On a rainy August morning in 2007, the news rippled through New Jersey’s law enforcement ranks, officer to officer, department to department.
Joseph Colao was dead.
The 45-year-old physician had collapsed in his Jersey City apartment, the victim of heart failure.
Within hours, officers were calling the Hudson County public safety complex.
"Is it true?" they asked, recalled Detective Sgt. Ken Kolich, who’d drawn the routine assignment to look into the death. "Did Dr. Colao die?"
Kolich didn’t suspect foul play, but he found it odd — and a little disturbing — that so many officers were interested in the fate of a man with no official ties to any police agency.
Today, it’s clear Colao was more than just a doctor, friend or confidant to many of the officers.
He was their supplier.
A seven-month Star-Ledger investigation drawing on prescription records, court documents and detailed interviews with the physician’s employees shows Colao ran a thriving illegal drug enterprise that supplied anabolic steroids and human growth hormone to hundreds of law enforcement officers and firefighters throughout New Jersey.
From a seemingly above-board practice in Jersey City, Colao frequently broke the law and his own oath by faking medical diagnoses to justify his prescriptions for the drugs, the investigation shows.
Many of the officers and firefighters willingly took part in the ruse, finding Colao provided an easy way to obtain tightly regulated substances that are illegal without a valid prescription, the investigation found.
Others were persuaded by the physician’s polished sales pitch, one that glossed over the risks and legal realities, the newspaper found. A small percentage may have legitimately needed the drugs to treat uncommon medical conditions.
In most cases, if not all, they used their government health plans to pay for the substances. Evidence gathered by The Star-Ledger suggests the total cost to taxpayers reaches into the millions of dollars.
In just over a year, records show, at least 248 officers and firefighters from 53 agencies used Colao’s fraudulent practice to obtain muscle-building drugs, some of which have been linked to increased aggression, confusion and reckless behavior.
Six of those patients — four police officers and two corrections officers — were named in lawsuits alleging excessive force or civil rights violations around the time they received drugs from him or shortly afterward.
Others have been arrested, fired or suspended for off-duty infractions that include allegations of assault, domestic abuse, harassment and drug possession. One patient was left nearly paralyzed after suffering a stroke his doctor attributed to growth hormone prescribed by Colao.
For many in the physician’s care, use of the drugs apparently didn’t end with Colao’s death.
They instead sought other doctors who specialize in prescribing growth hormone or testosterone, an anabolic steroid, according to patients, legal documents and the doctors themselves. The physicians have not been accused of wrongdoing.
Attorney General Paula Dow, New Jersey’s top law enforcement official, called the newspaper’s findings "disturbing" on a number of levels and said the issue should be collectively examined by state officials, prosecutors and police chiefs.
"If it’s shown that these law enforcement officers are getting steroids and human growth hormone through illegal manners, and specifically through false prescriptions, that’s a violation of the law," Dow said. "It’s a fraud on the system, and it’s something that should be stopped."
While questions have been raised about some of Colao’s patients, many have been recognized for acts of heroism. Some have taken killers, carjackers and armed robbers off the streets. They have confiscated millions of dollars worth of illegal drugs intended for New Jersey neighborhoods. One talked a man out of committing suicide. Another saved the life of a choking infant.
In Colao, they found a doctor whose methods were simple and lucrative. Employees in his inner circle say he created bogus diagnoses for low testosterone levels or adult growth hormone deficiency, a condition that affects just one in 100,000 people, according to the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists.
"If you had 100,000 police officers come in, you’d get one," said Oregon physician David Cook, a spokesman for the endocrinologists group. "Obviously, he was doing it unscrupulously."
Legitimate diagnoses of testosterone deficiency are likewise far less common than Colao’s practice would suggest. About 2 percent of men in their mid-30s have a bona fide deficiency, Cook said. The officers and firefighters identified by The Star-Ledger had a median age of 35 when they obtained the substances.
University of Texas professor John Hoberman, who has studied doping in and out of sports for a quarter-century, called The Star-Ledger’s findings "extraordinary and unprecedented evidence" of a national problem that has been "systematically ignored" for more than two decades.
"The use of performance-enhancers among first-responders has been a tabooed topic since it first came to light during the 1980s," Hoberman said. "This should shock the public as well as the public officials who will now have to take a stand on the widespread doping of public service professionals who carry guns and save lives."