Local law enforcement authorities have years of experience handling drug cases, but the Bay County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) is currently working a case that investigators call the first of its kind. It involves the manufacture and distribution of steroids.
So far, three Panama City Beach men have been charged, but authorities say the case could reach far beyond county lines.
On Monday afternoon, BCSO investigators displayed raw chemicals, equipment, supplies and dozens of vials of homemade steroids. According to Captain Faith Bell, the drugs have a street value of more than $1 million.
"This was a manufacturing operation which we've never seen before," said Bell.
According to Bell, the steroid ring operated in Bay County for at least six months and the BCSO began its investigation two weeks ago. On December 7, deputies executed search warrants at two residences in Panama City Beach -- a duplex on Beach Drive and a condo unit at Lake Towne Wharf -- and allegedly found packaged product, manufacturing equipment, prescriptions pills and marijuana.
"One thing led to another and we got to what we wanted to get to, [which] was the heart of the operation," said Bell.
The following suspects have been arrested:
The BCSO said customers were sourced at local fitness gyms and substances were also sold in other states through Internet forums.
Bell said raw materials used to manufacture steroids are illegal in the United States and investigators don't yet know how they were brought into Bay County. "Most of them originate from overseas," said Bell. "They order the chemicals and then they have their own little formulas for putting it together."
In addition to the raw materials and supplies, authorities seized packaged steroids in liquid form and in clear gelatin capsules. Bell said the substances were 3-10 times stronger than legal steroids.
"None of it's done in any kind of sterile environment... it's done with very little science involved," said Bell. "It is being manufactured in a kitchen, in a house, in a bedroom somewhere... then sold to people to inject to try to get bigger and stronger."
Bell said all three of the suspects were steroid users and one of them is now having serious health issues. In addition, some customers who used the substances are experiencing adverse effects, she said.
In October, hundreds of fungal meningitis cases and more than a dozen deaths were linked to steroids manufactured by a legitimate lab in Massachusetts. Captain Bell said that's the main reason local authorities are so concerned about the home brew mixed in Bay County.
Bell urged anyone who bought and used the steroids and is experiencing symptoms such as coughing, chest pains or shortness of breath to see a doctor. "The potential to spread fungus and the bacteria was our main concern in this case... that people would be injecting this stuff and in a short window of time be dead," said Bell.
Bell said federal authorities are participating in the investigation and that more arrests are expected.