10 men go to trial on steroid conspiracy charges this week in Mobile

MOBILE, Ala. –After more than three years of investigation into an online pharmacy based in Mobile, the trial of 10 men charged in a steroids conspiracy is set to begin this week.Chief U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade last week wrapped up last-minute logistical issues and handed prosecutors a victory with her decision to allow them to introduce evidence about a Colorado businessman’s alleged history with steroids.

Brett Branch, who ran a health company that authorities contend illegally sold steroids, is one of 12 people named in the 198-count indictment.

One defendant has already pleaded guilty and another will be tried later this year.

Branch and business owners stand accused of recruiting doctors to write bogus prescriptions for anabolic steroids, which Applied Pharmacy Services filled. Authorities contend that the pharmacy, where Branch once worked as a salesman, filled thousands of prescriptions outside legal parameters.

Branch’s attorney, Dennis Knizley, sought to bar testimony by Branch’s ex-wife that the defendant:

Used testosterone in high school in the 1980s.

Gave money to people to buy steroids from Mexico between 1994 and 1997.

Injected his two minor children with human growth hormone.

Knizley argued that testimony from Tracy Branch would be irrelevant and unfairly prejudice the jury.

Granade said she would instruct prosecutors not to raise those allegations in the opening statement. She said she would withhold a final ruling on the testimony after she hears the specific questions that prosecutors ask. But, she said, the testimony appears to be relevant.

Lead prosecutor Donna Dobbins said Tracy Branch’s testimony is important to establish a pattern regarding Brett Branch’s involvement with steroids, including his public advocacy of the muscle-building drug and his claims to be an expert.

“He uses it, himself. He used it early on. He illegally obtained it through Mexico. He suffered side effects from the abuse of the drugs, himself,” Dobbins said. “This isn’t something new for him. … This is who he is.”

Dobbins said prosecutors intend to introduce evidence from invoices and other documents, substances seized from Brett Branch’s home and wiretaps.

Dobbins said that secretly recorded conversations show J. Michael Bennett, Applied Pharmacy’s supervising pharmacist, admitting his conduct and part-owner Jason Kelley coordinating it.

Also, Granade refused to prohibit testimony from a pair of expert witnesses for the prosecution — Paul Doering, a professor at the University of Florida’s College of Pharmacy; and Dr. Gary Wadler, who has a sports medicine and internal medicine practice in Manhasset, N.Y., and serves as a professor of clinical medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.

Defense lawyers argued that a report made by Wadler improperly drew legal conclusions about the guilt of the pharmacists. Granade said Wadler can testify but cannot offer legal conclusions.

Defense attorneys also argued that Doering is not qualified to testify about a variety of matters, including the doctor-patient relationship, whether the steroids were prescribed for a legitimate medical purpose and whether they were safe.

Granade said she would wait until Doering testifies to rule on objections to specific questions as they are made.

Trial of defendant postponed

MOBILE, Ala. — A federal judge in Mobile last week postponed the trial of one of 12 people named in an indictment alleging a massive steroids conspiracy.

The judge also refused to remove the defendant’s attorneys from the case.

Jesse S. Haggard, an alternative medicine practitioner, stands accused of drug distribution and money laundering. Authorities contend that he sent order forms to Applied Pharmacy Services in Mobile for steroids and other drugs.

Haggard will be tried separately from the other defendants because he only recently returned to the country from Costa Rica, and his lawyers said they need more time to prepare.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office had sought the removal of those attorneys, David York and Christ Coumanis.

Government lawyers argued that York, when he was U.S. attorney in Mobile, supervised the task force that investigated the case. Prosecutors also contended that Coumanis had a conflict of interest because his former law partner represented a doctor who pleaded guilty in a related case.

Prosecutors said they had evidence of York’s involvement in the case but told U.S. Magistrate Judge Sonja Bivins that they did not want to share that evidence because they did not want to divulge details of the inner workings of the office.

As a result, Bivins ruled, prosecutors could not prove that York was “personally and substantially” involved in the steroids probe.

“Aside from these assertions in its brief, the government has not produced an iota of evidence in support of its assertions,” wrote Bivins, who also determined that Coumanis had no involvement in the case handled by his former law partner.

By Brendan Kirby | bkirby@al.com 

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