TAFT, Calif. (AP) _ BALCO founder Victor Conte was released early Thursday from a prison where he spent four months after pleading guilty to orchestrating an illegal steroids distribution scheme that allegedly involved many high-profile athletes.

Conte was picked up by his family after his release from Taft Correctional Institution, about 40 miles southwest of Bakersfield, according to spokeswoman Mandy Ruff.

Conte founded and managed the Burlingame-based Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, where the steroids were sold. He pleaded guilty to money laundering and a steroid distribution charge, and dozens of other charges were dropped as part of his plea deal.

Conte was sentenced in October to four months in prison and four months' home confinement in a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Barry Bonds was the most prominent athlete linked to BALCO. He testified in December 2003 to the federal grand jury investigating the case but has not been charged with a crime.

Bonds has denied using steroids and Conte has said he never gave illegal performance-enhancing drugs to the San Francisco Giants star. Baseball investigators could seek to interview Conte about steroid use in the game.

A book released last week by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters detailed Bonds' alleged extensive steroid use.

Other baseball players linked to BALCO include New York Yankees stars Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield.

Olympic track and field stars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery and former NFL player Bill Romanowski also were called to testify in front of the grand jury. No athletes were charged in the scheme.

Greg Anderson, Bonds' personal trainer, was sentenced to three months behind bars and an additional three months of home confinement after pleading guilty to money laundering and a steroid distribution charge.

BALCO vice president James Valente was sentenced to three years' probation, and track coach Remi Korchemny received a year of probation.