steroid nation

There was always a side of Dan Duchaine, the actor side, that made it seem like he was just playing at being a drug dealer.


It was the side that still had a chance to do what he had originally set out to do in California: direct local theater, try auditioning for small roles, maybe work in a stereo store to pay the rent. It was the side that was sweet and soft-spoken, that never cursed and loved to quote from Jack London’s “White Fang”: “One cannot violate the promptings of one’s nature without having that nature recoil upon itself.” But it was deeply hidden now, very nearly imperceptible. Abandonment had always played a role in Dan Duchaine’s life. Being put up for adoption at birth; having his adoptive parents die; loving women who never loved him quite as much. Those were the pillars of his psyche. Whatever he did, he was sure he would end up alone.

¬†Fortunately for him, Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach was a supermarket of dysfunctional young women who looked up to him and considered him the stable one. And in the world that he had helped to create — that land of make-believe where people never got married or held day jobs and worked out slavishly so they could try to present an ideal of perfection — perhaps he was. He had fallen into some semblance of a home life. The woman who had caused the breakup of his first marriage was out, replaced by two others who were living with him. The first was a 21-year-old Air Force officer whom he had met in Gold’s; the other was a slightly younger research assistant. After Duchaine married the Air Force officer, Ann Miller, on September 9, 1988, he wrote to his sister, “The girls know each other, accept each other, and actually have become close friends.”

On November 19, The New York Times profiled him on its front page as part of an Olympics-inspired series on steroids in sports. The Times scratched the surface of his background, glossing over Duchaine’s role in creating the Underground Steroid Handbook. But it gave him a chance to cheerlead for steroids in much the same way Oprah was cheerleading for low-calorie shakes. He told the paper that the body builders he studied “who used steroids in conservative amounts appeared to be healthy, with a general feeling of well-being.”

In other words, he and his friends were living proof that steroids were good for you!

Maybe even healthier than Oprah’s diet!

Yes, he was going to jail.

He had pleaded guilty to a steroid distribution charge. But even that struck him as an experience worth having, another thing to cross off his list of things to do before he died. The question was why he felt that way at 35. Why keep counting down, with his life statistically less than halfway over? Why the gnawing sense of fatalism?

The surprising answer came in a phone call from a place he hadn’t thought about in years: the Catholic Church that had placed him with his adoptive parents. “Mr. Duchaine,” a caseworker said. “We believe we have located your real sister and she’d like to talk to you.”

A Connecticut woman named Sheila Butch laid out his story. His real mother, she said, was one of thirteen and had given birth to Sheila while waiting tables. Sheila was left with her grandmother until social services intervened and put her in a foster home. Two years later, in 1952, her mother became pregnant with Dan, Sheila said, during an even more troubled period. Documents that Sheila would subsequently acquire showed that her mother had been admitted to New York’s Bellevue psychiatric hospital with a simple diagnosis: “The patient is without personality.”

Dan was immediately put up for adoption (as was another sister born two years later). In the early 1960s, their birth mother married a salesman and moved to Connecticut, regaining custody of Sheila. She insisted for the next two decades that her other two children were dead. She maintained this fiction, Sheila continued, until just a few years earlier when her mother finally admitted the truth. “There’s one more thing,” she said. “I have polycystic kidney disease and so might you.”

Duchaine paused. Later at a medical library, he learned that polycystic kidney disease involved many (poly) fluid-filled sacs (cysts) growing in the kidneys, squeezing out normal tissue and causing them to fail. All he could think to say was, “I want to talk to Mom.”

When he finally called his biological mother, he knew he had found his wellspring. He could hear it in the blunt, coarse way she spoke, in her rapid-fire manner of storytelling. What shocked him was the story she had to tell. “Your father was a spy for the CIA,” she began, “and we were being chased by the KGB.

“That’s why we had to put you up for adoption.”

Venice Beach, California
August 1990

Mornings began with a wake-up shot of Nubain and a dose of Fastin, a weight-loss pill that was one of his new discoveries. Then, it was off to Gold’s, where bodybuilding was undergoing another periodic shift. On any given day, Duchaine’s Vernon Street apartment might be filled with porn stars, mobsters, bouncers, an AIDS researcher, even a mortician. It had become a kind of Pasteur Institute for the freak parade.

But one day, in walked a woman who truly caught Duchaine’s attention. Shelley Harvey wasn’t as bombastic as the other women he knew. In fact, she was positively reserved by those standards. The 27-year-old had grown up in the heart of London, with trips to the theater and all the other prerequisites of a well-attended young girl. Somewhere along the way, though, she had discovered bodybuilding. And having won several small titles, she flew to Venice to ask Duchaine to take her to the next level.

Harvey fell for Duchaine the moment that she laid eyes on him. His jet-black hair was grown down to his back, tied in a long ponytail, and he dressed in tight jeans and a tight-fitting tee. “He looked like a rock star,” she would recall years later. But as they got to know one another, he wasn’t the figure she imagined. He was quiet and kind, attentive in a way she wasn’t used to seeing from men who earned their living in gyms. She nearly cried when he described the Christmases he had spent alone as a boy — buying his own tree, decorating it without help, and reading quietly beside its light while all the other homes in his Maine hometown were bustling with family celebrations. He told such stories without the slightest trace of pity, which made Harvey determined to love him even more.

Venice Beach, California
October 1990

Dan Duchaine’s first mention of GHB occupied a single paragraph in the October 1990 issue of Modern Bodybuilding. Later that month, Larry Wood, a Palm Springs scientist who believed in better living through chemistry, was moving $10,000 worth of the stuff a week. He might have continued making that kind of money for a while if not for one problem: Like a smoldering fire, the drug was nearly impossible to control. A two-gram dose of GHB might produce a good night’s sleep, but above that, the drug started taking over. As GHB’s unofficial ambassador, Duchaine had already discovered as much. He was giving it to anyone who was interested. It didn’t take long for bodybuilders who doubled as bouncers to introduce it into the clubs and give it to their girlfriends, who happily saw it as a great low-calorie alternative to booze. (Another thing that recommended GHB was that users who got pulled over by the cops would pass a Breathalyzer test, provided they hadn’t mixed the drug with alcohol.)

By the fall of 1990, the party crowd’s embrace of GHB was starting to yield some frightening results. Clubgoers were taking ever-larger doses, mixing it with other party drugs. The effects were being seen in hospitals from California to Georgia, where healthy people were being wheeled in frothing at the mouth while their bodies convulsed. In November 1990, California’s health director leapt into action by ordering a statewide ban on GHB sales. Two weeks later, the feds got in on the act, launching an investigation that Mark Thierman knew would eventually reach him.

On a brisk fall evening, Wood pulled up to the Arizona chemist’s lab in a rented Ryder truck and loaded nearly a half-ton’s worth of pure GHB, stored in canisters, into the back. Then he drove the booty off to another warehouse in Phoenix, beating the feds’ arrival to Tucson by a few days. When the FDA agents finally arrived, they didn’t know about the missing cache. But they found enough — including scales, cash and documents — to convince them that Thierman was worth keeping an eye on. Undaunted, the chemist simply moved his lab to another location on the other side of town, mopping the floors of the one he’d abandoned with tear gas to spite the feds in case they returned.

On December 13, it was Wood’s turn to be targeted. Federal agents who had discovered records linking him to Thierman carted off guns that were locked in Wood’s floor safe, $25,000 in cash, and boxes of pills that he had in his garage. After spending a night in the local jail, he was badly shaken. But not so shaken as to hang up on an Ohio man who had called looking for a score. “Look pal,” Wood said, “I’ve just been raided and spent the night in jail. This isn’t a good time. Call me back.” In mid-February, Wood faxed him back to say he was ready to talk. “There’s not a lot of stuff out there right now,” he said when the two made contact on February 19, “but there’s a guy I know who might be able to help. I’ll have him call you.”

Venice Beach, California
March 14, 1991

After a workout and breakfast, Dan Duchaine showered, kissed Shelley goodbye and jumped on his scooter to head to a storage locker that he kept on South Fourth Street. Roughly the size of a large bedroom, he had outfitted it with a stereo system, armchair, and enough magazines to fill three doctors’ offices. Classical music was playing on the stereo when he took ten 50-gram bottles and another ten 100-gram bottles of GHB, along with 50 tablets of clenbuterol, and placed them in a small cardboard box. Then he wrapped it in brown shipping paper and addressed it to the Ohio man whom he had called at Wood’s suggestion, Bill Sands.

Venice Beach, California
May 17, 1991

Shelley Harvey was in the kitchen of the apartment she shared with Duchaine, fixing an egg-white omelet, when a loud boom made her drop the frying pan and singe her forefinger. Still shaking it, she ran into the living room to see her boyfriend get pinned to the floor by U.S. marshals. “I’m really sorry, Shelley,” he said as the marshals started ransacking the place.

Bill Sands was an undercover FDA agent and the package he received from Duchaine gave the feds all the evidence they needed to search his apartment. They came in with guns drawn. The indictment unsealed on June 6 accused him and Wood of conspiracy to defraud the federal government. With one conviction to his name already, the new charge could send Duchaine away for years.

Fearful of who might be waiting for him after his arrest, he checked into the Oceana Hotel in Santa Monica with Harvey. A few days into their stay, he woke from an afternoon nap, feeling strange. “What’s the matter, baby?” she murmured. He couldn’t exactly say. In fact, he couldn’t say much of anything. When he tried talking, nothing came out. Harvey took him to the hospital, where they learned that, a month shy of his 39th birthday, he had just had a mild stroke.

The stress of the trial was hastening the deterioration of his kidneys. His blood pressure was through the roof and his hands had started to shake. Still, the two were making plans for the future. He saw them living quietly in her native London on a tree-lined street with kids.

Harvey, however, was still focused on the thing she had come to America to get — a body rock-hard enough to win the upcoming British bodybuilding championships. She was close. Spread across her arms, chest, and legs were 14 new pounds of muscle, ripped and ready to ripple under show lights. But this morning, after she had returned from a particularly strenuous workout, Duchaine suggested they take a break from training.

They hopped on his Honda scooter. Neither was wearing a helmet. Harvey gripped Duchaine’s waist as he made his way onto the 405 and grabbed tighter as he got the Honda up to 50 mph. The bike’s back tire blew out. Duchaine awoke in a nearby hospital. “Where’s Shelley?” he asked. In a coma, came the answer.

It took three weeks and one surgery for doctors to bring Harvey out of her coma and relieve the swelling that flared in the back of her brain. Duchaine was by her bed when she opened her eyes, and when she asked for a mirror, he reluctantly handed one over. Her long blonde hair had been shaved off. “Was that really necessary?” she asked in a cracked whisper. “I just had my highlights done.”

Carlsbad, California
March 1997

Duchaine was now obsessed with starting a family. To keep in shape so he could raise the son he desperately wanted, he took long rides along the coast in his low-slung recumbent bike.

His latest companion, a newlywed from Ohio, was wading into the world of competitive bodybuilding to fill the empty hours while her husband finished law school. She had sought Duchaine out on, and after a few pleasant exchanges, he e-mailed her to say he was planning a trip to the East Coast. Would she like to meet?

Her name was Mary Lou, and on a sweltering day in August 1996, she set out to meet him on Long Island, New York. Duchaine’s purpose for the trip was to add hair plugs to his scalp. When Mary Lou found him in his hotel room, he was drinking a beer, with his head still bandaged. “Have a drink,” he offered. She had one, then three, and began to open up about her ambitions. Out of nowhere, Duchaine applied a tourniquet to begin injecting himself with Nubain. When he handed her a syringe, Mary Lou tried to seem nonchalant. “This is the stuff you need,” he said, watching her inch away. “It’ll help you train through the pain.”

She had never done much more than smoke a joint, but Mary Lou agreed. Duchaine was still sleeping when she awoke the next morning and decided to get them breakfast. While she was waiting at a diner, her stomach seized up on her. She returned to the hotel room shaking. “What’s happening to me?” she asked.

“You need another hit,” he said. She took it, gratefully, and after some more sex, was given a small bottle of Nubain to take home with her.

Throughout the fall, Duchaine kept sending Mary Lou plain brown packages by mail. When the mid-October package didn’t come, she called in a panic and he suggested that she meet him for a weekend in Maine. To outsiders, the two probably looked like the typical lovers who come to New England in the autumn. They were higher than hell the whole time.

While lying in bed on one of their Nubain getaways, Dan told Mary Lou, “You know what I hate about you? Your skin.” It was too loose for competitive bodybuilding, he thought. What she needed was the translucent, shrink-wrapped look that judges liked. And as it happened, he had just the ticket: an industrial chemical named Dinitrophenol.

DNP was employed in the early 1900s to ignite explosives. But German researchers found that it led to drastic weight loss when swallowed because it caused the body to burn calories. By turning the internal thermostat way up, DNP, which is similar in structure to TNT, can increase one’s metabolism by as much as 50 percent.

The key is knowing how much DNP to take. When he first got his hands on a sample of the yellow powder, Duchaine asked his friend John Romano to help him put it into gel capsules. After a while, Romano couldn’t understand why he felt so hot. Finally, it occurred to him that he was absorbing the powder through his pores. His temperature had soared to 103 degrees. Mary Lou was a willing subject, perhaps too willing. One day she took more DNP than Duchaine had advised. Unable to reach Duchaine, she called his aide, Bruce Kneller, to ask what was happening to her. “How much are you taking?” he asked. When she told him, he was aghast. “If you keep that up, you’re going to die.”

Tijuana, Mexico
October 16, 1998

Whether Dan Duchaine loved Mary Lou was irrelevant. On a visit to Scottsdale, Arizona, he walked into a jewelry store and walked out with a two-and-a-half carat diamond ring. At dinner that night, he slid it across the table and said, “I want to marry you. I want us to make a baby.”

Even through her Nubain haze, Mary Lou had difficulty saying yes. She had lost everything — her husband, her friends, her life back East. For a time, all she had left was her bodybuilding dream and Duchaine ruined that as well. She had been knocked from the 1997 Nationals in Dallas in the first round, and with the 1998 show a month away, she looked like hell.

Duchaine’s solution: “You need calf implants.”

So they set out for a clinic over the border in Mexico. Duchaine checked her in, got a hotel room, then came back just as she was being wheeled into surgery. “You’ll be fine,” he said.

The operation was declared a success, but it hadn’t gone well. Mary Lou realized as much when she awoke in the middle of the night with her feet incredibly numb. It felt, she would later remember, like a terrible case of frostbite. She dragged herself to the nurse’s station, but the nurse didn’t speak English and ordered her back to bed. The blood vessels in Mary Lou’s legs had not been properly re-attached. Her lower body was essentially cut off from her circulatory system. She was rushed into the operating room so the implants, now leaking silicone, could be removed. Seeing her leg sliced open on either side as though it had zippers made Mary Lou grow faint and she screamed, “I want to go to an American hospital!” An ambulance raced her back across the border. By the time they pulled up to the emergency room of Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, Mary Lou’s kidneys and liver were in a state of near-failure.

While Shelley Harvey was in England, recovering from the brain damage caused by the motorcycle accident, the woman Dan Duchaine had selected to replace her, a woman whom he had promised prize-winning legs, was about to have one of them sawed off.