Last May, Tim Lambesis, frontman for Christian metalcore outfit As I Lay Dying, was arrested on charges that he’d tried to hire a hitman to murder his wife. The hitman, a guy named “Red,” was actually an undercover cop working for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, acting on a tip from Lambesis’ personal trainer. After his arrest, prosecutors said that Lambesis was angry over issues related to the couple’s divorce. But Lambesis’ defense attorney, Thomas J. Warwick, Jr., offered another explanation: Steroids pushed him over the edge.
In a bail hearing days after Lambesis’ arrest, Warwick reportedly said that Lambesis had suffered brain damage after repeated steroids use. As he gained 50 pounds and a lot of muscle, Lambesis experienced “changes in his physiological and mental status,” Warwick said. He was “irritable and lost God.” He “was not the same person.” A psychiatrist said Lambesis had flown into “roid rage.”
“It has been a terrible tragedy,” Warwick—who didn’t respond to numerous messages seeking comment for this article—said at the hearing, according to a report by local news affiliate NBC 7 San Diego. “He was a very caring, gentle man [before taking steroids] and we need to get him back.”
Lambesis was later released on bail, and for months he’s been living under house arrest. His trial is set to begin on March 11. As the trial approaches, one can’t help but wonder if this “roid rage” defense—which many athletes and weight-lifters facing criminal charges have invoked in the past—will do Lambesis any good. If steroids gave Lambesis brain damage, would that have made him capable of plotting out his wife’s murder? Though steroids have been known to bring out aggression in some users, it’s debatable that they were the source of Lambesis’ legal troubles.
“There’s a lot of people who are crazy already before they do these steroids,” says Dr. Richard Clark, director of toxicology at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center. “And that’s part of the problem, and that’s part of what I would argue with this guy against him in court. Let’s look at his track record before he started taking steroids, if that’s available.”
As far as Christian bands go, As I Lay Dying is pretty intense. Their latest album, 2012’s Awakened, is filled to the brim with technical guitar parts and lurching metalcore breakdowns. While Lambesis is frequently joined by a chorus of melodic singers—par for the course in subgenre—he delivers his screams with testosterone-addled gusto, as though he’s a linebacker at the Super Bowl determined to knock you on your ass and then pray about it.
However, the 33-year-old musician wasn’t always so muscled. You can see his drastic transformation in a before/after shot he posted online in December 2012: In the image on the left, he’s a scrawny guy whose tattooed arms lack muscle definition. But in the image on the right, a live shot where he’s covered in nasty, post-performance sweat, his biceps are beefed-out, and even his face has more meat on it.
In a post on his Tumblr page from two years ago, Lambesis writes that he got this way by doing “prison-style” workouts while on the road, and hitting the gym back home in the North County of San Diego. At the gym, he’d do serious weight training, attacking each muscle from “a minimum of three different angles.” The goal, he wrote, was to break his muscles down and build them up stronger—leading to a ripped, visually appealing physique.
“I admit that I have no practical reason for getting in great shape other than for intimidating girly men in the front row at ADM shows,” he wrote in his Tumblr post, referring to his side-project Austrian Death Machine, a joke metal band that mixes gnar-gnar riffs with celebrity soundboard-style samples of Arnold Schwarzenegger. “Ahhnold still intimidates me, so I have a small man’s complex at 6’3”.”
When police searched Lambesis’ home after his arrest, they reportedly found dozens of vials of muscle- and libido-enhancing drugs, as well as estrogen blockers. It’s unclear exactly which compounds Lambesis was using—a spokesman for the San Diego County District Attorney’s office told me he couldn’t comment on pending cases. But for weight-trainers, compounds like synthetic testosterone do offer some tantalizing benefits.
In the world of competitive bodybuilding and weight-training, where steroid use is widespread, professionals use “gear” (one nickname for steroids) to build muscle and boost efficiency. With extra levels of testosterone in your system, your muscles can recover a lot faster from an intensive workout, giving you more time to pump iron, as well as build muscle.
The problem is that steroids’ side effects can be unpredictable and, in some cases, pretty nasty.
Bill and Jim, two stocky power-lifters from San Diego (I’ve changed their names), have both taken injectable and pill-based forms of synthetic testosterone over the past year. Their most recent regimen is relatively light: doses of enanthate—a popular type of injectable testosterone—for three-month cycles, followed by three-months off. As a result, they’ve seen significant improvements in recovery time, and also gained some muscle. At his most recent meet, Bill says he bench-pressed 370 pounds and dead-lifted an impressive 570.
On their relatively small dosages, Bill and Jim have only seen one side-effect: shrunken testicles. “After two weeks of stopping cycle, they started going back to normal, just because we kept it so light,” Bill says.
Still, not everyone reacts to steroids like Bill and Jim. One guy they know experienced many more side effects on smaller doses of ’roids. And, they say, once a weight-lifter starts stacking different compounds and taking them for longer periods, the risks go up exponentially.
“Basically by cycling on and off, it’s not only easier on your body, but it leaves the door open so you can kinda walk away from it,” Bill says. “If you run heavy compounds, harsh compounds for, like, five years, you have a good chance of permanently shutting your testosterone down. And then you’re on for life—or then you’re gonna be a functioning woman. You’re gonna be crying during Titanic.”
And then there’s the biggest risk of all: Roid rage, the legendary, spontaneous outburst of testosterone-addled wrath. Bill and Jim dismiss roid rage as a myth, akin to the way marijuana is portrayed in Reefer Madness. Health experts say steroids can cause aggression, and even prescription steroids like prednisone—used to treat asthma, migraines and a range of other conditions—have been known to induce psychotic episodes in some users. But scientific research hasn’t found a direct link between using steroids and higher cases of aggression. Often, the people who get aggro on steroids were aggro to begin with.
Even if Lambesis did have one or more episodes of “roid rage,” that doesn’t necessarily explain how Lambesis could’ve allegedly hatched a murder-for-hire scheme, in which he’d allegedly given the supposed hitman (aka Sheriff’s Deputy Howard Bradley) info on his wife Meggan and her whereabouts in order to get the job done.
“When I talk about ‘roid rage,’ that is defined as a spontaneous, violent behavior of a magnitude that the police are or should be involved. Key word is ‘spontaneous.’ You know, it’s a fit of rage,’” says Dr. Charles Yesalis, professor emeritus at Penn State University and author of several books on performance-enhancing drugs. “When you sit and you plan somebody’s demise, I just don’t equate that to a roid rage incident.”
Lambesis didn’t respond to a Facebook message seeking comment for this article. His bandmates are also not speaking publicly about the case or the status of the band, and several of his friends declined to be interviewed. (One friend of Tim’s who spoke anonymously said that Lambesis was a “good Christian”; the friend supports him with whatever comes next.) But in brief comments on his Tumblr page, in a post he later deleted, Lambesis vaguely suggested that there’s more to the story than what’s been brought up in court.
“Some day I will be able to tell the story of all that has happened in detail to get the facts straight and representing the many sides to this fairly complex story. In the mean time, many of you will make your assumptions and take the sensationalism of the press focusing on selling points at face value,” he wrote, in part.
If Lambesis had an emotional or mental break, it might be that something else contributed to it. Prosecutors say Lambesis brought up his divorce when he met with Bradley, complaining that he’d limited his access to the kids and that he was going to have to give her a portion of his income. Meggan, a homemaker who was taking care of the kids full-time while Tim toured six months out of the year, filed for divorce in September 2012. Prosecutors say that Tim had sent her an email telling her he didn’t love her anymore and no longer believed in God. She later found out he was having an affair.
Nancy Fagan, owner of The Divorce Help Clinic LLC, a divorce planning and mediation center in San Diego, says people sometimes lose their heads during divorce proceedings—especially in cases like Meggan and Tim’s, where lawyers get involved and money and child custody are at stake.
“People go crazy,” Fagan says. “They can’t solve their problems. They don’t know how to get it solved. They want it done immediately, and people do not like to be in a state of unbalance. They don’t like to be in a deep emotional state. It’s uncomfortable for some people, so they seek the easy way out.”
In recent months, Lambesis’ case has slowly wended its way through the courts. Early this month he appeared with his parents at San Diego’s North County courthouse in Vista for a “readiness conference”—a meeting where the prosecution and defense would prepare for the trial and/or possibly work out a plea bargain. No hearing occurred; a date for a readiness conference was set for Feb. 19.
Since October, Lambesis has shown up for several uneventful court appearances like these. Sitting down quietly, he’d wait with his parents for Warwick, his attorney, to come out from a back room and give him an update. Of course, only Tim Lambesis knows what’s going on in Tim Lambesis’ head. But whenever I’d get a glimpse of Lambesis, he’d have a vague, uncertain look in his eyes—almost as though even he wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here, or what would happen next.
Peter Holslin is a music journalist in San Diego. He's on Twitter - @PeterHolslin