Commentary

BALCO chemist becomes witness for the prosecution against former client

Originally Published: March 25, 2008
By Mark Fainaru-Wada | ESPN

SAN FRANCISCO -- It has been four-and-a-half years since the BALCO steroids scandal went public, five-and-a-half years since the government launched a secret investigation into a bold nutritionist named Victor Conte and nearly a decade since an Illinois chemist began creating a series of performance-enhancing drugs that would change the face of sports.

Yet the faces and the narrative of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative saga continue to reveal themselves even to this day, up on the 19th floor of the Phillip Burton Federal Building, inside Judge Susan Illston's courtroom. This is where five men previously pleaded guilty to distributing illegal performance-enhancing drugs to elite athletes, and where Home Run King Barry Bonds and three others were indicted on charges of lying about their involvement in the BALCO case.

On Tuesday, as Illston presided over Day 2 of the first BALCO-related case to go to trial, the chemist whose creative lab work ushered designer steroids into the sporting lexicon testified in open court for the first time. Patrick Arnold's three hours on the stand not only revealed the origins of the BALCO conspiracy but also shed light on the inner workings of the world of doping.

[+] EnlargePatrick Arnold
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesPatrick Arnold, shown here at his sentencing hearing in August 2006, testified Tuesday that he had suggested a cover story for former BALCO client Tammy Thomas.
The appearance of Arnold is part of a case far less notable for its defendant -- former world-class cyclist Tammy Thomas -- than for its witnesses. Jeff Novitzky, of the Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigations unit, is expected to testify, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, and his appearance will mark the first chance for the public to hear from the man who has driven the BALCO probe from its inception.

Novitzky's testimony, as well as that of experts such as Dr. Don Catlin, is likely to provide a window into the government's looming perjury case against Bonds, who has been charged with four counts of making false statements and one count of obstruction of justice. Illston recently ruled that the indictment was written insufficiently, and the government has indicated it intends to file a superseding indictment against Bonds in the coming months.

Thomas is fighting five counts of lying and one count of obstruction.

Those testifying Tuesday included a doctor, Margaret Wierman, who told jurors the cyclist admitted in 2000 that she had used the steroid Depo-Testosterone in high doses. Wierman described a series of characteristics she believed resulted from use of anabolic steroids by the female cyclist, including "specific signs of a full beard," shaved hair of the upper chest and arms, male-pattern baldness, and enlarged genitalia.

Thomas' attorney, Ethan Balogh, suggested there could have been alternative causes for the physical abnormalities, and he intimated that Wierman's excessively full schedule might have inhibited her time with patients.

Arnold's testimony, meanwhile, was more noteworthy for his almost matter-of-fact recounting of his role in the steroid scandal than for his connections to Thomas.

The chemist, who runs a nutritional supplement business, described concocting drugs such as norbolethone and the designer steroids that came to be known as THG and DMT. Asked about his creation of THG, Arnold -- referring to its strong anabolic qualities and the fact that until recently it was undetectable -- said flatly, "That's the primary reason THG was developed."

Arnold described how he came to know Conte through Internet message boards and how he ultimately sold the Bay Area nutritionist norbolethone and, later, THG -- aka "the clear" -- to provide to elite-level athletes.

[+] EnlargeTammy Thomas
AP Photo/Rick RycroftTammy Thomas won the sprint final at the Track Cycling World Cup in Australia in 2002. On Tuesday, a doctor testified that Thomas admitted to having used performance-enhancing drugs.
After a series of semi-hostile exchanges on Internet message boards beginning in the late '90s, the two men seemed to develop a mutual respect and a business relationship. Arnold said it began when Conte asked the chemist about some of his legal steroid precursor products. Before BALCO, Arnold was most famous for bringing androstenedione to the American market -- a move that generated huge success after it was revealed in 1998 that Mark McGwire was using the substance during his record home run season.

Of Conte, Arnold testified, "I told him about norbolethone after he inquired about how my andro products might be effective. I told Victor I knew of another agent that would be much more effective."

Arnold also described how he introduced Conte to Miles Werre, a Texas pharmacist, and helped the two men develop what became known in the BALCO case as "the cream," a testosterone-based balm that was used essentially as a masking agent.

The chemist said that he provided the men with the formulation for the substance after consulting "old East German literature." The East Germans developed a state-run doping apparatus in the '60s and '70s to create Olympic athletes.

Arnold said Conte paid him $10,000-$15,000 over about a year and a half for his services.

In perhaps the most unexpected moment of Arnold's testimony, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Nedrow asked the chemist to name some of the athletes Conte told him he was giving the drugs to. From the beginning, the government often has seemed to be trying to shield the names of the athletes connected to the case, initially redacting their names in court files or referring to them in generic ways, such as, "A Major League Baseball Player."

But on Tuesday, Nedrow asked Arnold for some examples of Conte's clients.

"Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Bill Romanowski, Dana Stubblefield," Arnold said. "A lot of athletes whose names I didn't keep track of."

Jones and former NFL lineman Stubblefield recently pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents in connection with BALCO. Jones is in prison; Stubblefield is awaiting sentencing. Montgomery, once the world's fastest man, admitted his use of steroids and human growth hormone to the BALCO grand jury, and he is awaiting sentencing for his role in a check fraud case that also involved Jones. Romanowski tested positive for THG in 2003 and has since retired from the NFL.

Arnold did not name Bonds on Tuesday, which is in keeping with Conte's repeated denials that he ever discussed performance-enhancing drugs with the former Giants slugger. Court documents reflect that Conte's vice president, James Valente, was the major contact with baseball players via Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson.

Arnold's discussion of Thomas also offered a window into the duplicitous nature of doping by top-level athletes. At one point, after Thomas had tested positive in 2002 for norbolethone, she sought guidance from Arnold for fighting a potential ban.

Arnold, knowing that norbolethone had characteristics similar to contraceptives, offered one explanation for Thomas.

"I suggested to Tammy a cover story could be contrived that involved telling the doping agency that she was on the morning-after pill," Arnold testified. "… She was interested in pursuing that avenue."

Asked to define a cover story, Arnold said, "A false story to cover up the truth."

Arnold was one of three witnesses for the prosecution who have testified so far in the case. Thomas has yet to present any of the witnesses in her defense.

Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-author of "Game of Shadows," is a reporter for ESPN. He can be reached at markfwespn@gmail.com.