DEA used all means to get PED dealers related to Bosch, Biogenesis

Illustration by ESPN

The man supervising the U.S. government's investigation of the Biogenesis of America clinic was no novice hunting drug dealers. He had 30-plus years on the job. Like with so many other Drug Enforcement Administration investigations, Kevin Stanfill and his agents would dig deep into their toolbox, calling upon confidential informants and using undercover buys, search warrants and wiretaps. They even used surveillance operations, at times complemented by an air wing.

Only this case was different.

The feds weren't targeting faceless cocaine dealers or dangerous opioid traffickers. Instead, they were focusing on a small Coral Gables anti-aging clinic and a string of South Florida characters illegally supplying performance-enhancing drugs -- not just to bodybuilders and a feel-good crowd eager to shed pounds, but to some of the biggest names in Major League Baseball, MVP types like Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun.

The story of the decade-ago investigation and the largest doping scandal in American sports history is complicated and rife with unanswered questions. At times, Stanfill and his agents found more information than they could pursue, leading to what a source close to the case described to ESPN as "prosecutorial fatigue.'' Federal agents as well as investigators from MLB also wrestled with fact-checking and evaluating a glut of information from interviews with Tony Bosch, the Biogenesis clinic owner and key target, who ended up cooperating separately with both investigations.

But the most damaging strain -- one splintering the government-MLB relationship beyond repair -- followed then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig's decision to file a civil lawsuit in South Florida that publicly outed targets of the federal investigation. Until then, the on-the-ground investigators of the DEA and MLB had worked together in near lockstep.

Stanfill recalled to ESPN the naming of would-be targets as "one of the biggest travesties, the worst thing that came from the case." The former DEA assistant special agent who supervised the investigation explained, "It makes it a whole lot more difficult when [targets] know that you're coming after them. It gives them a chance to cover their tracks a little bit and maybe get rid of some evidence and everything else that would've been helpful."

Authorities eventually closed a successful criminal case, but from the start Stanfill knew the presence of big-time athletes and accompanying media spotlight would prove a challenge.

"We were working that case and we were trying to keep it quiet,'' Stanfill told ESPN. "And I had a friend call me from Los Angeles. He says, 'Your Major League Baseball case is the worst kept secret in the world.' And he said, 'Everybody in DEA knows about it.'

"He said, 'I went out to lunch and some of the guys were talking about the Miami MLB case.' ... It was one of those things that was too good to keep to yourself. Someone would find out and then it spread like wildfire."

By early 2013, the Biogenesis scandal was being covered by not only sports media like ESPN and Yahoo but also The New York Times and CNN. What brought the eyeballs and intrigue were the athletes. The media worked feverishly attempting to identify the pro baseball players tied to Bosch, the clinic mastermind and self-proclaimed biochemist.

The off-the-field drama intrigued the public as well.

"When they see people that they followed, that they cheered for, that they bought the jerseys, things like that, we knew that it was going to have an impact.'' Stanfill said. "We knew that this was something that was going to be far-reaching, that people were going to listen to that on ESPN and they were going to read that in the paper. And so, we knew that it was important.

"And we knew when we were making that case that it was going to be media-worthy, so we put our best investigators on it, our best group supervisor, our best case agents. Because we're like, 'OK, if we get something, if there's something there, we want to find it.' .... We knew everybody and their grandmother was going to look at everything that we had done on that case. We wanted to make sure that we didn't have any screwups."

The federal Biogenesis investigation -- dubbed "Operation Strikeout" by DEA agents -- ultimately led to the conviction of Bosch and seven associates. For MLB, the scandal finally ensnared longtime targets Rodriguez and Braun, the top names among 21 players who would end up suspended and, at least temporarily, disgraced.

Stanfill, now retired from the DEA, said it was one of the most interesting cases he ever supervised. Perhaps resonating most was the naivete of professional athletes to put their faith in the unlicensed Bosch and his sketchy doping program.

"These professional athletes that were gifted, having these talents that most of us only dream about, and they flushed it all away for another season, or for trying to get a little bonus -- just trying to get an edge,'' Stanfill said. "And then also the whole Biogenesis stuff. I mean, they were actually mixing stuff up in kitchen sinks and in bathtubs. And then you have these million-dollar athletes and I'm kind of like, 'What on earth were they thinking to do something like that?' They could have really done some damage to their bodies and everything else. And just the stupidity of the whole thing.

"With Bosch and his merry crew of misfits there, how in the world did they get in a position to get to all these MLB players, you know? You would think that an MLB player that they had people from the league, from the team, from their families watching out after them -- how did they let these two-bit thugs get close to these people? Sometimes I would come and get briefings on it and I'm like, 'Really? These guys did that?'"

In the early 2000s, the lucrative wellness and anti-aging industry was flourishing in South Florida, fueled by the promise of human growth hormone and testosterone to reverse the aging process, along with enhancing appearance and quality of life. Tony Bosch -- known as "Dr. T" -- jumped into the loosely regulated world, surfacing on MLB's radar in 2009 when he was connected to Manny Ramirez and his positive drug test. The dramatic rebirth Ramirez enjoyed on the field led Bosch to scoop up dozens of additional athletes as clients.

Bosch came under MLB scrutiny again in 2012 when several players linked to him -- Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal -- were suspended after drug tests revealed elevated levels of testosterone. Rumors about other players were also rampant. That moved Selig to dispatch baseball's Department of Investigations -- born out of recommendations from the Mitchell Report, a 2007 study on steroids in the sport -- to South Florida in hopes of cracking the game's performance-enhancing drug problem.

The baseball investigators honed in quickly on Bosch and his associates, though they were eventually limited in how deeply they could probe because they lacked the subpoena powers available to law enforcement. Late in the 2012 season, MLB brass had investigators approach the DEA office in South Florida with their case in hopes of triggering a federal investigation.

According to documents obtained by ESPN, federal agents did some initial work of their own before officially opening an investigation Nov. 1, 2012. The feds noted in the documents: "This case is being initiated based on information received from a Source of Information ... Bosch, a non-medical professional, is illegally obtaining and distributing steroids."

A source close to the investigation equated the case to being at an opponent's 10-yard line when it was handed to the DEA. Another described the MLB investigators as basically informants for the DEA, turning over the entirety of their information and cooperating at every turn. Early on, investigators connected federal agents with a confidential informant who would be used undercover.

"They handed us that case on a silver platter," Stanfill said. "They had done their homework. They put it together very well."

Stanfill said he thought both parties agreed to the plan and timeline: Upon completion of the federal investigation, Bosch and the others would be charged and the accompanying indictments would identify and detail the MLB players they supplied. The federal government had no intention of charging the players but would hand grounds sufficient for MLB to take action against the players.

That was the understanding -- until MLB filed its lawsuit.

MLB officials maintain they had every right to file the suit. They further note that they received no pushback upon approaching the U.S. attorney's office in South Florida with their plans.

Current MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who directed baseball's decade-ago investigation, expressed to ESPN the utmost respect for the DEA before suggesting there had been little historical evidence of federal agents having limited the use of steroids. "As a result, we had a job to do and an institution to protect,"' Manfred told ESPN. "We had every right, as a citizen of the United States, to file a lawsuit against somebody that we thought was doing damage to our business. And that's what we did."

The fallout resulting from MLB's lawsuit, though, had consequences, as federal authorities never shared investigative findings with their baseball partners. Conversations between investigators were near mute, and the sport's investigative unit eventually shut down. Baseball never gained access to the more than 1,400 pages of notes and interviews from the investigation, including details on players not suspended by MLB and leads that could have been pursued, as well as notes from interviews with at least 10 professional baseball players and Bosch. In one interview alone Bosch attached himself to at least 28 then-current or former players.

ESPN obtained the unredacted documents and informed MLB officials it had them last fall.

In interviews, MLB officials suggested its investigators had stopped cooperating with DEA agents at the request of federal prosecutors.

That didn't happen, Stanfill told ESPN. He said there was never a directive from the U.S. attorney's office not to speak with MLB investigators, other than the fact agents understood not to divulge what they learned on wiretaps and other items they were legally bound not to reveal. As for his office not being on the same page with federal prosecutors and whether that office had told MLB officials to stand down, he said, "That couldn't be further from the truth."

Pat Sullivan, former assistant U.S. attorney and lead prosecutor on the case, recalled his office and the DEA "worked hand in glove.'' He also noted, "I thought we had good cooperation with MLB, too."

Sullivan, an iconic figure known for prosecuting major South Florida drug cases, was unfamiliar with MLB officials being told not to cooperate with DEA agents. "Makes no sense to me,'' he said. "We never say to somebody, 'We don't want you to cooperate.' ... All I can say is, I didn't tell him that. Now, if there's somebody else somewhere ..." Sullivan didn't complete his thought but left open the possibility someone else communicated with baseball officials.

By early 2013, just months after the feds opened their investigation, MLB leadership was growing more frustrated by the day. The Miami New Times, a weekly newspaper, had obtained Biogenesis documents and revealed Rodriguez and names of other player clients. MLB unsuccessfully tried obtaining documents from the newspaper. Officials then sought to purchase documents from Porter Fischer, a whistleblower and former Biogenesis employee/investor, who rejected a $125,000 offer. Eventually, MLB paid cash to an ex-convict for what proved to be copies of stolen clinic documents.

MLB had to contend with Rodriguez, its highest-paid star at the time, who had both the money and moxie to fight back against an impending suspension. His camp was lawyered up and had its own investigative team in South Florida, mirroring MLB gumshoes, following up on every interview MLB conducted and hoping to later convince an arbitrator that MLB had run a corrupt investigation.

Meanwhile, MLB brass also had eyes on other main targets, specifically Braun, as well as Sam and Seth Levinson -- Brooklyn-based agents who represented Cabrera and 11 other clients suspended in the Biogenesis case. MLB was able to successfully suspend the players, but a separate independent inquiry by the Major League Baseball Players Association found no evidence the Levinsons participated in or had knowledge of the supplying of banned drugs to the players.

At the height of the Biogenesis probe, baseball's investigators on the ground in Florida recalled almost daily threats from Selig -- "Al from Milwaukee," as he was known by them -- and Manfred. In "Baseball Cop: The Dark Side of America's National Pastime,'' former MLB investigator Eddie Dominguez told of one of Selig's impetuous conference call pleas. "I don't want to wait thirty, sixty, or ninety days," he said. "I want this solved now! I don't want to hear stories about it's going to take time because of the DEA investigations. We are Major League Baseball, and we want results now. If you can't get us the results, we will find someone who can."

Selig had already announced his retirement, effective at the end of 2014, and wanted to clean up the game's steroid problem that had flourished during his reign. Selig would be inducted three summers later into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Manfred, charged with overseeing the cleanup, was widely viewed as the commissioner-in-waiting.

The timeline mattered not to the feds.

"I think that they wanted results and they wanted it on their timeline," Stanfill said of MLB leadership. "They wanted it quick, and they weren't willing to wait until we finished that investigation. So, I just think they were impatient and weren't used to someone telling them, 'No, this is how it goes.' They were Major League Baseball and they expected everybody to conform to their timeline. And of course, that wasn't the case.

"It takes time to make a federal case. It's not made in a day or a week. It takes months, especially if everything that we were doing was historical and some of it was proactive with [drug] buys and going up on people's phones and things like that."

The change in MLB's strategy was immediate and significant.

"We knew something was not right because we would be on surveillance and we'd see other people on surveillance, and be, 'OK, who are these guys?'" Stanfill recalled. "It was kind of like, 'Who's on first? Who is this guy?' ... And then there were people going out interviewing some of the witnesses and some of the targets. We were still doing our investigation, and we were kind of like, 'Who are these guys showing up?' I would call them [MLB investigators who initially brought the case to the DEA], and I'm like, 'Guys, what the hell is going on? Are you guys doing this?' They're like, 'No, Captain, we're not doing it.'

"They hired private-eye-type guys and stuff like that. They weren't the MLB guys that we were working with. It was contract people, guns for hire."

After the filing of MLB's lawsuit, the almost daily contact between DEA agents and MLB investigators eased to a near halt. The distrust only grew. MLB leadership was seen as heavy-handed in using former Sen. George Mitchell -- who a few years prior had been paid $40 million by MLB for a separate steroid inquiry -- to lobby the U.S. attorney for leniency in sentencing Bosch, who had earlier signed a cooperation agreement with MLB. Baseball's support came widely into question because federal investigators documented Bosch had also supplied steroids to teenagers.

While testifying at Rodriguez's arbitration hearing in October 2013, Manfred was grilled by Joe Tacopina, the former player's aggressive attorney, about MLB's willingness to "go to bat" on Bosch's behalf with the U.S. attorney's office. Manfred initially claimed not knowing for "a fact" that Bosch had distributed PEDs to minors. Tacopina then reminded Manfred that clinic documents MLB had purchased more than two months before gaining Bosch's cooperation listed clients who had designations next to their name as either "minor" or "HS" [high school].

"Honestly, whether or not Mr. Bosch had distributed drugs to minors was not of paramount significance to me," Manfred said. "Rarely do you get a witness, who is prepared to testify firsthand about his distribution of drugs to professional athletes, who hasn't engaged in other conduct that's illegal."

The behavior and reliability of the star witness muddied the waters, however, further complicating the government's Biogenesis investigation.

Bosch was called many things by those close to the investigation, perhaps the most refrained being a "troubled man.'' He was seen as a hustler who circumvented rules. He was an unlicensed clinician admittedly propped up by dirty doctors. A decade ago, he was also dealing with a cocaine addiction - twice testing positive while out on bail in August 2014 -- and drank Scotch heavily.

When it came to believing Bosch, authorities lived by the adage of "trust but verify." MLB could more easily accept what Bosch had to say about its players because officials had purchased and possessed copies of his Biogenesis clinic logs. Thus, Bosch's role largely evolved into deciphering hand-written names and confirming protocols from his notebooks.

The federal investigation was more complex because the focus was never to act against Rodriguez or the other players. The authorities were solely building a case against Bosch and the suppliers. DEA agents, too, possessed Biogenesis clinic logs. In addition, among the many interviews conducted were at least nine with Bosch himself. He was prepped and accompanied by at least two attorneys on each occasion. Though not under oath, Bosch could have been charged with lying to federal agents if authorities felt misled.

Notes from the Bosch interviews are found in confidential DEA documents obtained by ESPN. Officially known as DEA-6 reports, the documents consist of federal agents' notes and served as a record of the investigation. If Bosch admitted to an offense during an interview, authorities said agents would be required to write it down.

If authorities concluded Bosch had intentionally misled them, he could have faced additional charges, and prosecutors would not have gone before the judge and advocated for a sentence reduction based on his cooperation. Federal authorities who spoke to ESPN said they generally found Bosch to be a credible witness. Stanfill said that some of the information Bosch relayed that was largely secondhand -- based on something he said an associate had told him -- did not check out. Stanfill noted that was not unusual in such investigations. "Someone telling lies to their friends and boasting about stuff like that," Stanfill said, "if we were going to charge that, we'd probably have everybody, and everybody would be charged with something."

That's not to say prosecutors would take lightly witnesses failing to tell the truth in interviews with federal agents. Two high-profile examples of prosecutions are former Olympic track star Marion Jones and popular businesswoman Martha Stewart, both of whom served prison time as a result of making false statements during interviews.

Sullivan, the retired federal prosecutor who attended the Bosch interviews, said authorities tried not to go too far afield, while again emphasizing the government wasn't on a crusade to rid drugs from sports and instead were focused solely on the supply network. He noted that Bosch would have taken a risk to make stuff up because he didn't know what the feds had or might gather on the wiretaps.

Investigators weren't targeting athletes and wouldn't rely on single sources, anyway. Instead, federal documents reveal the government ultimately dug deep in making cases against Bosch and his associates, relying on wiretaps, undercover agents, and multi-agent surveillance details while executing drug buys.

Authorities, for instance, subpoenaed FedEx for information about packages shipped to a Bronx address known to be used by Yuri Sucart Sr., a cousin of Alex Rodriguez. They discovered that a package had been shipped to the address for Angel Presinal, a controversial trainer from the Dominican Republic banned by Major League Baseball from entering its facilities because of suspected ties to PEDs.

While meeting with Sucart and an undercover agent in February 2013 at a Miami restaurant, a key target of the investigation, Carlos Acevedo, bragged of possessing helpful intel about when MLB teams would drug test players, specifically mentioning knowledge about the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.

Acevedo also was recorded telling the undercover agent -- who had presented as the cousin of a fictitious minor league prospect -- of a new, "totally different," undetectable doping program he would soon make available to baseball players. Acevedo was tight-lipped, suggesting only that it had been used by cyclist Lance Armstrong and MMA athletes. He said delivery would be via injection.

"I am not going to tell you what it is, exactly the name, but what it does, the reason why you have to drink a lot of water is because it leads more blood into the body," Acevedo told the undercover agent. "OK, so if you don't drink the water, it is going to clog up. ... You don't drink water, te puedes caer muerto [you can drop dead]."

Along with individual interviews found in the federal documents, notes from the surveillance operations captured the mundane to the zany, at times comical, happenstances witnessed by authorities cobbling together an almost two-year investigation.

Found deep in the documents are narratives around characters like Chris Engroba, 24 at the time, described by agents as a "delivery boy'' for Bosch associate Ugi Velazquez. One captured delivery of PEDs -- for which Engroba received $1,350 -- was to a confidential source and an undercover agent who sat in a parked white truck awaiting Engroba. In his haste, Engroba mistakenly first approached and opened the door to another white truck parked nearby in the lot.

The investigative narrative describes Engroba later laughing about the screwup with the confidential source. What the "delivery boy'' never knew is the other truck was a government vehicle, the individual inside a DEA agent and member of the surveillance operation.

Engroba was later sentenced to two years on probation.

Yuri Sucart Sr. faced more intense scrutiny and a harsher reality: sentenced to seven months in prison, followed by six months of house arrest and a $5,000 fine. Sucart, 53 at the time of his sentencing, a cousin and longtime personal assistant to Rodriguez, was captured selling testosterone during an undercover operation. The transaction went down late morning in the parking lot of a Miami restaurant, where Sucart had pulled his blue Chevrolet Suburban into a handicap spot. Payment was $19,000, which authorities described as official authorized funds secreted inside a decorative paper bag.

After the buy, documents reveal a DEA surveillance team -- including a spotter in the air -- maintained eyes on Sucart as he drove almost 20 miles north on I-95 to Hallandale Beach. The agents made note of his meeting a 34-year-old woman at a sushi-Thai restaurant. Rodriguez later told federal authorities of Sucart having an affair with the same woman -- a woman authorities previously described in documents as Sucart's paramour.

Around 2 in the afternoon, the surveillance team was still watching as Sucart pulled into the drive-thru at a nearby Wells Fargo bank.

From there, the agents watched as he retraced his path down I-95 before heading west on the Dolphin Expressway. At 2:45, agents on the ground and in the air eyed Sucart as he pulled into the Magic City Casino parking lot and valeted his blue Suburban before stepping into the casino wearing his now familiar blue Docker pants and light blue polo shirt.

Inside, two agents kept focus as Sucart sat alone in front of a slot machine.

Around 4 p.m., with Sucart still hunched in front of the same machine, agents had witnessed enough. They terminated surveillance and called it a day.

Mike Fish is a senior writer at ESPN. Reach him at michaeljfish19@gmail.com. On X, formerly known as Twitter, his handle is @MikeFishESPN.