One of the great things about being a DEA Special Agent was the opportunity to interact with specialized units from a broad spectrum of agencies. You frequently worked with state police SWAT Teams, local Homicide Detectives, federal Polygraph Examiners, and even the occasional intelligence agency. Sometimes these interactions produced their fair share of humor. One such occasion was a clandestine lab that I handled in Lynchburg a few years ago. On one perfect summer afternoon, I received a call from one of my partners from the Lynchburg Police Department’s narcotics unit. “Don, one of our uniforms has a vehicle stopped just outside town, looks like there is a mobile meth lab inside the car. Can you bring the Lab Response Truck over here ASAP?” “Sure”, I replied, “on the way.” “Oh, and one more thing” he continued, “the Virginia State Police bomb squad might be there too.” “Uh, bomb squad?” I asked. “Yeah, its no big deal” my partner said “just get here as fast as you can.” As I headed toward the scene the words “bomb squad” and “no big deal” kept bouncing around in my head. Like most agents and cops, things that go “boom” usually make me a little nervous. Okay, maybe a better answer is that things that go “boom” usually scare me to death!
We had recently had the bomb squad on a meth lab call a few months before. We had stumbled upon a device in a residence not far from Lynchburg. On that call, when the bomb tech yelled “get down ” as he remotely blew up the bomb from our command post, I hugged the turf vigorously as a shock wave passed over my head; and then quietly went back to our lab truck to change my underwear.
My outlook got a little worse as I arrived at the scene of this call. The Lynchburg PD had cordoned off several city blocks around the vehicle, and most of the apartments in the area had been evacuated. Every media outlet, fire department and police agency within a 25 mile radius seemed to be on the scene. An officer waved me into a parking spot near the command post. I got out of the lab truck and approached one of the media guys. “Please do me favor” I began “don’t show my face on camera.” “Sure” the newscaster responded “are you working undercover?” “No” I answered, “I would just prefer that none of my friends and family see me being blown across town on YouTube.” I then approached my partner from the PD. “Um, ‘no big deal?” I asked. “Well, okay, maybe this thing is kind of spun out of control a bit” he answered. Apparently, when the road officer had located the lab in the suspect’s car, he also had noticed several unusual looking wires emanating from the dash. Remembering the intelligence reports we had broadcast statewide from our previous lab, the officer asked the suspect “what are those wires coming from your dash?” “I want a lawyer!” the bad guy replied, hence the bomb squad and the cast of thousands.
My attitude got a little worse as when I remembered that, in my haste to leave the office, I had failed to file an operational plan with my supervisor. In essence, no one at DEA knew where I was. Hopefully, when I was blown up examining the real cool mobile lab inside this car that looked like something out of Wayne’s World, someone at the Lynchburg Police Department would remember where to mail my remains. Wait a sec, I thought, this is going to be easy. We would approach the vehicle, remove and make safe any toxic chemicals, and then inventory same as evidence. I had done this dozens of times before. The bomb tech will can handle clearing the car, or so I thought.
We donned our Tyvex suits, booties and gloves. After checking that the seals on our suits were good, we grabbed a couple of air packs from the truck and headed over to the command post. I noticed that the Virginia State Police bomb squad had already unpacked their robot. Curiously, the robot was sitting at the CP and not near the crook’s car. I found the bomb tech and asked him for a status report. “Uh, we have a problem” the trooper said. Okay, two words that really don’t go together well are problem and bomb. “I am concerned about the trunk of the car” he continued. There is it again, two bad words in the same sentence. “The robot has already cleared most of the vehicle, but it can’t get inside the trunk of car. I am going need one of you lab guys to walk up to the car, place this heavy tool bag on the trunk of the car, unlock the trunk, and then get back here fast. The robot will then roll up, pull the bag off of the trunk, it will fly open, and the robot will clear the trunk.”
Okay, sounds like a great plan, except for the part where Don gets real close to the thing that goes boom, I love it! Hum, maybe we can just skip the first two things and go right to the running fast part? My partner from the LPD looked at me and chimed in “hey, you do the bag and the key , and I will walk up there with you.” Really? Wow, what a guy. Next he will volunteer to scrape me up from the pavement after the explosion. Looking at the bomb tech, I said “I have a better idea. Isn’t there a robot in say, Richmond, that we can bring over here that knows how to open the trunk of a car? Or does the ATF or the FBI have one? We are all on overtime, why don’t we have a few cold drinks until the other robot shows up? In fact, we are in luck, I have the FBI’s number right here in my phone. ” The trooper screwed up his face. Not only had I shown cowardice in the face of death, I had just insulted the man’s robot. “Nope” he said, “afraid you guys are it.” Well, at least he said “guys” and not “you.”
I donned my air pack, picked up the tool bag, and headed for the car. The air packs (called SCBAs) are the same ones used by firefighters. You can hear yourself breathing while you are wearing them. Talking to someone while you have the suit on is almost impossible. Think of a claustrophobic Darth Vader with the threat of death or serious bodily injury thrown in, and you get the idea. To complicate things a little, I noticed that my partner had stopped a few yards short of the vehicle. I turned and walked over to him. I became vaguely aware of the news helicopter circling overhead as I shouted at him through my mask “hey, why are you stopping?” “I think it’s a good idea that I stay here” he answered. “If you go down, I will be close by in case you need somebody to haul you out of there.” Great, wish I had thought of that first. I considered arguing with him, then I remembered the media nearby. The scene already looked a little ridiculous. Two guys, one very tall (him) and the other short (me) standing in the middle of the road in white moon suits shouting at each other. We looked like Rourke and Tattoo from Fantasy Island minus the nice tuxedos. I turned around and got on with the job. Approaching the car, I tried to remember what the trooper had told me. Hum, let me see, was it turn key and then put heavy thing on trunk and then run like hell? No, that’s not it. Luckily, my career at DEA had prepared me for following simple instructions. Gingerly, I placed the bag on the trunk of the car and drew a deep breath. So far so good. I then eased the key into the keyhole and released the lock. Now for the part I was waiting for. Made it back to the CP in record time. We looked like two Michelin men at a track meet. Despite my earlier disparaging remarks, the VSP’s robot was able to quickly clear the rest of the car. We all breathed sigh of relief. No bomb. We regrouped and easily dismantled the mobile lab. No more drama. Our luck improved further when we found documents inside the car that led us to executing two more search warrants that night. All is well that ends well. Until I ran into my boss the next morning “hey, did I see you on TV last night?”….