said the prosecutors of Operation Raw Deal could seek, at best, to disrupt the steady flow of performance-enhancing drugs.
â€œUse goes down when price goes up or availability is reduced,â€ said Jonathan P. Caulkins, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. â€œWe also know that ongoing enforcement pressure forces dealers to operate in inefficient ways, greatly increasing their costs of operation and, hence, increase the final retail price. So even if an operation doesnâ€™t create a price spike, if itâ€™s part of the background level of enforcement that forces the dealers to keep their heads down, then it may be doing some good.â€