On Aug. 25, 2015, a Swiss postal inspector reached into the river of 300,000 parcels that pour into that nation every day and, for a routine inspection, plucked out two packages arriving from Arizona. Inspectors unwrapped them and found serried rows of bottles.
The bottles were suspected of containing performance-enhancing drugs, so they were shipped to an anti-doping laboratory for testing. Chemists discovered three synthetic compounds that are illicit gold for cheating athletes. One sped the healing of tendons and ligaments. Another helped build muscle mass. A third stimulated the body to burn fat.
The Swiss authorities notified the organization in the United States that investigates sports doping, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and shared the return-address sticker. The packages were shipped by someone named Thomas Mann.
His name drew shrugs from USADA investigators. That name had never crossed their radar, and they could not find a home listing for someone with that name in their database in Arizona or anywhere else.
The name was then stored in the organization’s computer system and largely forgotten, until it resurfaced in a different context several months later, triggering an intense pursuit of Thomas Mann and an aggressive investigation of his enterprise that involved federal law enforcement as well as anti-doping officials.
The existence of the investigation and its extraordinary findings have not been previously reported.
Investigators believe what they uncovered was a trafficker who sat at the centre of one of the broadest sports doping networks in American history, with tendrils that extended to Europe and Asia. In one year, he shipped parcels containing performance-enhancing drugs to more than 8,000 people, they determined. His substance of choice was peptides, a newly popular (though banned) substance among athletes that is essentially a building block for protein.
His clientele included a dozen pro football players and coaches; pro baseball players and a major league batting coach; and top track and field athletes. There were Olympians and potential Olympians, from discus throwers to sprinters to pole-vaulters to weight lifters to wrestlers.
Investigators assembled what they considered a pile of incriminating evidence: surveillance video of the man making the shipments; invoices and payment receipts; email messages; and testimony from several athletes who purchased drugs from him that corroborated the nature of his business.
Yet the dealer has not faced criminal charges. He distributed drugs that inhabit a hazy grey zone. Prosecutors generally treat the possession of peptides, which are illegal without a medical prescription, as a misdemeanour.
Investigators also determined something else: The man’s name was not Thomas Mann. His real name was Michael A. Moorcones, and he had left the faintest of footprints. Born in Virginia, he was a lawyer with no law office, a distributor of sports drugs with no formal training as a pharmacist.
I set out to find Moorcones. I drove 50 kilometres south of Phoenix to Queen Creek, Arizona, where suburbs expire in sun-blasted desert and the Superstition Mountains rise grey and jagged. I rang a doorbell in a subdivision. A balding, middle-aged man opened the door.
He nodded. “Yes?”
I’m a reporter, I told him, and athletes tell me they purchased your performance-enhancing drugs. They say your substances help them out-train and outperform athletes who compete clean.
Can we talk?
Moorcones offered a hint of a chuckle. “I wouldn’t be interested in ever talking to anybody about anything. OK?”
He moved to close the door.
In late December 2015, about four months after the Swiss authorities had flagged the shipments from Thomas Mann, Al-Jazeera released an explosive documentary called “The Dark Side: Secrets of the Sports Dopers.” A retired professional hurdler from Britain had worked with the news organization to penetrate the world of illicit sports doping while carrying a hidden camera.
An intriguing name was tucked into the Al-Jazeera documentary. Underground chemists spoke with reverence of a Svengali who produced and sold them high-quality sports drugs. His name was Thomas Mann.
A chemist explained in the documentary how fastidious he had to be when ordering performance-enhancing drugs from Mann: “If you even use the wrong language with him, saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to use this,’ right away, boom, you’d be kicked off.”
Investigators pulled at Thomas Mann’s internet veil and found that he was using an alias, a name perhaps borrowed from the famous German novelist. He called his business Authentiquevie (French for “authentic life”); another forum, DatBTrue, provided a menu of his peptides and hormones, accompanied by detailed explanations of each drug. Four-star customer testimonials piled up.
“Tom carries it and is the only guy I trust to deliver actual peptides and not useless vials,” read one.
His business model, according to investigators, was clever. They believe he operated the DatBTrue forum, a go-to place for savvy discussion of peptides. When an athlete on the forum would inquire about obtaining peptides, Moorcones, using a different name, would steer the athlete to Thomas Mann. So he was sending potential customers to himself.
Moorcones, in the guise of Thomas Mann, or Tom Mann, would then rigorously vet the customers to make sure they were who they claimed to be and would be trustworthy clients.
In the one year that Moorcones was under investigation, he had US$1 million in sales.
Moorcones’ business was a raging river in a much larger doping ecosystem. The demand for performance-enhancing drugs extends to every corner of professional and amateur sports, and well beyond. Name any sport, and chances are good that someone playing it has been caught doping in the past few months.
Then there are wealthy users who flock to anti-aging medical clinics in search of youthful elixirs. They find doctors who will prescribe peptides and human growth hormone. The patients take all of these in hopes of adding muscle mass, smoothing wrinkles and reclaiming body definition and sexual vitality.
Moorcones served both ends of this market, from athletes to the aging. All came to his online forum in search of the latest wonder drug.
Moorcones purported that his products were intended for lab use only. In a 2014 email, he wrote: “I have the following batches available for in vitro purposes only. Peptides: Modified GRF (1-29) (2mg) @ $35/vial; $31/10 vials.” But a cursory reading of his customers’ online comments indicated that they were not being used that way.
Dr. Todd B. Nippoldt, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, spoke to the scientific and health consequences of unregulated and illegal use.
“These people are carrying out quite sophisticated experiments on themselves at doses that far exceed anything in a lab,” Nippoldt said. “It’s quite remarkable and dangerous.”
Emergence of Peptides
The original wonder drug of sports doping was steroids, and it remains the gold standard for athletic cheaters. There is nothing, doctors and athletes say, quite like the muscle-firing boost provided by synthetic testosterone.
Steroid use peaked in the 1980s and 1990s, and records set during that era were Popeye-like. Olympic records usually fall every few Games; some records set during the steroid era have stood untouched for decades. This is no less true of Major League Baseball, where swollen sluggers made a mockery of the record books in recent decades.
Then testing for steroids improved and some sports toughened their rules against doping. Steroids became a riskier play. But that did not stop cheating. Block one back alley, and sophisticated chemists scurry down another. The aim, always, is to find ways to build muscle mass, burn fat, aid recovery and increase the ability of the body to expand its aerobic capacity. This underground world soon turned its eyes toward human growth hormones and peptides, strings of amino acids and the building blocks of proteins.
Some peptides trigger reactions in the body similar to those of anabolic steroids. Others, known as secretagogues, stimulate the human pituitary gland to release excess growth hormone. A well-regarded scientific study in Australia found that growth hormone helped sprinters improve their times by four per cent. As a typical 100-metre race is won or lost by hundredths of a second, a four per cent improvement would represent a considerable advantage.
The Al-Jazeera documentary underlined that peptides had become a prime ingredient in a cheater’s performance cocktail. The documentary caught Taylor Teagarden, a major league catcher, saying on hidden camera that he had taken peptides and never been caught. (Major League Baseball remedied that oversight and suspended Teagarden for 80 games a few months after the documentary was released.)
Dr. Robert Salvatori, an expert on growth hormone at Johns Hopkins, noted that athletes were quite shrewd about the effects that drugs have on their bodies. History demonstrates that they often recognize the performance-boosting power before the medical community does.
“It took scientists until 1996 to prove the muscle-boosting powers of steroids — which athletes knew years earlier,” he said. “We are running way behind.”
Seeking to learn more about the latest tactics in sports doping, I went to Phoenix to meet with Cody Bidlow, a former professional sprinter and personal coach. A year ago, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency discovered that Bidlow had ordered peptides from Moorcones’ website. He received a four-year suspension.
A lean and muscular fellow, Bidlow described for me how he came to use peptides. He had been a sprinter at Grand Canyon University in 2015 when he suffered a hamstring injury. He was no potential Olympian. He simply wanted to run a few more races, so he asked around at elite gyms for a quick doping fix.
“I had always been around people who used peptides and HGH,” he said, although he declined to name names. “It sounded like peptides are supereffective.”
He wrote down the names of suppliers. He found a lot of fast talkers who excited no trust. (The head of Switzerland’s anti-doping organization told me that his agency’s tests have shown that 80 percent of the peptides advertised on the web are adulterated or outright fakes.)
Then Bidlow learned of Thomas Mann’s site, which was refreshingly professional. And Mann’s peptides were real. “This wasn’t ‘bro science’; he is a pure brainiac,” Bidlow said. “He would post scientific studies breaking down how a peptide worked.”
We sat in a coffee shop as Bidlow gave me a tutorial on peptides. He described which worked, which were difficult to detect and which were not worth the trouble. He said coaches and athletes — particularly sprinters — were enamoured of something called insulin growth factor-1, known as IGF-1. It promotes healing and builds muscle in a fashion similar to anabolic steroids. Insulin occurs naturally in the body, and anti-doping tests struggle to distinguish the natural from the synthetic.
No sprinter or baseball player has ever tested positive for IGF-1. Do not take that to mean no sprinter or baseball player has ever used it; they just haven’t been caught.
The anti-doping world has occasional successes. In 2015 and 2016, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Josh Ravin, Cleveland outfielder Marlon Byrd and Atlanta Braves pitcher Andrew McKirahan tested positive for peptides. Major League Baseball suspended all of them.
But the case of the retired baseball star Alex Rodriguez is more typical. Anthony Bosch, who said he supplied Rodriguez with drugs, told “60 Minutes” that his witch’s brew included peptides. Rodriguez was suspended by baseball, but not because he failed a drug test. The league connected him to doping through an investigation it started only after a news report broke the story of Bosch’s company, Biogenesis.
‘No Legal Foothold’
Faced with the limits of testing technology, anti-doping officials and investigators have asked the Food and Drug Administration and Congress to tighten laws and crack down on peptides and growth hormone.
For Drug Enforcement Administration officials, the problem lies with the weak wording of the laws that currently govern peptides.
“If I catch you with heroin, it’s a controlled substance and illegal — that’s easy,” said Douglas W. Coleman, the special agent in charge of the DEA’s Phoenix Division. “If I find human growth hormone, I have to build a case to show that it’s significantly outside what it can be prescribed for.
“Peptides are more difficult still. There’s really no legal foothold.”
The FDA holds clearer regulatory authority; its officials could write tougher regulatory language and crack down on peptides and growth hormone. But agency investigators have paid scant attention to this black market. I asked, repeatedly and over many weeks, to speak with an FDA official about the regulation of peptides and growth hormone.
In the end, an agency spokeswoman sent a boilerplate email.
“The FDA takes seriously its mission to protect the health of the American public,” wrote the spokeswoman, Theresa Eisenman. “There are many complex factors involved in how cases involving the sale or distribution of illegal products are investigated and ultimately prosecuted.”
Her email cited three successful peptide prosecutions involving four people during the past three years. Each of the offenders received a light punishment.
Seeking a more detailed explanation, I called a former top FDA official. He spoke on condition of anonymity, as he remains involved with these issues in the private sector. He described the FDA’s stance as defensible. It has a small staff of about 200 agents, and they focus on plagues like tainted and counterfeit drugs, which endanger thousands of unsuspecting customers. The societal effect of peptides and growth hormone is far less severe, clearly.
The former official described the world of illicit peptide and hormones as caveat emptor — buyer beware. “If rich patients and athletes are going to anti-aging clinics or the web in search of unregistered drugs, they know the risk,” he said.
The decision to downgrade prosecutions has all but decriminalized the mass distribution and use of powerful and untested drugs for athletes.
That deeply frustrates those who are trying to stamp out chemical cheating by athletes. Jeff Novitzky once served as a top investigator for the Food and Drug Administration, and he was the lead investigator in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative case, in which he helped uncover doping by some of the biggest names in American sports.
Novitzky now is a senior official with Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed-martial arts circuit. He is charged with cleaning up that sport, and sees governmental foot-dragging everywhere he looks.
“For officials to complain that these are difficult, high-pressure prosecutions is a cowardly excuse,” Novitzky said. “The ease with which athletes, teenagers, anyone, can purchase and buy these powerful hormonal substances is mind-boggling.”
Investigators discovered that Moorcones was shipping his products from a UPS store wedged between a supermarket and real estate office on the suburban frontier of Queen Creek. Video surveillance revealed that Moorcones’ septuagenarian parents often went with him to mail his parcels.
Eventually investigators obtained Moorcones’ customer list of more than 8,000 names. It was a rich hunting ground. Investigators found the names of pro athletes and forwarded the information to their leagues.
Major League Baseball ended up suspending two minor leaguers. The National Football League did not even go that far. The Al-Jazeera documentary named six players as likely dopers, and the NFL penalized not a single one. The Moorcones investigation yielded more names, which were shared with the league. The NFL has penalized none of the players.
Track and field athletes, weightlifters and wrestlers are another matter. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has jurisdiction over these sports and can punish athletes who violate doping protocols.
USADA handed down a raft of penalties to Moorcones’ customers. Jason Young, a 35-year-old discus thrower and coach from Lubbock, Texas, who competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics, was suspended, as was Nick Mossberg, a pole-vaulter who competed at the 2012 United States Olympic trials and planned to try again in 2016. The investigation also netted a wrestler from Colorado and a weightlifter who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
All acknowledged ordering peptides from Thomas Mann. None of these athletes had tested positive.
Bidlow, the former sprinter, and Mossberg had worked and trained at Altis, an elite athletic training campus in Phoenix. Numerous Olympic athletes train there under the tutelage of coaches with global reputations.
I called the recruiting director at Altis, Andreas Behm, who also coaches the sprinters and hurdlers. Bidlow and Mossberg, he said, had simply “gone rogue.” The elite training centre, he insisted, had no larger problem with doping.
‘Losing a True Hero’
The investigation of Moorcones stalled last year. The U.S. attorney in Phoenix had taken a hard look and given up because no federal agency — neither the FDA nor the DEA — was willing to bring a case. His distribution of peptides, they apparently decided, was not worth prosecuting. A lawyer for Moorcones demanded immunity for his client.
Moorcones shut down his website and claimed online that he was ill. Worried customers speculated that his own drugs had sickened him. “I feel for the guy,” one customer wrote. “The community of illegal experimental medicine is losing a true hero.”
Other clients speculated correctly that Mann was under investigation; they began to worry that their names had fallen into the hands of law enforcement. They were correct.
Moorcones politely bid everyone goodbye. “I’ve enjoyed serving everyone through the years,” he wrote on his Authentiquevie site.
Within months, investigators noticed that one of Moorcones’ prominent, high-volume customers had taken his business to a dealer in Florida, where anti-aging clinics peddling peptides and hormones grow like sugar cane. Other clients turned to an oft-investigated but still active peptide trafficker in Louisiana.
There was still much investigators did not understand about Moorcones’ operation. He distributed such massive volumes of illicit substances, but they were never able to determine the source of the drugs. Was he purchasing them from somewhere and reselling to athletes, or was he somehow manufacturing them himself? And were his parents aware of what they were shipping?
Back on the edge of the desert in Arizona, I persuaded Moorcones to keep the door open another minute or two. “People all have their own agenda,” he told me.
I allowed that this might be true. Any story grows more complicated when you hear both sides, I said. Why not tell me yours?
He smiled faintly. “I wouldn’t be the person to give it to you anyway. Thank you.”
This time, Moorcones shut the door.