LOS ANGELES - A federal jury has convicted a Los Angeles-area woman for smuggling Human Growth Hormone (HGH) into the United States, then selling it over the Internet to doctors and spas across the country.
Rana J. Hunter, 61, of Marina Del Rey, Calif., was convicted Thursday on eight criminal counts, including two counts of smuggling goods into the United States and two counts of knowingly distributing HGH for a use unauthorized by law. Investigators determined some of Hunter's customers were located as far away as Arkansas.
The remaining criminal counts involved identify theft. According to investigators, Hunter used stolen identities to further her Internet sales scheme. She obtained some of the stolen identities from newspaper obituaries. One of the stolen identities belonged to a deceased Los Angeles Superior Court Judge. Hunter has been imprisoned since her arrest in July 2008.
The case is the result of an investigation involving U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Food and Drug Administration - Office of Criminal Investigations (FDA-OCI); U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP); the U.S. Postal Inspections Service's Identity Theft and Economic Crime (ITEC) Task Force; and the Social Security Administration - Office of Criminal Investigations. The prosecution was handled by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.
In addition to illegally importing and distributing HGH, evidence presented during the trial indicated Hunter's business, Westgate Distributors, also claimed to offer Botulinum toxin type A, marketed under the Allergan brand name Botox.
The investigation began in March 2007 after ICE agents in Los Angeles received a lead from ICE's Cyber Crimes Center in Virginia. During the ensuing probe, CBP officers intercepted numerous packages containing vials of HGH and counterfeit Botox from China that were addressed to the Marina Del Rey mailbox listed on the Internet as Westgate's business address. The parcels were mislabeled variously as synthetic hair pieces, plastic molds and "sample iron oxide."
As part of the investigation, ICE undercover agents posing as a supplier for clinics and spas, contacted the phone number listed for Westgate on the Internet. The undercover agents ultimately made two buys, including multiple vials of HGH and a substance purported to be Botox. A subsequent laboratory analysis revealed the HGH was genuine, but the substance being sold as Botox contained no evidence of the Botulinum toxin.
"This conviction should serve as a sobering reminder about the consequences facing those who illegally sell health and pharmaceutical products over the Internet," said Miguel Unzueta, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Los Angeles. "These activities potentially pose a serious safety risk to American consumers, who mistakenly assume the substances are safe."
ICE investigators have subsequently identified more than a dozen medical doctors and spa operators who may have made purchases from Hunter. FDA-OCI investigators are following up on those leads. ITEC's investigation into the related identify theft scheme is also ongoing.
Hunter faces a maximum penalty of 39 years in prison when she is sentenced Feb. 8, 2010. The aggravated identity theft charges carry a mandatory two-year sentence.