ESPN.com - GEN - Steroid smuggling: Crime but no punishment

 Wednesday, December 20
Law enforcement drops ball
 
 By Tom Farrey
ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- George Jones was always one-of-a-kind. He was small, at 5-feet-8, but with an upper body so tremendous that San Diego State put him in a tank top and stuck him on the cover of its 1996 media guide. He bench-pressed as much any player on the team, a stunning 455 pounds.

George Jones
George Jones' was pumped up when he represented his school on its football media guide.
The gritty running back arrived here with one of O.J. Simpson's former junior-college records, for touchdowns in a game (6). Then he rose to the top of the Aztecs' record book, seizing Marshall Faulk's single-season rushing mark, with 1,842 yards. He broke the record with his broken jaw wired shut, testimony to his toughness.

This year, another special feat: George Jones got nailed for smuggling steroids.

In January, Jones pleaded guilty to intent to distribute $25,000 in steroids that were brought into the U.S. from Mexico in October of 1999, when he was a member of the Cleveland Browns. As the money man behind the group, he was that rare smuggler who actually was arrested and prosecuted for a steroids charge.

"The whole system is one big, ugly mess," said Gene Haislip, a former high-ranking official with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The system starts with the DEA, the agency that was put in charge of the national law enforcement effort with enactment of the 1990 Anabolic Steroids Control Act. Despite evidence that the steroids trade is booming, the DEA made only 67 arrests this year, the lowest haul since the federal law went into place. So far, 36 have been convicted.

The meager effort has done little to discourage traffickers, who know there is little chance they will be arrested -- much less be convicted or serve any time in prison.

Steroids are 'kiddie dope.' That's what they told me.
Gene Haislip, of his DEA bosses

"Steroids aren't even on the DEA's radar screen anymore," said Phil Halpern, a federal prosecutor in San Diego.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Congress specifically put the DEA in charge of the effort to send the message that it was serious about cracking down on steroids traffic. With its vast network of gun-toting agents and international contacts, the DEA was believed to be better equipped for the task than the plodding Food and Drug Administration, which previously labored to make steroids cases.

The DEA assigned Haislip to the task. One of the agency's top cops, Haislip had spent much of the 1980s crushing the networks that produced and distributed what were known on the street then as quaaludes. As director of the Office of Diversion Control, he believed he could do the same with anabolic steroids, since, like quaaludes, the drugs often are produced by legitimate businesses in foreign countries.

"It's not like they're making cocaine in clandestine labs in the Amazon," Haislip said. "These companies are listed in the yellow pages. They keep records. You know where to go, who to embarrass, who to put on the front page."

But the DEA devoted scant resources to the effort. With no new funding from Congress, Haislip was given a small band of no more than a few dozen DEA agents to lead the fight. Every other targeted drug got more resources, he said.

Haislip's team made some big cases anyway. In 1992, they made 128 arrests. But the momentum was soon lost as it became clear to Haislip that, beyond funding issues, DEA leaders simply did not care about steroids, these odd drugs that appealed to a different audience -- athletes -- than cocaine, marijuana and other traditional DEA substances.

"Steroids are 'kiddie dope'," Haislip said. "That's what they told me. But to me, what could be more important than kids? That just wasn't responsible."

When Haislip, the self-described king of unpopular causes, retired in 1997, the steroids effort lost further steam.

Now, the DEA does not even pretend to declare steroids a priority.

"The DEA's priorities are major trafficking organizations and the drugs they're involved with," said Rogene Waite, DEA spokesman. "Given our limited resources, we want to put our resources into what is most important to the American people."

Destination: Unknown
To whom exactly was George Jones planning to distrubute all those steroids? It's a question that federal prosecutors, more concerned with arresting dealers than end users, say they never explored.

Jones, in a claim inconsistent with his guilty plea, told ESPN.com that he was not aware that the $25,000 he wired to his friend, Jess Augon, would be used to buy steroids. He said he "wasn't sure" how Augon planned to use the money.

Dwight Clark, Cleveland Browns general manager, said the team released Jones a month after the bust strictly for on-field reasons, to make room for other players. He said he had no concern that Jones was using steroids or planning to distribute steroids to teammates.

Ted Tollner, Jones' coach at San Diego State, said the arrest took him by surprise as well. He said he was alarmed when he heard that the federal investigation began with a tip that Jones had been involved in smuggling while in college, a lead that agents ultimately determined would be too difficult to document with hard evidence.

Jones was among the strongest Aztecs. During the offseason of his first year at the school, in 1995, the offensive linemen gained an average of 21½ pounds and increased their bench press by 44 pounds -- startling results. But Tollner said he is confident that weight room prowess was earned naturally, because no athletes failed NCAA drug tests during the Jones years.

"We expect those kind of (strength) gains," Tollner said.

For his part, Jones denies ever using or distributing steroids.

"If I would have done it in the past, I would have been caught, I'm pretty sure," he said.

In fact, Jones was not arrested by the DEA but by the FDA, the old cops. And they stumbled upon it in the course of separate investigation when a confidential informant told the FDA that he and Jones had been involved in smuggling steroids from Mexico when Jones was at San Diego State. The informant then called Jones in Cleveland, suggesting in a series of tape-recorded phone conversations that they get the business going again.

Jones agreed to put up $25,000 to finance the first weekly shipment, according to prosecutors. He recommended Jess Augon, a friend in the San Diego area, handle the arrangements with a Tijuana pharmacy, then wired $25,000 into Augon's bank account. Jones and the informant figured they could double their money on each shipment, prosecutors said.

Working together, FDA and Customs agents swooped in when the drugs, in two large cardboard boxes, were delivered by Augon to the confidential informant in San Diego.

"They went after me because I'm an athlete and I played in the NFL," Jones told ESPN.com. "If I was just a normal person, nothing would have happened to me."

Some might say nothing did. He got no hard time, despite the considerable quantity of steroids that prosecutors say he planned on distributing around the country. The judge sentenced the former Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year to 60 days in work furlough, 160 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine.

The light touch is standard for steroids dealers. According to Federal Sentencing Guidelines used to determine punishment for drug offenders, judges are required to calculate 50 tablets of steroids (or 10 milliliters of the injectible form) as one dosage unit -- a high standard that makes all but the largest of distributors exempt from jail time.

The difficulty in putting traffickers behind bars, in turn, has led some federal prosecutors to conclude that steroids cases are not worth the time and money. Of the 443 seizures of steroids last year at the San Ysidro port of entry north of Tijuana, only 20 cases were picked up by prosecutors, according to Gregory Vega, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California.

"There's only a limited amount of resources, prosecutorial resources," said Vega, who oversees the busiest district in the federal court system.

Most other smugglers are dealt with administratively, especially those caught with personal amounts of steroids. Customs typically confiscates the drugs and orders a fine, and no arrest is made.

Local prosecutors also struggle with what to do with steroids cases. Paul Pfingst, district attorney of San Diego County, said the drugs get little attention in his office because they rarely cause users to commit crimes against other people, as can be the case with other drugs of addiction.

"An addict is someone who does not have control over their life," Pfingst said. "You don't have that with steroids. You don't see anyone knocking over a liquor store to buy steroids."

Tom Farrey (tom.farrey@espn.com) is a Senior Writer with ESPN.com. Tomorrow, the series explores baseball's policy on steroids and the role that leagues have played in the use of the drugs.
 



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 Former DEA official Gene Haislip says his agency scoffed at the anti-steroids effort.
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 Chris Street, an exercise physiologist familiar with black-market steroids, says you can buy just about anything in Mexico.
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 Haislip says the government could nearly crush the black market for steroids if it wanted.
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