Over the past 18 months, the NYPD has apparently experienced a rare epidemic in which a cluster of young, muscular cops have suffered a malady that usually strikes men over the age of 60: hypogonadism, or low testosterone.
The Voice has learned that the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office knows of 29 cops and at least 10 NYPD civilian employees—all well under the age of 60—who have received prescriptions for hypogonadism.
The treatment for it just happens to be steroids.
Baseball’s steroids scandal has broken wide open with last week’s release of former senator George Mitchell’s report on players who may have broken the rules of the sport by bulking up. That probe, which currently revolves around New York City, in part because of the alleged involvement of a Mets clubhouse employee, has spilled over from Queens into Brooklyn into the NYPD, where an investigation of steroid use by New York City cops is bubbling under the surface.
How closely the two drug scandals may be linked isn’t known, but personal trainer Brian McNamee, who told the Mitchell commission that he injected Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens and other players with steroids, is a former NYPD cop who left the department in 1993 and later embarked on a career as a personal trainer who allegedly injected star athletes with drugs, according to ESPN.com.
As for the cop-steroid scandal, when the story first broke in October, NYPD officials repeatedly said that only six officers were believed to be involved. Spokesman Paul Browne has maintained that none of the cops were selling steroids and none will be arrested, though they may face departmental discipline.
Unlike baseball, the NYPD does not test its officers for steroids, but it’s a little early for department officials to make sanguine predictions. Brooklyn D.A. Charles “Joe” Hynes’s office is still in the middle of its investigation and, according to law-enforcement sources, will present a case to a grand jury sometime within the next several weeks.
Unlike baseball players, the NYPD’s cops are forbidden to talk to the press without permission. But people close to the probe, speaking on the condition of anonymity, say that in the probe of cops’ steroid use, investigators from the State Department of Health have given the D.A. almost a dozen boxes of records gathered during three raids at Lowen’s Pharmacy in Brooklyn. Officials have also seized millions of dollars of human growth hormone (HGH) and steroids from that Bay Ridge pharmacy. The most recent raid was on December 3. Hynes won’t comment other than to confirm that there is an investigation.
But sources tell the Voice that one officer bought more than $25,000 worth of steroids in a year, an amount that is impossible to claim as personal use. Cops found to have filed false insurance claims or sold steroids could face the possibility of criminal charges, as could cops who’ve received prescriptions for steroids unless it’s determined that they’re for legitimate medical reasons.
But that’s just the steroids angle of the investigation. Investigators are still sifting through 4,000 to 5,000 HGH prescriptions filled at Lowen’s in the past 18 months. Dr. Harry Fisch, a professor of clinical urology at Columbia University, says there are only two legitimate medical reasons for an adult to be prescribed HGH: to offset the loss of body mass and muscle for people in the advanced stages of AIDS and to treat a rare pituitary condition.
Those HGH records at Lowen’s could open up a Pandora’s box in the largest police department in the nation. NYPD officials have kept a lid on the steroids angle of the probe—amid grumbling in the ranks. The fact that the two highest-ranking officers caught up in the probe so far—two deputy chiefs, Mike Marino, executive officer of the Brooklyn North patrol, and Jack Trabitz, head of the property-clerk division—were not suspended and appear to have been cleared despite admitting they received prescriptions for testosterone has Patrick Lynch, president of the rank-and-file patrol officers’ union, crying “favoritism.” Trabitz didn’t return calls seeking comment. One cop has told the Voice that Trabitz, who is in his 50s, “looks like he could be a running back in the NFL, he’s that big.” Marino came forward after his name was leaked to the press. Reportedly, however, he was cleared after being questioned by the Internal Affairs Bureau, which found his prescription to be legitimate.
Marino tells the Voice that he can’t comment “because there’s some litigation going on around this right now.” John Driscoll, outgoing president of the Captains Endowment Association, the union for those with the rank of captain and above, says that that Marino and Trabitz not only voluntarily talked with IAB investigators but also took drug tests and passed them. At this point, Driscoll says, they are “accused of nothing.”
Previously published reports didn’t detail what Marino’s supposed ailment was, but law-enforcement sources tell the Voice that Marino told IAB investigators that in addition to being treated for a low sex drive, he had been prescribed the drug to lose weight.
“That’s not a legitimate reason for using anabolic steroids,” says Dr. Gary Wadler, author of Drugs and the Athlete and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List and Methods Committee. “It’s not a weight- reducing drug.”
In 2001, Marino’s remarkable bodybuilding was featured in the New York magazine article “Captain Midnight.” After Marino got pushed around by street toughs as a skinny rookie in Harlem, the article noted, the cop “bulked up from 152 pounds to 190, had eighteen-inch arms, and could bench-press 350 pounds.” It goes on to describe how Marino, who admitted that weightlifting changed his temperament, knocked out many a criminal and cop and how his wife divorced him, saying, “You’re not the man I married, mentally or physically.”
Former NYPD captain Eric Adams, once the leader of an organization of NYPD’s black cops and now a state senator, says that “like baseball, in order to get a handle on how widespread the problem is, the NYPD should include steroids” in its random drug tests.
When he was on the job, Adams says, he didn’t see anyone taking steroids. And he adds that there was no discussion of steroids among the cops with whom he worked out. There were suspicions, however. “You’d be in the gym and sometimes you know a guy is doing them,” he says. “You can tell when a guy is on ‘roids: He’d be very aggressive, have mood swings. But there was nothing rampant.”
A Manhattan cop previously stationed in Brooklyn contends that, for practical reasons, “relatively few” are willing to cross the line to do steroids. Many are obsessed with working out, not with doughnuts. “Contrary to popular belief,” he says, “cops are more buffy than most people think.” Creatine and other legal workout supplements are extremely popular among cops, he says, but obtaining steroids is more involved and risky, and most cops are paranoid of doing anything that will jeopardize their 20-and-out pensions.
Adams agrees that many cops try to beef up by legal means. “In law enforcement, everyone wants to be as buff as possible,” Adams says. “Everyone wants to exercise as much as possible.” Or maybe more than just work out— especially after they leave the gym.
People weaning themselves from steroids, says Wadler, often “have high incidence of depression and even suicide”—and still have those department-issued weapons strapped to their hips.
“They’re playing Russian roulette with their health,” he says. “Of course, in a cop you worry about ‘roid rage more than with the average person. Steroids can make people more aggressive—severely aggressive—and you don’t want a severely aggressive person being put in a position where they have their finger on the trigger of a gun.”
Or with their hands on a broom handle. Cops are fully aware that during their colleague Justin Volpe’s trial for the 1999 torture of Abner Louima, during which a broom handle was shoved up the ass of the immigrant in the 70th Precinct bathroom, a Volpe family confidant said the cop should have claimed temporary insanity caused by ‘roid rage.
The Manhattan cop tells the Voice that “you automatically think of Volpe and how he lost it.” But he says cops generally don’t discuss the dangers of
‘roid rage. “Most cops I’ve talked with don’t give a shit about that,” he says. “They’re more concerned that the chief [Marino] got away with it, and the cops are getting jammed up.”
If Joe Hynes follows the path of other prosecutors, the suspected NYPD steroid cops may never face criminal charges; their suppliers will be targeted. The fate of the cops will likely be determined by the NYPD’s erratic disciplinary system.
According to law-enforcement sources, the NYPD has had to order the cops suspected of using to undergo special tests because the standard NYPD urinalysis exam doesn’t detect steroids. There is no known test for HGH.
According to sources, six cops have tested positive for steroids: Sergeant Ray Cotton of Patrol Borough South and his officer-driver Vaughn Etienne; Sergeant Manny DaSilva of the 61st Precinct; and officers James Prinzo of the 60th Precinct, Frank Perna of the 68th Precinct, and Tab Haynes of the Staten Island task force. All but Haynes are Brooklyn cops. All six were suspended and then placed on modified duty. Their lawyers have declined comment.
Investigators are still trying to determine how the cops allegedly implicated in the Lowen’s probe got turned on to the pharmacy in the first place. And cops aren’t the only ones facing a probe. So far, 19 New York City firefighters have been found to have received prescriptions for steroids and/or HGH that were filled at Lowen’s, sources say.
FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon says the department has not been notified that any firefighters had obtained prescriptions for steroids related to the investigation that revolves around Lowen’s. Like the NYPD, the FDNY doesn’t include steroids in its random drug tests.
In the past year, Lowen’s has become what law-enforcement officials believe was one of the busiest steroid and HGH outlets in the country. Those involved in this alleged ‘roid mill include a Beverly Hills chiropractor with a degree in hypnotism, a mob associate/ movie producer named Julius “Jules” Nasso who did time for extorting actor Steven Seagal, a former pump-and-dump stock operator who owns a gym, and a Staten Island doctor who had an office in what was known as the “Fountain of Youth Building,” across the street from a cemetery.
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 business—including equipment, inventory, formulas, and client list—to 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 them—9,300— 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.
Lowen’s attorney, Paul Aufrichtig, declined comment for this story. Instead, he faxed a recent copy of the Bay Ridge Eagle that included two letters to the editors from Lowen’s owner, John Rossi. In them, Rossi outlined his 45 years of community service—such as playing Santa every Christmas in his store to hand out gifts—and basically laid the blame for the illegal steroids and HGH squarely at the feet of the China supplier, DNP.
In addition to the pharmacy’s connection with Nasso, it is also associated with New York Anti-Aging & Wellness Medical Services, a Staten Island hormone-therapy clinic also at the center of the steroid probe. The principals in that venture include osteopath Richard Lucente and John Amato, a/k/a “Flames,” who owns several Dolphin Fitness Center gyms. Amato did 15 months in prison and was ordered to make $182,000 in restitution for a pump-and dump stock scam in 2000 involving a company supposedly operating health clubs. Rossi’s son-in-law, Edward Letendre, is also a parter in the clinic and a vice president of Lowen’s.
The Staten Island clinic was located in the small, redbrick “Fountain of Youth Building” across the street from St. Peter’s Cemetery. In a small office on the lower level of that building, Lucente also operated the Life Longevity Center. The office was raided several months ago and appears to have since been vacated. Investigators have found that Lucente wrote more than 2,000 of the 9,300 steroid prescriptions filled at Lowen’s over the past 18 months, according to law-enforcement sources.
Lucente tells the Voice that the prescriptions he wrote for the NYPD cops were legitimate. He says that he has some renown in the specialty of hormone replacement and that the officers he saw, most of whom were in their 30s and 40s, were in fact suffering from low testosterone. It’s not unusual for a group of men in that age range to suffer from hypogonadism, he says. Lucente denies that the cops were using the testosterone creams and injectible drug to build muscles. (A doctor tells the Voice that it’s highly unlikely that a group of relatively young cops would be suffering from hypogonadism. In addition, chronic steroid use has been known to eventually cause the users’ testicles to shrink and shrivel.)
Lucente contends that the focus of the investigation is solely on Lowen’s, not on him. “I haven’t been charged with anything, nor do I expect to be,” says Lucente. When asked if he was cooperating with authorities in the probe, Lucente declined comment.
The word “steroid” doesn’t appear in the NYPD’s Patrol Guide. But the rules manual does say that cops can be fired for ingesting “illegal substances.” The last time as many of six cops lost their jobs in the same investigation was the so-called “Dirty 30” scandal involving more than two dozen rogue cops at Harlem’s 30th Precinct the early ’90s.
The primary line of defense for those with positive steroid tests may be to claim ignorance. A police union source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, tries to make that case. “These guys relied on a doctor’s advice,” the source says. “He did tests, blood work. What they hell do you expect them to know about it? They’re just cops.”
Young cops, supposedly suffering from a lack of testosterone. Gotcha.