- Mike Fish
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HOUSTON -- Surrounded by the lunch crowd in a local Mexican eatery, with canned music dulling conversation and a handful of clean-cut wait staff serenading an adjoining table with "Happy Birthday," he blends quietly into the bustling scene.
Nothing about his presence brings undue attention or a second glance, and that's fine by him. Not the long-sleeve pink shirt nor the strawberry blond hair combed neatly back. Not the almost 200 pounds carried on a 5-foot-6 frame. Not even the reporter's tape recorder sitting alongside his plate.
The name hasn't been in headlines, and you have to dig deep through pages of federal court documents to catch it. For the record, Werre (pronounced "weary") is a heretofore faceless, small character caught in the middle of the mother of all sports doping scandals. He's the former personal-trainer-turned-student-chemist who developed a virtual friendship with the scientist who, federal prosecutors allege, created designer steroids. He's also the handyman to the frontman who administered the holy grail of drugs to elite athletes around the world.
You've heard of Victor Conte, Jr., the BALCO founder who begins serving a four-month prison sentence Thursday for his part in the scheme to distribute undetectable performance enhancers to athletes. And, more recently, perhaps you caught mention of Patrick Arnold, the supplement guru from Champaign, Ill., who brought to market the steroid precursor andro -- which slugger Mark McGwire made a household word -- and who allegedly created the designer steroids found at BALCO. Arnold, who pleaded not guilty in November, made his first court appearance Wednesday in San Francisco on federal felony charges of steroid distribution and drug misbranding.
Now meet Werre, the guy who whipped up "the cream." The steroidal cream Barry Bonds reportedly told a grand jury he thought was flaxseed oil. The same cream slugger Gary Sheffield is said to have unwittingly rubbed into his ailing right knee during the 2002 season.
Werre, a 28-year-old Houston native who once aspired to be a bodybuilder, now works by day as a pharmacy technician in a small, corner drugstore in a medical building. He admits to mixing testosterone/epitestosterone, one of the substances at the heart of the BALCO investigation. Werre also says he was approached by Conte about procuring EPO and human growth hormone, but denies he ever supplied the stuff.
"There might have been some things here or there that I got for him," Werre says. "Nothing that was illegal."
Werre, however, fancies himself a "colleague" of Arnold's. Others call him a "snitch." No matter the label hung on him, Werre claims he worked his way so deep into the synthetic-organic chemist's inner sanctum that Arnold shipped samples of three designer steroids to him. The same test-proof steroids that federal investigators later discovered in their raid of BALCO.
In the end, Werre spilled his guts and rolled on Arnold when Jeff Novitzky, an IRS criminal investigation agent, showed up at his Houston apartment last December. Three months later, Werre turned over untouched samples of designer drugs -- plastic containers of norbolethone, "the clear" and "the cream" -- a move that might prove to be his "Get out of jail" card.
How did Novitzky know about the stuff? Werre told him.
"Talking about 'the clear,' " he says, "I just volunteered that I had a sample.
"At that point, when you have the IRS knocking at your door or whatever ..." Werre says in explaining his motive. "Patrick Arnold didn't want to keep in touch with me, 'cause of the fact, I guess, that he introduced me to [Conte]. And, you know, him sending the word to me that everybody is on their own."
Werre says he hasn't communicated with Arnold or Conte since federal agents raided BALCO on Sept. 3, 2003. According to court documents, Werre told federal agents that Arnold advised him then to destroy his computer hard drives, presumably because of the cache of e-mails they had exchanged over the years. Neither Arnold nor Conte would discuss Werre's role when contacted by ESPN.com. Nanci Clarence, one of the attorneys on Arnold's defense team, refused to speculate how Werre fits into the government's case but added: "We're curious about him, too."
Now, after sitting before a federal grand jury in San Francisco for two hours on a morning in March, Werre claims government officials told him he's their key witness in the case against Arnold.
According to Harris County (Texas) Sheriff's Office records, Werre was on the FBI radar as early as November of 2002 -- almost 10 months before the well-chronicled noontime raid on the BALCO facility in Burlingame, Calif., and two years before he began cooperating with the feds. The FBI, which began examining BALCO in August 2002, cited an "ongoing investigation" when it requested a copy of Werre's arrest report for a shoplifting conviction in 1998.
"I don't feel like I'm ratting him out," Werre told ESPN.com about his testimony and evidence involving Arnold. "They would have found out one way or the other. And, I mean, they already knew."
Werre paints Conte as the original rat, a claim the BALCO boss vehemently disputes. But what's clear is that, as word of the federal investigation spread, Werre saw reason to keep his designer stash. So there the drugs sat, in their original plastic bottles, in the U.S. Postal Service Priority Mail box he claims they were delivered in, with an Illinois postmark and return address linked to Arnold, on a shelf in the bedroom of his apartment in Houston.
"So when all this stuff came up, I was like, 'Well, I'd rather -- you just have to look out for yourself,' " he says."Once this case broke open, being the way that people like to turn on people, I decided to hold onto it because you never know."
He also suspected he bore enough legal exposure to retain an attorney. At the very least, Werre feared, he could face drug conspiracy charges.
"I never actually heard from the government, 'Well, you can go to jail for this, this or this,' " he says. "I am sure there is something. I think the biggest thing was making -- just mixing up 'the cream' for them. That was the biggest thing right there, even though none of [the steroids] actually came from me."
As for the mixing, Werre explained: "I mean, it's like making a cake. ... Basically what happened with it, [Conte] would send me the testosterone and epitest, [in] separate vials. All you do is you find an appropriate solvent, which is like propylene glycol, and dissolve it. And then you [blend] it with however much cream. It was all ready -- all the ingredients were already premeasured."
Werre says he wasn't the only person mixing drugs for Conte. "I know that Victor Conte was actually using two other pharmacies. I don't know what they were getting. He was actually using another pharmacy here in [Texas], too, but I can't tell you where or who it is. And I know he was using a pharmacy in Canada. He was using it to make testosterone and epitest cream. And in Canada, it could have been other things."
It was third-party payments made for mixing 'the cream' that were the basis for the money laundering charge Conte pleaded to in July. But most of the information Werre shared with the grand jury centered on Arnold. Werre says he portrayed Arnold as the chemist who developed the steroids with the clear intent that the performance aids could beat routine doping tests.
"I know that Patrick was the one that actually introduced the idea of using the 10 percent to .5 percent for the test for epitest," Werre says of the proportion of steroids used to skirt drug tests. "Patrick Arnold had pulled an old [East] German study where they showed that they used an injectable version of testosterone propionate and epitestosterone propionate. And it actually, I guess, showed it kept the levels within range so you wouldn't fail a drug test."
According to court documents, Werre told investigators he initially hooked up with Arnold in 1999 on misc.fitness.weights.com, a bodybuilding message board, and quickly discovered they shared an affinity for chemistry as well as for pumping iron. Aspiring to break into the supplement business, Werre, then only 22, tossed ideas back and forth with Arnold, and at one point he claims to have helped the supplement icon research oral-dissolving prohormones, which were placed on the government's banned list of drugs in January.
Werre says he was mailed designer steroids -- enough to be used for maybe three or four weeks -- in turn for favors he did for Arnold. Government documents allege that Arnold sent a package containing norbolethone and tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) to Werre early in June 2001.
One of the favors was tracking down an online supplier of nasal spray bottles for a product being brought to market. Another, Werre says, was locating an effective acne lotion for Arnold's then girlfriend, who Arnold claimed had broken out badly after doing a cycle of steroids.
Werre says he never got around to trying the performance-enhancing drugs himself, but his voice rises with a sense of excitement as he explains the novelty of the unique steroids at his disposal. According to Werre, Arnold said he tried out the steroids himself as well as passed them on to friends and associates.
"He obviously sampled a lot of his friends," Werre says. "When you have all this stuff, you send it out to people to try to kind of get an idea of how it works. Obviously, you can't use it all yourself."
Officials with the Food and Drug Administration, Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Justice refuse to comment, citing their ongoing investigation, but an affidavit submitted by federal agents to the U.S. District Court in Urbana, Ill., seeking a warrant to search Arnold's office and home in September, offers as evidence this edited e-mail exchange from 2001 that captures Arnold and Werre chatting about the nuances and dosage of designer steroids:
- Arnold: Hey Miles. Patrick here. I am sending you out 6 grams of 1-testosterone and a designer roid dissolved in propylene glycol. The designer stuff is very secret and very potent. It is currently being used by several high profile athletes, some of which are having phenomenal success in their sports right now.
Werre: If you don't mind me asking what is the designer roid, and what is the concentration? Also, I guess since it is dissolved in propylene glycol the best way to take it would be sublingually.
Arnold: Structurally it is Norbolethone with triene unsaturation (three double bonds) of trenbolone. It is very potent. The concentration is 20mg per cc. You probably don't need more than 10mg a day and some take as little as 2mg a day. It is good sublingually then swallow.
Werre: Also in your opinion what would be the best way to take the 1-test orally?
Arnold: I put some in a topical spray and a couple of our marketing guys are using it and getting big. If you take it orally then maybe 100-300mg a day or something. I have no idea what is best, you can use your imagination.
This is the way the relationships went. Werre never met face-to-face with Arnold or Conte. In perhaps a sign of the cyber times, they communicated principally via e-mail and an occasional phone call.
Werre impressed Arnold and Conte with his street smarts, experimental nature and desire to turn a buck, although had they dug into the pharmacy tech's background, they might have stumbled on his questionable past. Werre skirted ESPN.com's interview attempts like an elusive NFL running back before finally agreeing to meet under the terms "I'm gonna answer some questions. And some things I'm not gonna answer. I'm not gonna implicate myself."
Asked where he mixed "the cream," Werre said: "I don't remember."
"Well, I have interest in pharmaceuticals, supplements. I have a sports nutrition certification."
Do you work with athletes?
"No, I don't know any athletes down here."
Where'd you go to high school?
"I went to school around here," he offers. "I'm just gonna leave it at that."
Later, Werre volunteered that he holds a bachelor's degree in biology and continues to pursue an advanced degree, only he still isn't naming schools.
Werre is registered with the Texas State Board of Pharmacy as a pharmacy technician, a designation that requires a high school diploma. On his 2004 application, Werre listed Hastings High School in Houston, Class of 1996.
Joe Reynolds, Hastings' registrar, says records indicate Werre left the 4,000-plus student megaschool in the spring of 1996 one class shy of graduation. There is no indication Werre returned to complete English IV, the outstanding course, nor is there a record of his transcript being requested by another school. The only activity listed is his having played football in ninth grade.
Whatever his formal education, Werre grasped his compounds and science well enough to run in fast circles. But he had issues. Murky answers and a spotty background landed him a two-week suspension from the Texas State Board of Pharmacy last year for providing false information on his registration application with regard to his criminal history.
Asked whether he'd ever been confined for an offense, Werre wrote that he had served three days "due to being with somebody that was shoplifting." In fact, according to Harris County Sheriff's Office records, Werre previously had pleaded guilty in two separate misdemeanor incidents: one for shoplifting children-sized Winnie the Pooh and Little Mermaid shirts and three unspecified CDs from a local Wal-Mart (he served eight days in jail); the other, eight months later, for fleeing from police in an attempt to evade arrest (two days of incarceration).
As for the BALCO investigation, state officials had no inkling of Werre's involvement, specifically his admission to federal agents that he'd mixed the designer steroid. "If he's doing something illegal dealing with drugs, we'd look into that," said Allison Benz, the state pharmacy board's director of professional services.
It was the lure of money that drove Werre to the pharmacy business. Robert Werre, Miles' father, says his son worked as a personal trainer at a fitness club in Houston after high school, eventually quitting "because it wasn't financially [rewarding]."
These days, Werre appears to live a comfortable lifestyle in his gig as a pharmacy technician, a job state officials say typically pays about $15 an hour. He has a first-floor unit in what's billed as a luxury apartment complex, a gated and meticulously landscaped community where rents range from $730 to $1,375 a month.
He drives a fully loaded, white 2002 Cadillac Escalade with tinted windows and video monitors in the dashboard and headrests. On a recent day, a copy of a book titled "The Ultimate Anti-Aging Program" rested on a second-row seat. The cargo section held a large, opened box bearing the name Professional Compounding Centers of America -- a Houston firm that repackages unformulated chemicals for pharmacy compounding -- with the slogan "Compound with Confidence" printed on the side. Visible inside the box are items individually protected in thick, heavy plastic wrap.
"I make good money, plus my family is not exactly poor," Werre says of his lifestyle.
As for whether he still picks up extra cash on the side dealing with characters like Arnold and Conte, he says "No, no, not at all. ... Since whatever I might have been doing or didn't do, my nose is clean."
And the BALCO hoopla? All those pro athletes parading in business suits before Congress amid calls for federal drug testing. People like Conte and Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds' fitness guru, being sent off to prison. (Anderson heads in Thursday, as well, to serve three months at Atwater federal penitentiar, south of Modesto.) Well, let's say Werre isn't impressed.
"In my opinion, it went nowhere and did nothing, really," Werre opines. "They spent millions of dollars. I mean, it's good that they brought it up, the idea of cheating [by] the athletes. Because let's get it straight, 99 percent of all professional athletes take something.
"It's a shame that all this happened. I just think the government has tried to make a scapegoat out of [Arnold and Conte], because they're not the only ones doing it out there."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A virtual friendship led a student chemist into the sanctum of a rogue scientist and, eventually, before a grand jury on the hunt for steroids.