By Albert Samaha
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In the past two years, the probe zigzagged from upstate New York to South Florida before focusing on the community drug store in Bay Ridge. The Brooklyn investigation started in a roundabout way. In 2005, officials from the state Department of Health contacted Albany D.A. David Soares after their records showed that a doctor in Rome, New York, was issuing an unusually large amount of methadone, according to Soares's spokeswoman Heather Orth. The probe took an unexpected turn when the doctor, who eventually was sentenced to six years in prison, began explaining how the Internet and so-called anti-aging clinics were being used to illegally prescribe drugs without doctor's exams and then ship steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.
"Operation Which Doctor," as they called it, eventually led investigators to Orlando, Florida, where this past February a task force raided the Signature pharmacy and several anti-aging clinics. Orth maintains that the focus of the investigation was always the suppliers. To date, she says, 22 people have been indicted, with 10 of those convicted, including several doctors and pharmacists. But what made the headlines (and caused some criticism of the district attorney as being a publicity hound) was that several professional athletes were found to have obtained steroids from Signature. Among them, reportedly, were former heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield, baseball player Gary Matthews Jr., and New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison.
Information gleaned from the records and interviews of the suspects from Signature and the clinics drove the investigation back north to Brooklyn. In particular, investigators found that a doctor from a West Palm Beach clinic had written steroid prescriptions for patients from all over the country, most of whom he never examined. About 4,000 of those scripts were filled at Lowen's Pharmacy in Bay Ridge, sources tell the Voice.
This past May, based on the information from the Florida busts, the state Department of Health searched Lowen's and found about $200,000 worth of steroids. Some of the stuff was legal, sources say, but most of it is alleged to have been imported illegally from China by Lowen's supplier, DNP International, which couldn't provide the prerequisite DEA and FDA licenses, sources say. Lowen's sued DNP for breach of contract. DNP's lawyer, Richard Pu, tells the Voice that he and DNP have "no comment whatsoever."
A lawsuit filed in July by Beverly Hills chiropractor Shirley Elzinga against Lowen's and its owners, John Rossi and Nasso, details Lowen's meteoric rise from family pharmacy to Internet drug supermarket.
Elzinga, who runs a Rodeo Drive anti- aging center called Preventive Medicine Clinic, contends that sometime in 2004 she was approached by Nasso, who is described in the suit as "an owner of Lowen's." (A law-enforcement source tells the Voice that Rossi has described Nasso as a "silent partner" in the pharmacy.)
Later that year, Nasso was sentenced to a year and a day for the attempted extortion of actor Steven Seagal. A licensed pharmacist from Staten Island turned film producer, Nasso had sued Seagal, his former longtime partner in Nasso-Seagal Films, Inc., claiming that the actor reneged on a four-movie deal. Three of the flicks, including a biopic of Genghis Khan, never got made.
Nasso's silent partners, the Gambino crime family, tried to shake down Seagal in a Brooklyn restaurant. The goombahs were caught talking about the shakedown on FBI wiretaps, and the Seagal episode was subsequently the most interesting part of a bigger case that sent away, among others, John Gotti's brother Peter, then the acting crime boss, and Nasso's brother Vincent, who was convicted for kicking back money to the Gambinos in exchange for illegally awarding the longshoremen union's pharmaceutical-management contract to his prescription-drug business.
Elzinga says in her suit that in 2004 she was operating a drug-compounding pharmacy, meaning that it mixed pharmaceuticals on site instead of buying premixed drugs from outside suppliers. Nasso, she claims, was interested in making Lowen's a compounding pharmacy. In August 2004, Elzinga contends, she struck a deal with Lowen's, agreeing to transfer her entire compounding businessincluding equipment, inventory, formulas, and client listto Lowen's in exchange for an unspecified percentage of the profits. Over the next two years, sales at Lowen's took off, Elzinga claims, but she never got her cut, which she estimates was $3.7 million. Of course it might be hard to collect if those profits were made illegally on steroids and HGH prescriptions, which a law-enforcement source familiar with the investigation said is the only money to be made in pharmaceutical compounding. (CVS and other chains don't do it.)
Lowen's gets a brief mention in the Mitchell baseball report as a compounding pharmacy. The pharmacy is likely to make more news on its own. Just how much Lowen's has made off steroids and HGH is still to be tabulated. But the estimates skyrocketed this past October 15 after investigators returned to the pharmacy armed with subpoenas to seize records related to the May raid. In addition to the files, they found more than a million units of HGH worth between $7 million and $9 million.
Investigators subsequently found that over the past 18 months, of the approximately 15,000 "Schedule II" prescriptions (drugs such as oxycodone, Ritalin, and Dexedrine) that Lowen's filled, a huge number of them9,300 were for steroids, law-enforcement sources tell the Voice. That's on top of 4,000 to 5,000 prescriptions the drug store has filled during that time period for HGH. Given those figures, sources say, Lowen's could have been doing as much as $30 million a year in steroid and HGH business.