My Day at the FBI Labs

The Canine Cocaine Caper is back!

Over a period of several years I wrote numerous stories for ChemMatters, a magazine for high school students published by the American Chemical Society. Its then-editor was the estimable Dave Robson, who happened to be a chemistry teacher at a high school across town.

The mission of ChemMatters is to explain the science behind news stories and everyday life to encourage kids to think about a career in science. I always enjoyed these assignments, which allowed me to explore interesting and offbeat aspects of science. I wrote about the chemistry of carbon monoxide poisoning, safer engine antifreeze, homeopathy, and a bunch of other stuff.

The first time I met Dave in his subterranean editorial office at Towson State University, there were hundreds of strips of clear plastic hanging from the ceiling, turning the cramped and cluttered space into a translucent jungle. Dave said that the strips were a natural polymer that dissolves in water. The magazine was having a contest for kids to think of things that the plastic could be used for, and a sample plastic sheet was to be inserted into each issue.

What could you use a water-soluble plastic for? All I could think of was cruel tea bags. It’s actually used to make bags for dirty linens and laundry in hospitals, so they can be thrown into the washing machine bag and all.

Some of my ChemMatters stories were quite good, but I never had all of those clips to put online. Through an oversight while switching web hosts over the years, I lost my copy of the most popular ChemMatters clip – The Canine Cocaine Caper – which stats showed was often the most-read clip in my portfolio. And perhaps for good reason.

The Canine Cocaine Caper story was generated from leftover material from an assignment with another ACS publication, a newspaper for college-age readers called Reaction Times. I spent a day at the FBI labs in Washington to learn about the technology used in criminal forensics.

The FBI allowed me essentially unfettered access to their labs. It’s the same facilities one sees on the public tour through the D.C. headquarters, but from the other side of the glass. A young female special agent was assigned to escort me in the building all day. I could go into any lab I wanted, even use a camera and tape recorder. The only restriction was not to discuss any active case, lest an investigation or prosecution be compromised.

It’s hard to imagine with this post-9/11 security mentality, but at the time the FBI basically said sure, come on down and we’ll show you around. And they did. It was awesome.

I literally peeked over shoulders while lab scientists combed over evidence – dented fenders, bloodied sneakers, weapons, clothing. I watched hair and fiber analysis and learned about DNA fingerprinting. The FBI has automotive paint from every make and model ever produced in the U.S., and samples of duct tape from every U.S. manufacturer. Amazing stuff.

In the afternoon, I had a chance to sit and speak with special agent Roger Martz, chief of the FBI’s chemistry lab. Martz later gained notoriety in the OJ Simpson trial by testifying about the presence of the preservative EDTA on socks found in OJ’s bedroom. Some time after that, Martz resigned in a scandal over sloppy work in his lab.

But none of that had happened yet when I interviewed Martz in his office. I found him friendly and cooperative as we discussed some of the instruments and techniques used in forensic chemistry. As we talked, I absentmindedly fiddled with a white plastic flange I picked up from his desk. It was an ordinary looking molded ring of plastic, something you might find on a bathroom fixture.

“That plastic you’re playing with is almost one-third cocaine by weight,” he told me.

My reply was probably something like, “Say what?”

Martz said it was cocaine plastic, one of the latest innovations in drug smuggling. You can incorporate cocaine into the plastic mix during manufacture, and mold it, inject it, shape it any way you want. It’s relatively easy and inexpensive, and undetectable by drug-sniffing dogs.

He explained how cocaine plastic works, and told me about a recent case in which a group of people fabricated dog carriers containing several pounds of cocaine, worth at least $1 million. The two carriers were shipped by air to the Miami, where suspicion was raised because there were no dogs inside.

To round out my story, I had to learn the rest of it – how to extract the cocaine out of the plastic. For help, I turned to the chief chemist at the Drug Enforcement Agency, who told me over the phone how to make powdered and freebase, or crack, cocaine.

The American Chemical Society explains cocaine processing to high school kids. Is that great journalism or what?

Recently, the wonderful people at ACS sent me a CD-ROM with nearly the complete run of ChemMatters in PDF format. Now some of my favorite ChemMatters clips are online, including the Canine Cocaine Caper as well as stories about how color-changing pigments work, synthetic blood and perfluorocarbon liquid breathing, and how Super Glue evolved from a lab accident to a surgical tissue adhesive.

Check them out, under “Fun with Chemistry”.

3 Responses to “My Day at the FBI Labs”

  1. Kathy De Antonis says:

    Hi Bruce-
    Your piece here really caught my attention. I’m sure the Canine Cocaine Caper greatly interested its high school audience. Coincidentally (and this is probably a long shot, but I feel compelled to ask), I am looking into writing a story for ChemMatters about an innovative chemistry application at the FBI Lab as that is currently one of their topics of interest for next years issues. I have been trying to figure out who to approach at the FBI lab. Do you know who at the lab would be appropriate to contact for such information?
    Kathy De Antonis

  2. James says:

    So how do they extract the coke from the plastic????
    You left us hanging

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