SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – BALCO founder Victor Conte and two other men pleaded guilty Friday to steroid distribution in a deal with federal prosecutors, making it much less likely that top athletes such as Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi and Marion Jones will be forced to testify about alleged drug use.

Conte pleaded guilty to steroid distribution and money laundering. If U.S. District Judge Susan Illston accepts the deal, he’ll spend four months in prison and four months under house arrest.

Greg Anderson, Bonds’ longtime friend and personal trainer, pleaded guilty to the same charges in exchange for a six-month prison sentence. Prosecutors agreed to drop dozens of counts against Conte and Anderson.

BALCO Vice President James Valente pleaded guilty to one count of distributing illegal steroids.

Track coach Remi Korchemny, also charged with distributing steroids, delayed accepting any plea agreement.

Conte, who founded the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, was charged with illegally distributing performance-enhancing drugs to more than 30 baseball, football and track and field stars. He faced a maximum of 20 years in prison for the money laundering charge and five years for the conspiracy charge.

“I agreed with others to distribute steroids,” Conte said in court. “I knew at the time that steroid distribution was an unlawful activity.”

Illston will decide whether to accept the pleas at an Oct. 18 sentencing hearing.

Prosecutors refused to comment Friday on the deals.

The case, which began two years ago when authorities learned about a new, undetected designer steroid, opened the public’s eyes to performance-enhancing drugs in sports while forcing professional leagues to tighten drug-testing rules.

Earlier this year, major league baseball toughened its drug-testing policy, mandating suspensions for initial violations. Congress also threatened to implement a federal drug-testing policy for the NFL, NBA, NHL and the major leagues, with a two-year ban for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second violation.

While the case catapulted steroid use into a front-burner issue from Capitol Hill to baseball clubhouses and from schools to living rooms, the plea agreements prevented several key athletes suspected of steroid use from having to testify in open court.

Some of the biggest names in sports – including baseball stars Bonds and Giambi – have been under a cloud of suspicion based on BALCO grand jury transcripts that were leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as public accusations against Olympic star Jones by Conte and others.

None of the athletes publicly has admitted steroid use, and pleas by the four defendants would mean they won’t have to repeat their secret grand jury testimony in a public courtroom.

Conte, Anderson, Valente and Korchemny were charged last year with dozens of counts in connection to federal raids at Burlingame-based BALCO in 2003 and at Anderson’s house in Burlingame.

Federal agents stated in court records they seized calendars and other documents detailing the use of steroids by professional baseball players during the search of Anderson’s home. A federal agent wrote in court papers that, during the raid at BALCO headquarters, “Conte openly acknowledged giving testosterone-based cream, itself a steroid, to numerous professional athletes.”

AP-ES-07-15-05 1643EDT

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