Methamphetamine analogues, banned psychoactive ingredients, potentially fatal stimulants, chemicals not considered safe for use by humans and disease-causing contaminants are regularly being ingested by Kiwis, a Herald investigation into the fitness supplements industry revealed in February.
Now, our follow-up investigation examines those who sell them. In December 2013 USA Today revealed that a host of American supplement companies were run by criminals whose offences include dealing narcotics and performance-enhancing drugs, fraud, theft, assault, weapons offences and money laundering. New Zealand is no different.
A man lying in a West Auckland carpark trying to stuff his intestines back through a gaping stab wound in his stomach; a steroid dealer kidnapped by gang members and forced to lie about a drug deal to keep his "brother" out of jail; more than a million dollars in illegal party pills flooding on to the Auckland nightclub scene; a 17-year-old boy collapsing and dying during a workout. Welcome to the seedy underbelly of sports nutrition. Welcome to the world of the supplement sellers.
Salah Ibrahim had just parked his distinctive American pick-up truck at Henderson's West City shopping centre when another car pulled up nearby. A professional bodybuilder, Ibrahim was on his way to the bank to deposit the takings from his supplements store. Before he could get out of his car, a man shouted a challenge in Kurdish.
There was bad blood between Sarkot Saber and Ibrahim. Police had been called to intervene in a dispute between Ibrahim's family and the family of Saber's wife at Long Bay. Ibrahim wasn't there when the row broke out. When he intervened at the request of his sisters, Saber threatened to stab him and skin him alive.
Two weeks later, as Saber approached Ibrahim he reached into his pocket for what the champion bodybuilder thought was a bunch of keys. In a pre-emptive strike, Ibrahim punched Saber in the face. Saber struck back and Ibrahim immediately felt pain and became weak. He looked down to see his intestine poking through a six centimetre gash in his stomach. He also suffered an 8cm wound to his right chest wall, two stab wounds to his right shoulder, one to his left chest wall another to his head.
Saber was jailed for 10 years for the attack, a sentence that was reduced to eight years on appeal.
Just over two years later, Ibrahim joined Saber behind bars.
In May 2009 Ibrahim was charged with aggravated robbery after forcing his way into a Whenuapai house with a gun as he attempted to recover a $500 debt. He was on bail for that incident when police pulled over a car he was driving and found a pistol that looked remarkably similar to the one presented during the robbery. They also found drugs. Ibrahim was convicted on the robbery charge and on additional charges of possessing methamphetamine and LSD for supply, and sentenced to five years in prison.
At a bail hearing (hyperlink) prior to his conviction, a judge noted that Ibrahim was running a new business that was "both entirely legitimate and useful". That business was his supplement store.
Salah Ibrahim is back bodybuilding and back in the supplements business.
In November last year he opened Beauty Orr Beast supplements on the premises of West Auckland's Wolf's Gym. One of the celebrity attendees at the store launch was Josef Rakich, an online fitness entrepreneur whose Facebook page has 2.2 million likes. Online sales of fitness plans and supplements brought in more than $800,000 to the coffers of Josef Rakich Fitness in 2014. That success impressed High Court judge Ailsa Duffy, who discharged Rakich without conviction last December after he was brought before the court for selling 200 "ecstasy" pills (the pills were marketed as ecstasy but were actually Class C analogues) and conspiring to sell 2600 more in late 2011.
Much of the "ecstasy" being gobbled up on the Auckland nightclub scene in 2011 and 2012 was in fact Alpha PVP, a Class C analogue of the drug. Brothers Khalid and Walid Slaimankhel combined to distribute 97,000 of the pills between January and May 2012, a police examination of their mobile phones revealed.
Two months before he started selling what a court documents would state was $1,158,740 worth of illegal party pills, Khalid Slaimankhel opened Pro Supplements and Nutrition Limited.
His standing as a professional bodybuilder with an interest in a supplements business was noted by district court judge Phillipa Cunningham when she sentenced Slaimankhel for possession of Class C drugs for supply and offering to supply the Class B drug methadone.
The Slaimankhels' pill supplier was Christchurch bodybuilder Phillip Musson. As part of their arrangement, Musson supplied steroids to the brothers in return for methadone. Musson imported the drug while a fourth man, Chetan Jethwa, made the pills using a press he'd purchased for US$4000.
A national police investigation called Operation Adder caught the quartet red-handed.
Musson, the mastermind, was sentenced to four years and five months in prison. He got off lightly, as would the Slaimankhels.
Judge Cunningham admitted she had erred in giving Musson a six-month discount on his sentence. She'd done so without knowing the reason that Jethwa had received a sentence of just 12 months home detention despite being convicted of importing, selling and possessing a vast quantity of drugs. At his peak Jethwa was manufacturing $55,000 worth of pills a week. Police found $178,655 in cash at his house when they arrested him.
That reason for his light sentence has never been stated. The judge who sentenced him noted in mitigation that he was in the process of setting up a "legitimate" supplements store and had been encouraged to do so by Musson.
With Jethwa and Musson (albeit incorrectly) having received trimmed-down sentences, Judge Cunningham reasoned the only fair way to deal with the Slaimankhel brothers was to discount their sentences as well. After additional discounts for guilty pleas, time served, their good character and genuine remorse were applied, the brothers were sentenced to home detention. It was a lucky break, particularly for Khalid, whose legal problems were far from over.
Khalid Slaimankhel was under surveillance by Operation Adder detectives when he met bodybuilding buddy and fellow supplement salesman Marven Yacoub in the carpark of the Sylvia Park Mall on February 1, 2013 to take possession of 1048 distinctive green pills.
Already on bail for the party pill dealing charges, Slaimankhel was forbidden to possess steroids or controlled medicines without a prescription. He was compliant with the detectives who pulled over his BMW, telling them the pills were in the boot. He wasn't sure what was in them, but suspected they were "steroid fat-burners". If he was right, the bail breach would see him returned to prison.
Three days after arresting Slaimankhel, police raided Yacoub's house. In a shoebox in his bedroom they found a cache of anabolic steroids and a bag containing 76 of the distinctive green pills.
Yacoub gave a statement placing responsibility for the pills squarely with Slaimankhel, a man he viewed as an older brother. When Slaimankhel found out Yacoub had "snitched" he was furious, and hatched a plan to make Yacoub take responsibility for the pills. That plan, involving a steroid dealer from Hamilton, a standover man called Smokey and pair of menacing gang members, would end with Slaimankhel being convicted of kidnapping and perverting the course of justice. He will be sentenced on July 23.
Police weren't really interested in the 23 vials of steroids in Yacoub's shoebox. He was charged with possession and granted diversion. He may have escaped his brush with the law without a conviction, however testifying at Slaimankhel's trials didn't do much for Yacoub's standing as a legitimate businessman.
The first trial, in May 2014, ended with a hung jury. During it Yacoub testified that he was a steroid dealer. In the retrial he said he wasn't a steroid dealer. When the contradiction was pointed out, he elected not to answer any more questions about his dealer status so as not to incriminate himself.
"I don't have to answer that," he said time and again.
In an interview with the Herald, Yacoub, who owns and operates Payless Supplements in Panmure, said he no longer sold steroids. "That was a long time ago. I was a kid, I was dumb. I was 19 years old. I'm 22 now and I have come a long way since then. Everyone is a kid at one point in their life and makes mistakes."
On the day he was kidnapped, Yacoub was intending to buy steroids from his friend Jen Jay Law. He insisted in court they were for personal use, but that is at odds with his own evidence at the previous trial.
People on social media who accused him of being a steroid dealer were out to tarnish his reputation and used the anonymity of fake identities to get away with it, Mr Yacoub said.
Although he no longer sold steroids he acknowledged their use was rife.
"Every single person nowadays in the gym industry now uses steroids. That's as simple as that."
The Payless Supplements chain was founded by Manukau gym owner David Edginton. A search of Companies Office records shows Payless Supplements Limited was struck off the register in 2013. However consent forms filed when the company was incorporated were sent from the fax machine of Optimum Imports, a company owned by Mr Edginton.
Mr Edginton's business interests include the Fitness Plus gym in Manukau, which also doubles as a Payless branch.
Mr Edginton said he wasn't aware until recently that Mr Yacoub had been caught up in a major drugs operation. He did not employ Mr Yacoub but rather let him use the brand's name and sold him stock. He did not believe Mr Yacoub was a steroid dealer but had warned him not to get in trouble again.
"I told him if ever see anything or hear any of that again you are f***ing gone."
When asked if there were many steroid users in his gym, Mr Edginton said there steroid users "in every sport".
His view of some of the questionable characters in the supplements business was that there were "lots of facades and carry on in this industry" but no industry was "squeaky clean".
Business appears to be booming for the Payless brand, with new stores opening recently in Rotorua and Tauranga.
Mr Edginton has also opened a superstore in Hamilton after buying out GQ Nutrition, a supplements store previously owned and operated by professional bodybuilder Grant Pieterse.
In November 2012, 17-year-old aspiring personal trainer Joshua Tanuvasa called into GQ Nutrition to buy a scoop of the pre-workout powder Monster Pump on his way to the gym. Not long into the start of his workout in the weights room at Les Mills, Joshua collapsed and died.
A coroner's inquiry into the teenager's death found no trace of dangerous or illegal substances in his system.
In a news report at the time Mr Pieterse said he was shaken and shocked by the teenager's death but knew he had done nothing wrong in selling him the "run of the mill" product. He said he was against steroids, although there were cheats in every sport.
Mr Pieterse has closed his supplement store and moved to Australia. The Herald's attempts to contact him were unsuccessful.
One man who definitely isn't against steroids is Mr Pieterse's "younger brother" Andy "Priestbrah" Priestley.
Until two months ago, Mr Priestley was openly boasting of his physical "transformation" from skinny teenager to muscle-bound 20-something. That was made possible by his devoted use of powerful anabolic steroid trenbolone - a drug invented to boost muscle growth in livestock.
An avid social media user until two months ago when his accounts fell silent, Mr Priestley operated an online business providing "Meal plans, Supplement protocols, Training programs." The timeline on the Priestbrah Facebook page, which has 37,000 likes, is largely devoted to discussing the benefits of anabolic steroid use.
"People be like to me priest don't you find it hard to find clothes that fits you," Priestley says on his personal facebook page. "i say lol m@d@fxck@ i dont wear clothes" stay tatted and shredded you Crazyk***s now Clen at me bro."
Before moving into online commerce, Mr Priestley ran a supplements store.
In 2011 he appeared in an article in the Western Leader about how roadworks had disrupted trade to the New Lynn branch of Xtreme Nutrition he operated.
"Nobody is coming in," he said. "There's no parking. I've heard that people think we're closed."
That was four years ago. Mr Priestley needn't have worried. The supplements industry's customers have kept coming, many of them oblivious to what is really in the products they are buying - and just as oblivious as to who is providing their nutritional advice.