February 16, 2011 • A B.C. hero of the Canadian Paralympics team has been fined $30,000 in the U.S. for his part in a father and son scheme smuggling fake Viagra and bogus Cialis into Canada for online and nightclub sales.
Jim Armstrong, 59, was arrested in Blaine, Wash., less than a month after skipping the national Paralympic wheelchair curling team to a gold medal in the 2010 Games.
U.S. Federal Court Judge Ricardo Martinez said Monday he seriously considered sending Armstrong, a retired dentist, to jail.
"You are a trained medical professional," Martinez said in a Seattle courtroom. "You knew better."
Minutes before Martinez slapped Armstrong with the fine â€” and scheduled a hearing in April at which Armstrong could be ordered to pay up to $44,000 in restitution to drug companies â€” the judge imposed a jail sentence on Armstrong's son, Gregory, 28, of a year and a day, plus a $5,000 fine.
Armstrong had told an investigating officer Gregory sold the fake erectile-dysfunction drugs in Vancouver-area nightclubs, and court heard Gregory was advertising the pills online.
"Not only [did] you put people at physical risk of harm, you put them at risk of death," Martinez told Gregory.
Drug testing was performed to determine pills seized from Armstrong were fake, but no tests were done to find out what was actually in them.
Martinez said Armstrong was less to blame than his son. Armstrong's lawyer, Richard Hansen, said his client was in "desperate financial straits," and was losing his Richmond home, which court heard was valued at $1.6 million.
"He can hardly buy groceries," Hansen told court, adding that Armstrong "was not profiting" from the scheme and that some packages retrieved from the mailbox contained legitimate goods.
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Last March 20, Armstrong was holding aloft a bouquet of flowers with one hand and raising his gold medal with the other as he sat in his wheelchair on the curling sheet with his Paralympian teammates after winning the final against Korea. His craggy face was beaming.
Armstrong appeared to embody the Paralympic ideal of triumph over adversity. He started curling at age eight, and competed as an able-bodied athlete six times at The Brier, twice as skip. He is the only curler to have won the Ross Harstone Award for Sportsmanship and Ability three times. He was president of the World Curling Players Association from 1997 to 1999. But in 2007 he suffered serious knee and back injuries in a car accident. He could no longer work as a dentist. He couldn't curl. But then he discovered a twist on the sport â€” and became a wheelchair curler, and a superstar of the sport.
Armstrong's downfall began in April when U.S. Customs agents in Los Angeles intercepted a package mailed from China containing 2,544 tablets labelled "Viagra" and 260 labelled "Cialis." The pills were determined to be counterfeit. The package, addressed to Armstrong's late wife Carleen, had been sent to a box at a Mail Boxes International outlet in Blaine rented under Carleen's name before she died of cancer in September 2009.
U.S. Customs Special Agent Zachary Timko used Federal Express to overnight the box of pills to Special Agent Jim Burkhardt of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who is responsible for Washington state.
An employee at the outlet provided Burkhardt with a list of 22 parcels and boxes delivered to the Armstrongs' box over the previous year. The list showed large numbers of parcels arriving at the box, many from China and India where counterfeit drugs are mass produced. Armstrong and his son Greg both retrieved packages. The employee told Burkhardt she was very familiar with Armstrong, who picked up boxes once a week.
The scheme came crashing down on April 15 when Armstrong, unaware he was under surveillance, entered the mailbox outlet and asked for his packages. He checked the box of counterfeit pills and left the building.
"I confronted James Armstrong outside the store," Burkhardt said in an affidavit to U.S. Western District Court. "I placed Armstrong under arrest. Armstrong informed me that his son Gregory purchased the drugs and distributed [them] at clubs in the Vancouver area."
Ultimately, Armstrong told investigators he had smuggled the bogus drugs on "numerous other occasions . . . on behalf of his son."
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Court heard Monday that the Armstrongs had run their illegal enterprise for about three years. Both pleaded guilty.
Friends of Armstrong, a father of three, submitted letters to U.S. authorities testifying to his good character.
"Throughout the time that I have known Dr. Armstrong, I have been impressed with his honesty, integrity and strong family values," wrote Vancouver lawyer James Schuman. "I have not known Dr. Armstrong to act in any way that was . . . connected with criminality."
Tony Stevens, of the Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal, wrote that he'd known Armstrong for more than 40 years.
"Jim carries a quiet strength about him, which was readily evident at all times that I observed him participate in sports, practise dentistry, and as a father managing a large, very active family.
"I have difficulty accepting that Jim would knowingly have been involved in the scheme that was depicted recently in the media. Such a situation makes little sense from what I know of Jim. It seemingly would also require me to accept that he would put at risk everything that he has accomplished in life."
Armstrong and his son are not facing charges in Canada.
"We were aware of the U.S. allegations and the charges," said Const. Michael McLaughlin of the Canadian Federal Border Integrity Program. "There was never sufficient evidence to charge in Canada."
The Canadian Curling Association disciplined Armstrong and he has met all the conditions of his punishment, said the association's Greg Sturmlaw. Armstrong is on the national wheelchair curling team, he added.
Armstrong left court Monday, having paid the $30,000, his lawyer said.
"The judge, he has a reputation for being fair and reasonable, and he showed it," Jim Armstrong told me later.
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