- Mike Fish
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Victor Conte Jr., the self-taught scientist with a penchant for self-promotion and ties to some of the biggest names in sports, heads off to prison with one last declaration.
"I'm not a rat," he says, "or a snitch or informant of any kind."
Just how chatty the BALCO founder was with federal agents as they searched his lab two years ago remains a hot topic in the bodybuilding and fitness community, where his company's dietary and supplement products remain in demand. What exactly Conte told IRS and FDA agents that day is also at the foundation of a recent federal indictment of Patrick Arnold, the chemist accused of creating the designer steroids used by elite athletes.
After appearances on TV news shows like "20/20" and "Nightline," in which he specifically addressed drug use by Olympic track stars Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery and Kelli White, Conte pleaded guilty in July to money laundering and steroid distribution charges. On Thursday, he begins serving a 120-day sentence at C.I. Taft Prison Camp, a low-security federal facility four hours south of San Francisco, followed by four months of home detention upon his release.
"I have always taken full responsibility for my actions and will receive full punishment," he says.
Conte admits that more than sculpted pecs and glutes were at stake. Indeed, world records fell and gold medals were won by those athletes who allegedly used the test-proof performance-enhancers. But Conte disputes reports that he named names and hurriedly sold out the athletes during the Sept. 3, 2003, raid of his BALCO office. Above all, Conte wants it known that he didn't help federal investigators bring an indictment earlier this month against Arnold, an organic chemist and prohormone manufacturer in Champaign, Ill.
"I did not make a confession to agents on the day of the infamous BALCO raid, regardless of what has been widely reported," Conte wrote in a statement released to ESPN.com. "I also did not provide any specific information about drug use involving athletes, coaches or physicians. The Feds had obtained a search warrant and [had] been reading my history of incoming and outgoing e-mails for a long period before they made the raid. This is how they became aware of what had previously been discussed between me and others involved with BALCO."
The perception that Conte sold out others involved in his scheme was outlined by federal investigators in an affidavit accompanying a warrant request to search Arnold's lab in September. In the court filing, Conte and BALCO vice president James Valente are said to have fingered Arnold as the creator of "the clear," one of three designer steroids discovered during the BALCO raid.
"Both Conte and Valente stated that they did not know exactly what 'the clear' was, but they knew it was a liquid with 'anabolic effects' that was taken orally," Janet Laine, a special agent with the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigation, wrote in the document. "Neither Conte nor Valente provided any details about Arnold, other than he was a chemist from Illinois from whom Conte received 'the clear.'"
"During the interview of Victor Conte by IRS-CI special agent Jeff Novitzky ...," Laine added later, "Conte stated that he rented a local storage locker where he kept athletes' medical files and drugs, including his supply of 'the clear,' which he stated that he had received from Patrick Arnold. Conte voluntarily consented to a search of his storage locker."
Conte accuses federal investigators of misrepresenting the facts to make their case. "I simply told the agents during the raid that the drugs they found in my locker were for personal use," he says.
But Miles Werre, a potential key witness who himself handed over designer steroids he claims were sent to him by Arnold, says he didn't feel so bad about cooperating with investigators because he believed Conte already had snitched.
"Wow, according to what the papers say, Victor named everybody right away," Werre told ESPN.com. "He should have kept his mouth shut.
"He ratted. Not only that, but he took them to his locker where he was keeping all [the drugs]. There was no search warrant for that locker. He just took them right to it."
During the raid of Conte's office, however, federal agents uncovered e-mails and faxes from Arnold, as well as copies of checks Conte had written to Werre. The Feds also knew about the locker and were prepared to get a search warrant, Conte says.
He says he declined when federal agents asked him to cooperate in the investigation by wearing a wire, presumably in hopes of implicating accomplices and star athletes.
"When the agents asked me if I would be willing to cooperate with them in any way, I told them 'Absolutely not,' " Conte maintains.
With his help or without it, the same grand jury that nailed Conte, Valente, fitness trainer Greg Anderson and track coach Remi Korchemny then went after Arnold, charging him with three felony counts of steroid distribution and drug misbranding.
Arnold pleaded not guilty to the charges after the indictment was rendered in early November, and he made his first court appearance in U.S. District Court on Wednesday.
Conte says he reports to prison with a clean conscience.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Victor Conte heads to prison, the BALCO boss rebuts popular opinion that he snitched in hopes of landing a lighter sentence.