Four men accused of distributing steroids to top athletes pleaded innocent to federal charges Friday and were allowed to go free.

The government alleged in a 42-count indictment Thursday that the four illegally supplied performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of athletes in the National Football League (search), baseball's major leagues and track and field. No athletes were named in the indictments.

Raw Data: U.S. v. Conte, et al. (pdf)

During a 14-minute hearing here Friday, each man -- including the nutritional guru to baseball's Barry Bonds (search), as well as the slugger's personal trainer -- pleaded innocent before Federal Magistrate Judge Maria-Elena James. They were released on their own recognizance, pending a hearing Feb. 27 to set bail.

Government lawyers said they will seek a $100,000 bond, and the four defendants have until the hearing to prove they can provide that amount.

According to the government's indictment, the four men were meticulous in their planning.

Federal prosecutors said they gave their drugs code names, carefully worded e-mails to avoid detection and even provided athletes with cover stories if caught.

But they were less careful when it came to garbage, prosecutors said. Important elements of the government's case -- appreciative notes from athletes, canceled checks, empty pill sheets -- were gleaned from the trash behind the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (search), or BALCO, that is the center of the probe.

Among those indicted were BALCO's founder, Victor Conte (search), who was Bonds' nutritional guru, and lab vice president James Valente. Also charged were the slugger's personal trainer, Greg Anderson (search), and world-class track coach Remi Korchemny (search), whose sprinters won gold medals but then flunked drug tests.

"I am saddened by the news of the indictment against my trainer and friend," Bonds said Thursday.

Dozens of athletes, from Bonds to Olympic track star Marion Jones (search) to boxer Shane Mosley (search), appeared before a federal grand jury in November and December. Though offered limited immunity in exchange for their testimony, athletes could still face perjury charges if prosecutors believe they lied about drug use to the grand jury.

"We have not limited prosecution in this setting to those who are being prosecuted today," Attorney General John Ashcroft (search) said at a Washington news conference to announce the charges, without providing further details.

"Illegal steroid use calls into question not only the integrity of the athletes who use them, but also the integrity of the sports that those athletes play," Ashcroft said. "Steroids are bad for sports, they're bad for players, they're bad for young people who hold athletes up as role models."

The indictment also named Korchemny, a track coach whose pupils include sprinter Kelli White -- who faces forfeiture of two world championship gold medals because she tested positive for a banned stimulant.

Track and field's governing body Friday welcomed the indictments as a step in cutting off drug supply networks and punishing those who help athletes cheat.

"Although we have rules that allow us to sanction support personnel, we can't send them to jail," said Nick Davies, spokesman of the International Association of Athletics Federations (search).

Culmination of the 18-month investigation came three weeks after President Bush called in his State of the Union address for U.S. sports leagues to adopt tougher anti-doping policies and for athletes to set a better example for American youngsters.

The charges include conspiracy to distribute steroids, possession of human growth hormone, misbranding drugs with intent to defraud and money laundering. The defendants face long prison terms and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines if convicted.

The drugs included anabolic steroids, the stimulant modafinil (search) and the newly unmasked steroid THG. The indictment alleges that THG was fraudulently marketed to athletes as an undetectable steroid, and that the men distributed a mixture they dubbed "the cream" to mask steroid use.

An affidavit for a search warrant obtained by Internal Revenue Service agent Jeff Novitzky details dozens of checks written to Conte by current NFL and baseball players, as well as one for $7,350 from an Olympic gold medalist. The affidavit says the amounts of the checks -- all found in the trash -- were too large to be for legitimate BALCO products or services.

Several athletes were seen by investigators visiting BALCO and leaving with nothing, including one who left with his pants leg rolled up above the knee -- apparently after receiving a steroid injection, the affidavit says.

Ashcroft said some athletes allegedly agreed to endorse ZMA, a zinc-magnesium nutritional supplement sold worldwide by Conte, in return for free drugs. Bonds and top track stars have appeared in public wearing ZMA caps, and Oakland Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski (search) has been an enthusiastic booster of ZMA and Conte.

Bonds first went to BALCO and Conte for nutritional advice before the 2001 season, when he hit a record 73 homers. He has known Anderson since childhood and has trained with him for years. The 39-year-old Bonds, who has repeatedly denied steroid use, has credited Conte and Anderson with keeping him in top shape.

Terry Madden, chief executive officer of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (search) that provides testing for American Olympic athletes, hailed the case as a step toward "removing drug cheats from sport." His agency has announced in recent weeks that at least eight U.S. track and field athletes flunked tests for THG or modafinil at the national championships last summer

"We fully expect that developments in the U.S. attorney's proceedings and our ongoing investigation will lead to the initiation of more doping cases against athletes and others," he said.