The day senior customs inspector Peter S. would make the discovery of his life began with a "trip to the enemy." That's how officials at the Kaiserslautern Customs Investigation Unit describe the drive to a raid.
The men had been chasing a phantom for years, but this time they were sure that they were on the right track.
At about 1:00 p.m. the investigators, accompanied by officers with the Central Customs Support Group, reached Nidda-Wallernhausen, a village with a population of 1,100 in the German state of Hesse, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) southeast of the city of Giessen. Their navigation system directed the unit to a street called Fussgasse. The men got out of their vehicles in front of a white warehouse with a long roof. They were dressed in plain clothes to avoid attracting attention.
It took the special unit a while to open the door to the warehouse, but when the officers finally entered the building they could hardly believe their eyes. It was filled with stacks of brown cardboard boxes, as well as yellow and white garbage bags, all filled with tablets, capsules and ampules. The warehouse contained a cache of illegal anabolic steroids, small bottles containing the calf-fattening drug clenbuterol and cartons imprinted with product names like "Extreme Power Tabs" and "Special Product No. 25222."
The abbreviation IP also appeared on many of the cartons. The letters stand for International Pharmaceuticals -- the phantom firm the investigators were chasing.
Huge Drug Bust
Nidda-Wallernhausen, which until now has been best known for its puppet theater at the Uhrnstubb Inn and for fresh organic eggs, will now go down in the history of customs investigations. During the raid on Sept. 29, 2010, the agents seized illegal drugs worth about €10 million ($13.6 million). Some 19 pallets were needed to transport the 5 million pills, capsules and ampules away from the site.
It is one of the biggest drug busts in Europe to date, and an important blow against the international trade in performance-enhancing drugs. The case could soon attract the attention of officials in the world of professional sports, because IP's customers apparently included a number of top athletes.
International Pharmaceuticals is legendary in the world of bodybuilders, who have long been known for their use of performance-enhancing drugs. The underground laboratory sold its products on the black market for about 20 years. IP was considered the top-of-the-line brand, always providing the latest and hottest drugs. In their Internet forums, customers around the world raved about IP's high-dose steroid blends, which were said to give athletes "extra drive."
IP was an icon -- and a black box. No one knew where the warehouse and the laboratory were located. And no one knew who was behind International Pharmaceuticals.
Now the secret is out. The underground empire had its headquarters in provincial Germany. One of the owners, a German named Lothar H., is a former salesman for a line of natural cosmetics. His Austrian business partner Paul R. is a former police officer who was dishonorably discharged from the police force.
Nine years ago, the United States was rocked by a doping scandal surrounding BALCO, a California laboratory. In 2006, authorities in Europe uncovered the network headed by Spanish blood doping expert Eufemiano Fuentes , whose clients included the former Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich. Now the next scandal is about to hit the sports world, this time in Germany.
IP was a global brand. The drugs were produced with cheap labor in India, packaged and shipped via airfreight to Denmark and England. From there, the products were sent via parcel service to the warehouse in Nidda-Wallernhausen.
The investigators believe that the drugs were sold in fast-food restaurants, hotels in Frankfurt and the surrounding area, and on the Internet. The buyers were from Germany, other parts of Europe and the United States. The product line ranged from Winstrol, an inexpensive anabolic steroid sold for €2.75 an ampule, to Special Product, a designer performance-enhancing drug priced at €950 for a 10-milliliter vial. With a profit margin of about 400 percent, the dealers were raking in millions. By comparison, profit margins in the drug trade are rarely higher than 80 percent.
Lothar H. founded IP in the 1980s, with Paul R. joining the business later on. IP expanded, and R. allegedly became involved in the production of the doping agents. At the same time, he was developing a remarkable marketing tool.
'The Black Book'
Seven years ago, a tome called "Anabolic Steroids -- The Black Book" appeared on the market, causing a sensation among users of performance-enhancing drug and the authorities alike. It was essentially a reference manual for dopers, and some 60,000 copies were sold. The current version of the 1,057-page manual, illustrated with color photos, offers detailed descriptions of which drugs provide the best results, how to outsmart drug tests and, of course, where to buy the drugs. An entire subchapter is devoted to International Pharmaceuticals.
The author of the book went by the pseudonym D. Sinner. There was a great deal of speculation over who could be behind the name.
Now that mystery has also been solved. Paul R., one of the IP partners, allegedly confessed to Austrian investigators that he authored the work, with the help of experts -- doctors and chemists. It was a brilliant business model. In addition to producing and selling the performance-enhancing drugs, International Pharmaceuticals was providing the instructions for their use.
Doing Business with Astonishing Chutzpah
The IP case raises a number of questions. How could an underground company have run the business from Germany for decades? Lothar H. had registered an import/export company. Why did no one notice what was really going on in Nidda-Wallernhausen?
The dealers went about their business with astonishing chutzpah. They even gave an anonymous interview to a bodybuilding magazine in Florida, in which they sang the praises of the IP injections, saying that they are particularly pleasant, that users feel "practically no pain," and that "the oil passes very smoothly through the needle."
The two partners were apparently unconcerned about being caught. "Law enforcement in Europe is generally not interested in anabolic steroids," they told the reporter.
Indeed, it was pure coincidence that IP was busted. The authorities had had their doubts about Lothar H. since 2006, when a search produced suspicious correspondence and strange receipts. But there was no warehouse, and no performance-enhancing drugs were found. Lothar H. got off with an order to pay €55,000 ($75,200) in back taxes.
But the investigators kept up their efforts. In December 2007, officials discovered a package of ampules containing performance-enhancing drugs from Pakistan at an automated self-service parcel-collection station in northern Germany. One of Lothar H.'s fingerprints was found on the adhesive strip. When his name surfaced in 2009 in connection with a lawsuit in Cologne, an undercover investigation was launched. H.'s email correspondence was monitored, and government agents installed surveillance cameras in a Frankfurt hotel. The videos show H. accepting envelopes and handing over merchandise in return.
During telephone surveillance, the investigators finally discovered the address of the warehouse on Fussgasse in Nidda-Wallernhausen, where Lothar H. also happens to live.
The officers arrested him at his home, where they also seized four Mercedes cars and assets worth half a million euros. A family member tried to warn Paul R., the partner in Austria, by calling him and saying: "It's happened." R. promptly bought a plane ticket to Dubai, but the Austrian authorities arrested him while he was on his way to the airport.
The case is closed for the German customs authority. The successful investigators were honored during a New Year's reception in January, where pumpernickel bread with salmon and champagne were served.
Now the hunt begins for the customers who ordered from IP. In the 2006 interview, the IP dealers talked about a designer steroid that was popular among "European competitive athletes" for a time. "It helped many drug-tested competitors use steroids even on the day of testing, with no failures ever," they told the interviewer.
In addition to the performance-enhancing drugs, the investigators found three mobile phones, a briefcase with written records and price lists with the first names of large numbers of buyers at the IP warehouse in Nidda-Wallernhausen. They also seized 500,000 labels and a laptop computer.
The defendants have already been questioned. Lothar H. is in pretrial detention in Giessen, while Paul R. is being held in Wiener Neustadt, south of Vienna. The prosecutors expect to file an indictment within the next four weeks. The two men are said to be willing to cooperate. The respective attorneys of both defendants, Lothar H. and Paul R., were unwilling to comment on the charges when approached by SPIEGEL.
One thing is certain: There must be plenty of athletes who are suddenly feeling very nervous.
The investigations are already in full swing in Austria. As part of a large-scale raid known as Operation "Sledge Hammer," several underground laboratories were uncovered and suspects who allegedly worked with IP were arrested.
One trail already leads to high-performance sports. A business relationship apparently existed between someone at IP and an Austrian sports manager. In an interrogation, the investigators discovered that the manager had a list of the names of many international professional athletes who had ordered performance-enhancing drugs from him.
The list was not found during an initial search. The agents suspect that the document was shredded.
They are confident, however, that they will eventually be able to reconstruct the list.