“Vince McMahon is going to jail for dealing steroids,” my friend Andy told me one day at school.
We were kids. Neither of us knew what steroids were. We knew drugs were bad, and the guy who everyone said ran the WWF was being accused of dealing them.
What no one knew was the acquittal of Vince McMahon in what would later be called “The Steroid Trial” helped shape the face of professional wrestling for decades to come. Although it’s easy to look back now and see this as a monumental fuck-up of a federal case, few people realize Vince had an old rival holed up in Stamford, Connecticut in case of a guilty verdict to smooth over the transfer of power within the top American wrestling promotion at the time.
This is a story I’ve debated telling for a long time thanks to the editorial policy around here of not making people stupider for their time. So much of this tale is surrounded in half-truths and obscure legal minutiae that it’s hard to tell what’s fact or fiction.
Consider this Part One of an ongoing series. Today we’re looking at the steroid trial in broad brush strokes so everyone’s familiar with the basics.
It all starts with a mark doctor* and his inability to keep his mouth shut to a CI.
George Zahorian was a urologist in Hershey, Pennsylvania who worked as a ringside doctor for the State Athletic Commission. He’d clear wrestlers to compete each night, ensuring all grapplers were fit to fight.
After the exam, Zahorian would ask his patients if they needed anything. “Anything” ranged from painkillers to anabolic steroids, and Zahorian dispensed as patients requested.
Unfortunately, one of those patients was a weightlifter named William Dunn, who also happened to be a cooperating informant for the Feds, who were investigating Zahorian’s practice in the wake of tightened regulation over anabolic steroids.
While the Feds studied Zahorian as they built a case, they noticed a curious pattern of the doctor’s FedEx shipments. A ton were going to some company in Connecticut called “Titan Sports.” Several of the doctor’s more high profile clients got packages shipped to Titan’s corporate offices in Stamford, Connecticut. Two of those clients were Hulk Hogan and “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.
A quote from Zahorian’s attorney on the eve of his client’s trial was arguably the final push that nearly toppled Titan Sports.
“The use of steroids isn’t limited to these wrestlers,” the attorney said on the eve of his client’s June 1991 trial. “They’re used throughout the WWF. Wrestlers either use them or they don’t participate.”
That statement, intended to portray Dr. Zahorian as a mild mannered physician merely attending to patient needs, began the push into what became an indictment against Vincent K. McMahon and Titan Sports, d/b/a “World Wrestling Federation.”
Five charges eventually came back from a grand jury session. The two most serious were dropped before trial due to sloppy procedural errors.
Once the trial began under the supervision of the honorable Judge Jacob Mishler, Sr., the government’s case started falling apart in spectacular fashion. Most of their witnesses were either disgruntled former WWF employees or had some demonstrable axe to grind with McMahon and the WWF.
A particularly good example is Kevin “Nailz” Wacholz, the sole government witness who told the jury McMahon pressured him to obtain and use steroids. Jerry McDevitt, lead counsel for McMahon and Titan Sports, shredded Wacholz’s credibility on cross by reminding the jury how backstage security prevented “Nailz” from choking McMahon to death one night over a money dispute.
The defense called no witnesses once the government concluded their proof. After requests from the jury for more information and time to examine documents, the verdict came in.
Vince McMahon was acquitted on all charges.
While this was a huge win for the beleaguered McMahon and his company, few knew about the plans behind the scenes working on what would happen if the government won.
You see, Vince reached out to an old rival, Jerry Jarrett, and asked Jarrett if he’d move to Stamford and take Vince’s place as Chairman of WWF should things go wrong. Jarrett, more out of loyalty to the business than anything else, agreed.
Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Rock might never have been stars if Vince McMahon went to jail.
The Steroid Trial would come back to haunt Linda McMahon in her failed 2010 Connecticut Senate run. It was around this time a memo Linda penned shortly before her husband’s indictment to one Pat Patterson, a long time McMahon lieutenant, leaked to the press. It cited a tip from a state official who warned of the federal investigation into George Zahorian and advises Patterson have him “reassigned” away from WWF events.
Linda claimed ignorance of the memo, blaming her faulty memory over trauma from a long since litigated issue. She lost the Senate race, but managed to politically fall upward once becoming the head of the Small Business Association in 2017.**
The Steroid Trial was an example of government overreach in the courtroom. It pitted a young U.S. Attorney against a hard-nosed defense lawyer who won essentially by being the smartest guy in the room on the facts, law, and knowing all the players.
And one lucky break meant Vince McMahon was free to create his “sports entertainment” empire as he saw fit.
*A “mark doctor” was the term wrestlers used for physicians that were such fans they’d prescribe anything.
**Yes. Donald Trump, a WWE Hall of Famer, made Linda McMahon, the woman in charge of fucking over more independent contractors than anyone else, head of the SBA. The irony is not lost here.