Over the Line? Critics Conflicted on Steroids Crusader

Jeff Novitzky has exposed alleged steroids cheats. But some ask: At what cost?

ByABC News
February 26, 2009, 7:16 PM

March 1, 2009 — -- The detective and the scientist are hard to miss.

It's Oct. 23, 2003, and IRS special agent Jeff Novitzky stands outside a 10th-floor courtroom in downtown San Francisco. At a lanky 6'7" with a shaved head, he towers over Dr. Don Catlin, the bushy-eyebrowed director of UCLA's Olympic Analytical Lab. The two are continuing a conversation started a year earlier, when Novitzky cold-called the researcher with questions about syringes and drug vials he'd found in a dumpster behind a Bay Area supplement company called Balco.

There is much to talk about. Since that first call, Novitzky gathered enough evidence to haul Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and another two dozen Balco athletes into the San Francisco courthouse to face questions about steroid use from a federal grand jury. Catlin, whose doping cries have fallen on deaf ears for two decades, is his expert witness.

It's a break in the hearings and Novitzky is making small talk with Catlin in the hallway. He says he's enjoyed a decade working fraud and drug crimes for the IRS. And he talks about how much he loves the quiet life he's carved out in his hometown of Burlingame, 20 miles outside San Francisco. But he never expected his career to turn like this, and now he's rethinking his future.

"Do you think there is anything for me in the anti-doping world?" Novitzky asks Catlin.

The scientist considers the question. All he could do was pass an athlete's urine through his tests and hope to catch a few of the liars and cheats. His new friend could raid homes, tap phones and search through bank accounts. And if you lied to him, he could put you in jail.

"Stay where you are," Catlin answers. "I think you're onto something big."

Catlin couldn't have imagined how right he was -- or where it would all lead. Less than six years later, Novitzky's ongoing investigation has brought down Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez, the three most important players of their generation. It has imperiled the reign of Commissioner Bud Selig and re-opened his war with Don Fehr and the union. And it's left another 103 major-leaguers who tested positive for steroids in 2003 checking to see if Novitzky will be coming after them, too.

Sometime in the next few months, Jeff Novitzky will walk back into the same 10th floor courtroom, raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth in the case of the United States v. Barry Lamar Bonds. He will say that Bonds lied in that same courthouse five years ago when he told the grand jury he never knowingly took steroids. And then he'll wait for the jury to decide if baseball's home run king was telling the truth.

But no matter what the jury decides -- and face it, most of us have already made up our minds about Bonds -- it is clear that the detective and his gun has replaced the scientist and his test tube. What isn't clear is whether Jeff Novitzky is part of the solution -- or if he's now the bigger part of the problem.

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.