Over the Line? Critics Conflicted on Steroids Crusader

The Unlikely Investigator

There is nothing about Novitzky's life before Balco that suggests a man destined to direct the biggest investigation in sports history. Or one who would crave or abuse power. He grew up the son of a Bay Area hoops coach, a basketball and track star who still owns the San Mateo County high jump record of 7 feet. Coming out of high school in 1985, he tried out for Lute Olson's Arizona University basketball team. When he fell short, Novitzky returned home to play backup forward and teammate to his big brother at San Jose State.

His athletic career over, Novitzky got a degree in accounting and took a job in San Jose with the IRS's criminal division, a select group of agents who use tax laws and their guns to bust up all sorts of criminal operations. He liked that he could pick and choose his assignments and loved that he could remain rooted in nearby Burlingame. He married a nurse, bought a house a block from his parents, spent his spare time coaching his three daughters' soccer teams and playing fantasy sports with high school friends. By age 36, he was a special agent -- top salary $145,000 -- driving a Monte Carlo to the office, and impressing judges and superiors with his attention to detail.

Like most in the Bay Area, Novitzky followed the home run exploits of Bonds, four years his senior, who'd grown up in nearby San Carlos. And like many, he wondered if Bonds' late-career power surge was fueled by steroids. In 2000, he joined the Burlingame gym Bonds used, located right around the corner from Balco. There, he'd watch Bonds work out with Greg Anderson, a trainer affiliated with Balco and usually seen surrounded by a detail of muscled-up bodybuilders.

In 2002, local narcotics agents started hearing about steroid deals at the Burlingame gym and the possible connection to Balco and its owner, Victor Conte. Soon, Novitzky began rummaging through Balco's garbage, turning up enough evidence to convince his bosses to let him find out if the rumors were true. On Sept. 23, 2003, Novitzky led 26 armed agents into Conte's lab as local TV crews -- tipped off to the raid -- looked on. And that day, the sports world changed.

Within months, President Bush was mentioning steroids in his State of the Union address and Novitzky was standing next to attorney general John Ashcroft as he read the 42-count Balco indictment on national television. Almost overnight, Novitzky had clout seemingly beyond his pay grade, able to command resources from federal, state and local agencies. He wrote affidavits for search warrants and grand jury subpoenas, sorted through bank records and e-mail accounts. He criss-crossed the country, questioning suspects, every interview done without the use of a tape recorder -- standard practice for the feds.

He was in the room when Bonds told his story to the grand jury, and there again when Barry was indicted for perjury. He was in the New York courtroom when Marion Jones cried through her confession of steroid use. He sat behind Clemens when the pitcher unraveled before Congress. (For a man who claims to need a low profile to do his job, Novitzky found himself in front of the national media often enough.)

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