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Lab Owner in Drug Probe Forced Into the Spotlight

October 22, 2003|David Wharton, John Glionna and Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — Some of the most recognizable faces in the world of sports will file through a U.S. district courthouse here in coming weeks, subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury.

Barry Bonds, among the greatest home-run hitters in baseball, is scheduled to appear. So are Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees and sprinter Kelli White, who won two gold medals at the recent world track championships.

These athletes and dozens more will be questioned about a man who, despite his connection to such celebrities, has heretofore operated outside the public eye.

Victor Conte does business from a drab storefront south of San Francisco, in a Burlingame industrial park not far from the airport. Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, specializes in nutritional supplements that promise to boost athletic performance.

The federal government is reportedly investigating BALCO on suspicion of violating federal tax and money-laundering laws. The company also is at the center of what is being called the biggest steroid bust in U.S. and Olympic sports. It was cited by Olympic anti-doping officials as the source of a new performance-enhancing drug found in urine samples of an unspecified number of track and field athletes.

While Conte has remained in seclusion -- surfacing only to deny wrongdoing in e-mails to The Times and other media outlets -- a photograph shows him in a lab coat and glasses, with a receding hairline, standing beside a machine identified as an "inductively coupled plasma spectrometer."

If this image suggests a nerdish scientist tinkering in the lab, interviews with friends, business associates and adversaries paint a different picture.

These people speak of a youngster who showed promise as a runner, then became an accomplished jazz bassist playing with such talents as Herbie Hancock and Tower of Power. Then he walked away from music in his prime and began marketing supplements with the zeal of a veteran salesman.

"That guy, he was too smart to do any one thing," said Harvey Mandel, a guitarist who played with Conte in the 1970s and remains a friend. "You could see Victor being anything."

But Conte was also a man who attracted a string of lawsuits and tax liens as he moved toward the maelstrom that now envelopes him.

It all seems so unlikely, looking back to the early 1970s when Conte played bass with Mandel in a band fronted by the late blues violinist Don "Sugarcane" Harris.

"Victor wasn't just a three-chord, rock 'n' roll blues player," Mandel said. "You could play any type of song, even jazz fusion, he'd be right there with you."

The trio formed a band called -- ironically -- Pure Food and Drug Act. The manager coined that name as an inside joke referring to the fact that most of the members were teetotalers while Harris had a well-known drug habit.

To his fellow players, Conte became known as Walkin' Fish because of the way he moved on stage. But when the band wanted to publish a song, he was the man who knew which numbers to call and which forms to submit.

"He always took care of the business end of things," said Freddie Roulette, a lap-steel guitarist who played with Conte on other projects.

As the 1970s wore on, Conte moved up the music industry ladder, eventually playing with Hancock's band. In 1978, he joined cousin Bruce Conte, a guitarist, in Tower of Power.

Not everything went smoothly, however. Former Tower of Power trumpet player Mic Gillette recalls that after the band recorded its "We Came to Play" album, Victor and Bruce Conte were asked to leave.

"He was conspiring with his cousin to take over the band and run it themselves," Gillette said in an e-mail.

Bruce Conte could not be reached for comment.

In 1980, Victor Conte quit music to open the Millbrae Holistic Health Center. In a divorce document filed in December 2001, his former wife, Audrey, contends this business represented Conte's first "exposure to the nutrition market."

By the late 1980s, according to court papers, Conte had closed the Millbrae business to focus on BALCO and a sister company called Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning, or SNAC Systems Inc.

The couple refinanced their home, took out lines of credit and persuaded family and friends to invest in the ventures.

Though Conte had no formal background in science or medicine, he began testing blood samples for levels of trace minerals. He offered supplements to correct any deficiencies.

This service was marketed not only to athletes but also Medicare patients -- and that was where BALCO first ran into trouble.

During the mid-1990s, according to an ongoing civil case filed by the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, the company was involved in a scheme that allegedly paid physicians to order unnecessary trace mineral tests for their patients.

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