How to Sell Drugs and Influence Everyone on Instagram
Who knew that Instagram was one of the world’s largest open-air drug markets? The true tale of a bodybuilder from Boston’s ’burbs turned social media influencer who built an illicit empire—one outrageous post at a time.
He called himself @Musclehead320, and he appeared on Instagram as a 255-pound specimen of bulging muscles, bronzed, tattooed, and gleaming as he tossed dumbbells around the weight room. Watch me lift that, watch me grow, raps a background voice in a homemade music video posted on his page. His goal, immortalized in his Instagram handle, was to reach 320 pounds of swollen brawn, and he wasn’t shy about how he’d get there.
In several Instagram shots, the bodybuilder’s veins spider across his bulbous body, curving through a web of tattoos that includes a large testosterone molecule inked on his leg. In other videos, he pierces his buttocks with a needle, pushing a dose of steroids into his body while giving detailed instructions to his legions of fans. In some posts, he is a prankster, displaying outrageous steroid-themed cartoons. Still in others, he is something of a steroid critic, offering personal reviews of illegal drugs sent to him by kitchen chemists from all corners of the country. In the era of social media marketing, and with a reach of 100,000 Instagram followers, Musclehead was America’s foremost steroids influencer—the Kim Kardashian of juice.
Musclehead’s Instagram account made him famous—and helped line the pockets of the steroids makers he positively reviewed—but in reality the man behind this sensational persona, Tyler Baumann, was hardly living large. In 2015, at 29, he was losing money on his investment in a failing Worcester tanning salon. He had a girlfriend and a two-year-old son to think about. He wanted more than just fame. He wanted a piece of the action.
Early that year Baumann met with his own steroid supplier, Phil Goodwin of Lynn, and struck a deal: Goodwin, who ordered raw steroid powder from China and cooked it into injectable oil in his kitchen, would continue to produce the “gear,” as it’s known in the ’roids community. Baumann, meanwhile, with his influencer status, would handle the marketing. Their plan was destined to succeed. After all, they thought, Baumann already had a massive following on the social media site that was rapidly becoming one of the largest open-air marketplaces for drug dealers that Boston and the world have ever seen.
It turns out that Instagram’s algorithms work exceptionally well at what they were designed to do: give you more of what you like. But it also means that when a user searches for drugs or follows dealers, the app delivers more drug-related ads, suggested pages, and hashtags into the person’s feed, despite the systems it has in place to monitor illicit activities.
Still, there are inherent risks to dealing drugs on social media, and Baumann knew it. So he and Goodwin concocted a workaround: What if Musclehead didn’t market himself as a dealer, but as the beneficiary of a seemingly independent lab that the two men secretly controlled? In this scenario, they could create a legitimate-sounding steroid brand detached from Musclehead’s Instagram page. If Musclehead flooded his feed with favorable reviews of the lab, they could lead customers right to his and Goodwin’s very own product. No one would know the connection.
Taking the plan even further, the partners posed another question: What if the steroid maker they promoted borrowed the name and logo of a legitimate pharmaceutical lab already in existence? This way, they thought, if a curious customer were to Google the brand, proof of legitimacy would appear on screen. Goodwin, an electrical engineer by day, researched existing brands to co-opt. He stumbled upon a company called Onyx Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of the California-based biotech giant Amgen. Baumann thought the Onyx name sounded cool.
Next, Goodwin ordered counterfeit boxes and labels from China that perfectly mimicked Onyx’s logo, and they were in business. In May 2015, Musclehead posted his first Onyx review, flexing his biceps while brandishing an oversize image of an Onyx vial. He was testing out “this new company,” he announced to his followers. Ensuing posts included hashtags such as #steroids, #gains, and #trenhard—a reference to trenbolone, the most powerful anabolic steroid on the market. Onyx produced the best gear he’d ever tested, Musclehead declared. The company had even become an official sponsor of the Musclehead brand.
The Insta-generated demand for orders was instantaneous. Through the wonders of the Internet, Baumann had harnessed Instagram’s algorithms to reach an untapped audience of customers. Right from the start, he and Goodwin were selling $10,000 a day of Onyx juice. They could barely keep up with the messages. Suddenly, Musclehead wasn’t just America’s number one steroids influencer; he was secretly one of the drug’s biggest kingpins, too.
Almost like a Lotto winner, Baumann turned into a millionaire practically overnight. He moved his family from Southborough to a 5,000-square-foot Shrewsbury home boasting a stately lawn, a movie theater, and a guest house. He and his now-fiancée, Katie Green, took lavish vacations to Vegas and the Virgin Islands, renting Lamborghinis and dropping $30,000 in a weekend. At home, Baumann drove a new Mercedes E350 and Cadillac Escalade and spent gobs of money on his kids, offering them the kind of pampered childhood he’d never had. By 2017, Baumann’s enterprise had raked in $5 million and his Instagram account gave him the fawning adoration of 100,000 devoted followers. Unbeknownst to Baumann, though, one of them was determined to cut his illicit empire off at the knees.
From her office with a view of the Charles River, Candice Foley silently combed through Instagram. As one of the special agents at Homeland Security Investigations who fit the description of a social-media-savvy millennial, she’d been assigned a steroids case the agency was pursuing. HSI, as it is known, is an arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, which many people think of as the group that rounds up undocumented immigrants. But HSI represents the agency’s “customs” component, and its agents investigate counterfeit products that violate trademark statutes, including pharmaceutical drugs imported from overseas. At first, all Foley knew was that a biotech company named Amgen, which owns Onyx Pharmaceuticals, had started receiving inquiries to its hotline related to steroids, discovered an Instagram page filled with photos of its logo, and called the feds.
Foley, an HSI investigator since 2007, had spent much of her career in the world of drug smuggling. She worked most of her cases by poring over email, phone, and bank records. Sometimes she’d tiptoe into the dark web or even Bitcoin, but no one had ever asked her to research a crime conducted on social media. Now, sitting at her desk in the JFK Federal Building, Foley couldn’t believe her eyes as she clicked through images of Onyx-labeled steroids for sale on Instagram. This is wild, she thought. They are selling illegal drugs right out in the open.
At the same time, Instagram was blowing up in popularity, on its way to becoming the billion-dollar influencer enterprise that it is today. E-commerce, too, was exploding. Drug dealers across the country eagerly stepped into this tidal wave of connectivity and opportunity. While not much is known about the drug trade on social media, what little research does exist mostly comes from Tim Mackey, a public health professor at the University of California, San Diego. During four months in 2018, he used an advanced algorithm to scrape through Instagram posts for drugs. In a first-of-its-kind study published this past June, he revealed more than 1,200 posts advertising illicit drugs for sale. Each ’Gram included the dealer’s contact information and generated an inquiry from at least one clear buyer. Incredibly, he says, it’s merely the “tip of the iceberg. Drugs aren’t sold on the block anymore. If you’re a drug dealer who’s not on social media, you’re not where your customers are.”
While connections between sellers and buyers are typically made in the comments sections, Mackey found, the ultimate transactions are ironed out elsewhere. “We’ll read things like, ‘Hey man, if you got real stuff, hit me up on my WhatsApp or DM me,’” he says. If Instagram monitors shut down an illicit hashtag, dealers will just create a new one. “You take down 100 and 100 pop up,” Mackey says. “It’s Whack-a-Mole.” Experts also worry that the patina of anonymity offered by social media is emboldening dealers like never before. “I can go on Instagram or Facebook and find drugs within a minute,” says Libby Baney, a senior adviser for the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies. “We’re allowing the open web to become the dark web. It’s brazen.”
In response, officials including former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb have tried to sound the alarm, voicing concern that social media companies haven’t been proactive in the fight against online opioid sales. While he was commissioner he sent warning letters to 50 websites selling illegal drugs, putting them on notice, and called out social media companies during speeches. Meanwhile, on the congressional floor, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin confronted Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about the problem, lecturing them that, “A lot of people have died receiving information on how to obtain drugs through y’all’s platforms.”
So far, though, Silicon Valley’s response has been sluggish at best. The tech giants claim immunity under a law that likens social media companies to newsstands rather than to publishers responsible for the content on their platforms. In other words, they argue, social media companies don’t create the offensive material that ends up on their pages, so they can’t be held liable. The law is the subject of fierce debate inside DC’s Beltway and is at the heart of many battles over the publication of hate manifestos, terror screeds, sex ads, fake news, and, more recently, drugs. On the plus side, last year, Facebook, which owns Instagram, rolled out an AI tool able to detect drug images and other relevant identifiers. And a Facebook spokesperson said that Instagram actively removes drug-dealing content and hashtags when aware of them. Still, the company seems loath to cooperate with researchers or share data, stymying efforts to assess the full extent of the problem or make more progress tackling it. In fact, the Facebook spokesperson told me that Mackey’s valuable study violated its polices—precisely the attitude that infuriates advocates who accuse social media companies of keeping the public in the dark. After all, Baney said, if ferreting out drug dealers is really a priority, “I’d love to see them self-report the data.”
As a federal agent, Foley faced none of the resistance that typically hinders researchers, and it didn’t take long for her to link the Onyx Instagram posts to Baumann. Using a pseudonym, the HSI team made an undercover buy and traced the IP address of the seller’s email to Baumann’s house. They set up surveillance and figured it would be an open-and-shut case, starting and ending with Baumann and a smattering of customers scattered across the country. But as Foley pored over his email accounts and the surveillance footage, something seemed awry: Though Baumann had thousands of customers regularly contacting him—far more than Foley ever imagined—she never saw any inventory coming out of his house, and Baumann never made any trips to the post office. Foley suspected there was more to Baumann’s operation than she or anyone else had initially thought.
Instagram fame gave Baumann his drug market and, in turn, his riches, but it also provided something even more valuable: validation. Born in the Worcester area to a teenage mother, his home life as a child reads like a Dickens novel: drugs, beatings, homelessness, and poverty. By the time he was a teen, Baumann was overweight and deeply troubled. Midway through eighth grade, he dropped out of school, tattooed “white pride” across his stomach, and started dealing cocaine. Not long after his 18th birthday, the cops busted him and he went to prison.
When Baumann emerged five years later, he found refuge at the gym, seeking to overcome his lifelong inferiority complex by gaining bulk. Steroids were a clear shortcut to that end, a magical elixir that would enable him to construct a protective layer of muscle beneath which he could hide his deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy. It wasn’t long before other lifters at the gym started asking him to pose in selfies with them, and shoppers at the grocery store began asking to squeeze his muscles. One day, he looked in the mirror and hardly recognized himself—which, after all, was the whole idea.
To earn money, Baumann opened a Worcester tanning salon called Tanorama. But his passion was Instagram, which he joined in 2014, christening himself @Musclehead320. His alter ego was everything he was not: bold, fearless, and socially at ease.
As Baumann swelled in physical size, so did his following. “Everyone knew who Musclehead was on Instagram,” says Bostin Loyd, a friend and bodybuilder. “He was the comedian of bodybuilding.” Sometimes Baumann would post outrageous memes. Other times he spoke with an air of authority, warning teens to stay away from the juice.
By 2015, Baumann was a national face for steroids, and illegal producers flooded his mailbox with samples to review, hoping for the Musclehead stamp of approval. If he didn’t like a product, he’d post videos of himself flushing the steroids down the toilet, lighting them on fire, or crushing them with a hammer. Most of his fans weren’t athletes but belonged to a new class of millennials looking to get swole for the Internet. “There are maybe one million professional bodybuilding enthusiasts in the U.S., but 10 million who just lift, take steroids, and get a ton of tattoos because they think it’s cool,” says Boston-based Ron Harris, online editor and senior writer for Muscular Development. “To them, Tyler was a hero.” It was hardly surprising, then, that once Musclehead launched the fake Onyx brand and began marketing it through his Instagram account, sales began to soar. In no time, Loyd says, it became “the most popular underground lab on the market.”
In many ways, the operation was simple. Musclehead used his Instagram account to direct followers to an Onyx email, which Baumann and Goodwin in fact controlled. Then he built an Instagram page, which appeared to casual observers to be an Onyx T-shirt company. On each shirt, however, Baumann Photoshopped an image of a steroid product for purchase. To direct his customers to the page, he simply tagged it on his Musclehead feed. Customers who contacted him via email received automatic messages listing products and prices. The minimum order was $250, with a flat shipping fee of $15. “Thank you for choosing Onyx Pharmaceuticals,” the message said.
Next, using another email address, Baumann instructed customers to place orders via Western Union or MoneyGram. Using fake IDs, several accomplices whom Baumann and Goodwin had recruited into the operation collected the money. As a final step, Baumann shipped the steroids to customers through the U.S. Postal Service. Packages were marked with fake sender names and return addresses that belonged to vacant Boston-area homes that Baumann found by Googling “houses for sale.”
Early success led to more outrageous marketing tactics. For Thanksgiving, Baumann posted a video of himself basting a turkey with steroids taken from an Onyx vial. In another video, he filmed himself eating ice cream, eventually scooping out an Onyx vial. Baumann tried other tricks to drive sales, too. He frequently logged onto the Onyx page, for instance, tagged his Musclehead page, and jump-started faux conversations, as if between two different parties, about how great the product was. Ever entrepreneurial, Baumann also authored an e-book titled Steroids—How To, which included an Onyx bottle on its cover. The book outlined tips like how to counter the side effects of steroids and included chapter titles such as “Juice for Ladies…Who Want to Stay Ladies.” Baumann made $100,000 in a couple months off book sales. A bodybuilding YouTuber described it as a “god for beginners.”
Eventually, Baumann’s bank account was as jacked as he was. He and his partners could transform a $400 bag of raw steroid powder from China into $30,000 worth of oil on the Insta-market. By 2017, the Musclehead brand had become a multimillion-dollar enterprise. Nothing, he thought, could stop the biggest steroids influencer in Boston.
Curled up in a ball in the backseat of her unmarked car, Foley felt her heart beating like a rabbit’s. Please don’t catch me, please don’t catch me, she said over and over to herself. Through the car window, she could see her target, one of Baumann’s partners, who had pulled into the Westford parking lot and stopped his car right next to hers. Now, as the man stepped out of his car and went to open his trunk, he was standing inches away. He merely needed to turn his gaze in her direction and he would find her, clutching her surveillance camera.
Foley had spent months on stakeouts like this one in front of Goodwin’s place of work, a company called Cynosure that develops cosmetic treatments. Each time, Foley had seen him pull into the parking lot, open his trunk, and then carefully lower the hatch so that it didn’t close completely. Next, a white Ford Explorer pulled into the lot and stopped somewhere near Goodwin’s car. Baumann’s pickup guy got out, removed a giant box stuffed with ready-to-be-shipped packages of steroids from Goodwin’s trunk, and transferred it to his car.
This time, Foley had the bum luck that the pickup guy had parked right next to her. She waited for the worst, repeating her hopeful mantra until she heard him get back into his car and drive away. She was safe. And so was the case—at least for now.
Despite Foley’s dogged work and constant snooping, Baumann had no idea someone was watching him. He was worried, however, about the possibility that his newfound spending habits might raise a red flag with the IRS. To make himself appear legit, he purchased a Beverly tanning salon dubbed Wicked Tan and hired Melissa Sclafani, who had worked in a bank, to manage the books. Despite his intention, though, he didn’t put much effort into making his business look legit. The salon didn’t offer customary spray tans, didn’t play music, and kept irregular hours. The monthly membership fee was laughably cheap—the same price as a typical session in other tanning salons. Sclafani suggested to Baumann that they spruce the place up, but he wasn’t interested.
“[We] can’t run a biz if everything is crap,” Sclafani texted him. “A salon with no music. Come on….”
“[The business is] there to wash money,” Baumann replied. “The IRS don’t care if we have a radio.”
But Foley did. She visited the salon and noted its shortcomings. She also delved into Wicked Tan’s bank account and learned that less than one percent of customer payments were made with credit cards—a ludicrous proposition for a legitimate company. The salon’s balances were meager, and most of the withdrawals were in cash—taken out almost immediately after cash deposits of similar amounts were made. Money was routinely deposited in Shrewsbury, where Baumann lived, and withdrawn in Gloucester, where Sclafani lived.
By April 2017, Baumann’s unchecked confidence began to wane as evidence that he was being watched started to mount. One morning, Sclafani texted him that she’d picked up a package of oral steroids that appeared to have been opened and then taped back together—possibly by the cops. Later that day, Baumann grabbed a Gold’s Gym bag stuffed with $100,000 in cash and sped off toward Goodwin’s workplace for one of their monthly meetings to split the earnings. Halfway there, his phone rang; it was one of his associates, who relayed that he’d recently been to a court hearing for a minor fake ID charge when the prosecutor let slip that Baumann’s crew was under investigation. Baumann hung up the phone and pressed on to Goodwin’s office. Moments before arriving, he received a call from his primary money collector, who told him that someone had been tailing her across the state all day, stopping at each money remittance location she visited.
All at once, Baumann sensed his empire was under attack. By the time he pulled up in front of Goodwin’s office, he was in a panic. Seated behind the wheel, he reached for his phone, fumbled for a moment, and then posted a message to his Onyx page: “We will be taking a break for one week,” he typed. “I apologize for any inconvenience.”
One week later, Baumann opened his eyes shortly before 7 a.m. As usual, his fiancée, Katie Green, was sleeping by his side and his newborn baby lay in a crib near the bed. Normally at this hour, the birds were chirping, but not today. Everything seemed eerily still and silent. Strangely nervous, he took in the calm for a minute, and then another, before a thundering noise pierced the quietude—loud banging on his front door followed by a voice hollering “FBI!” Baumann looked at Green, stretched his eyes wide, and wailed, “Nooooo.”
He scrambled downstairs in his boxers to find a squad of officers, armed with assault rifles, already there to greet him. Standing amid the heavily armed contingent of officers was Foley, ready to make the arrest. Agents searched the home and turned up $67,000 in cash, a fake driver’s license, syringes, vials, and a small pharmacy’s worth of steroids. Police also discovered a sophisticated setup of lighting and cameras to aid Baumann’s Instagram cause.
While Foley raided Baumann’s home, agents fanned out across the state arresting other members of the bodybuilder’s crew. At Goodwin’s home lab, they seized more than 5 kilos of raw steroid powder, 78 vials of liquid steroids, more than 13,000 Onyx packages and labels, and $281,000 in cash.
Goodwin and Baumann were each charged with numerous crimes, including conspiracy to launder money and trafficking of counterfeit drugs. They quickly pleaded guilty. Baumann was sentenced to 10 years in prison and Goodwin got nearly 11—some of the longest sentences ever leveled on steroid dealers. Sclafani, Green, and all other accomplices each pleaded guilty to related crimes and either received shorter sentences or avoided prison altogether. @Musclehead320, however, got a death sentence. The Instagram page went down with Baumann’s arrest.
Soon after, a friend helped Baumann build up a new page, but with a new handle and just 15,000 followers, Baumann tells me it’s simply “not as good.” The ghost of Musclehead lives on in other accounts, though. His mostly male Instagram fans, who often appear in shirtless profile pictures, cheer him on with comments that seem plucked from steroid chatrooms, such as “This post made me want to inject 500mg of tren” and “The Tren Lord is missed.” A #FreeMuscle
head320 hashtag has even emerged. “I wish they would free Musclehead,” Baumann tells me, referring to his online persona as if he were a completely different person.
In some ways, he is. Since his arrest, Baumann’s physique has shrunk as much as his following. He still lifts ’90s-era free weights at Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institute in upstate New York, but has no access to his magic, highly illegal juice. While he is unapologetic about his steroids use and promotion, he says he wishes he’d never sold them. “What I did was wrong, and I do regret it,” he admits. Still, he doesn’t buy the prosecutor’s argument that he took money from Amgen’s pockets or sullied its reputation, calling the Onyx brand a non-factor in his success. Customers “bought the steroids because my character Musclehead was using them,” Baumann tells me. “I could have called it Musclehead Labs, and they would have bought the same amount.”
Baumann has other regrets, such as dragging Green into his business, even if her participation was minimal. (Acknowledging minor involvement, Green told me that her fiancé made attempts to keep her in the dark.) When I asked about his “white pride” tattoo, he added that to his list of failures, saying he’ll remove it when he gets released. Not because it’s offensive, though, but because it’s not good for his brand image.
You have to wonder: What brand is he talking about? Baumann will be 40 or so when he gets out of prison, and even though he believes he can reboot his Musclehead character, others scoff at his apparent delusion. “Nobody’s gonna remember this guy,” says John Romano, a veteran bodybuilding writer who has sold steroids in Mexico, where they are legal. “He’s done.” When I asked Baumann if I could visit him, he declined. He was too anxious, he said, and too worried about the way his body would appear off steroids. “I’m not myself in here,” he confessed. “I don’t have the stuff I need to be me.”
That’s a sad sentiment, and it is clear he still longs for steroids. But maybe he longs for something else even more—maybe it’s the spotlight that Instagram provided him. After all, aren’t extreme Instagram and steroid use twin concepts? They each produce an artificially enhanced version of oneself, whether through a needle or a filter. Addiction to either is often rooted in vanity or insecurity, motivated by instant gratification, and sustained by modern-day pressures of public perfection. Whatever the cause, Baumann represents the most pumped-up version of this class of validation-seekers. Musclehead was an Instagrammer on steroids, literally, but perhaps even more so metaphorically. “It became more about the social media than it was about the drugs,” says Foley, who came to know Musclehead from afar. “He wanted followers. He wanted acceptance.”
In at least one way, however, the arrest of Baumann and the demise of Musclehead haven’t changed a thing. Late this summer, one of Baumann’s friends posted an Instagram photo of him in prison garb, leaning against a concrete wall. This delighted the fans of Musclehead Nation, who flooded the comment section with notes of support. Amid all the well-wishes, one comment that has since been taken down stood out, and not because of its accompanying needle emojis. The commenter had an offer: If any of Musclehead’s fans were looking for a new place to buy steroids, they were more than welcome to send him a private message.