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Texas police, border agents using Labs' sniffer to nab drug traffickers

Texas police, border agents using Labs' sniffer to nab drug traffickers

On a South Texas highway one Saturday afternoon in August, a sniffing device developed at Sandia helped law enforcement officers quickly identify an unknown liquid, hidden in a false compartment under a car seat, as methamphetamines.

In the Kingsville, Texas, living room of a single mom last February, officers used results from the device to turn a young life around, coaxing a teenager to confess that he was addicted to cocaine and prompting his entry into a drug rehab program.

The incidents are two of many that demonstrate the usefulness of the Hound hand-held sniffer for helping stem the flow of illegal drugs northward into the US, say members of the South Texas Specialized Crimes and Narcotics Task Force. In a few cases the officers credit the device with saving lives.

Sandia loaned the Task Force one of its prototype Hound systems in November 2003 as part of a field trial to evaluate the system’s value in drug detection. Since then the Task Force has used the Hound at border checkpoints to help screen hundreds of vehicles per day for illegal drugs.

The loan of the Sandia system to the Task Force was made possible through funding from the National Institute of Justice.

Drugs in fingerprints

The Hound system includes a front-end sniffer developed by Sandia for sample collection and a commercial chemical detector, says Dave Hannum of Contraband Detection Dept. 4118-2, one of the developers of the Sandia preconcentration technique that makes the Hound highly sensitive.

Although the approach was originally developed at Sandia to improve sample collection for the detection of explosives, the switch from explosives to drugs is relatively simple within the commercial detector, he says.

The sniffer works by drawing a bathtubful of air through its nozzle, trapping heavy organic compounds in the air on a filter, then heating the filter and redistributing the collected compounds into a smaller air sample. The compounds are identified in a commercial ion mobility spectrometer-based detector that is part of the system.

It’s the equivalent of netting hundreds of fish in a vast ocean, then releasing those fish into a pond and fishing for them, with highly increased odds.

The Hound system can detect narcotics in nanogram concentrations, says Dave, which means it identifies drug residues left in fingerprints on objects touched by drug users, such as door handles, steering wheels, and locker latches.

Sandia pioneered the preconcentration approach in the mid 1990s and has since developed a family of explosives-detection systems based on the technique, including hand-held detectors, vehicle detection systems, and a walk-through portal that can sniff trace amounts of explosives on people’s skin and clothing.

A commercial version of the portal is now being used to screen airline passengers at a checkpoint at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport as part of a Transportation Security Administration pilot project.

Eye-opening experience

During the field trials, the Task Force is incorporating the Hound into border checkpoint screening procedures, using both drug-trained dogs and the Sandia sniffers to canvass a selection of vehicles that was diverted by officers into a secondary screening area, says Task Force Commander Jaime Garza.

Task Force officers also respond to requests from the local sheriff’s department and US Border Patrol agents to investigate suspicious vehicles and items, Garza says.
"There are not enough good things I can say about this tool," Garza says.

He says the Hound system has on numerous occasions helped officers detect covert narcotics shipments in vehicles at checkpoints; locate nitro, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana in middle schools and high schools; seize drug money going south into Mexico; and in one instance build a case against a suspect involved in a nightclub shooting on whom gunpowder residues were found several hours, and showers, after the shooting.

"The Hound system is performing very well," Task Force officer Richard Kirkpatrick wrote to Dave in a February 2004 progress report. "We continue to operate and implement the detector with our main focus on drug detection."
Prior to the field trials, Dave traveled to Kingsville to conduct training sessions with Task Force narcotics officers. Since then he’s returned to the area to consult with US

Customs agents about a possible future use of the Hound to search incoming ships from Mexico.
Even with the help of the latest tools, he says, only a few of the estimated 100 daily drug shipments through the area are detected.

"It was truly an eye-opening experience to learn about the magnitude of the drug problem that is happening every day in that part of Texas," Dave says. "One Hound system cannot even put a dent in that drug pipeline. It is a tool that can clearly help officers detect and correctly identify certain illegal substances that they have to deal with on a daily basis."

He says the information gathered during these trials is being used to improve the Hound for drug detection applications. Commercialization efforts are under way.
Just last month officers used the Hound system to discover and quickly identify ecstasy pills on board a public school bus transporting high school students from an event where the students were mingling with college-age students.

With the Hound the officers were able to begin to locate the source of the drugs immediately.

"Without the ability to rapidly identify the pills as ecstasy on the scene, this could have been a three-week or three-month wait" for lab results, Garza says. "This is a small rural town. Many people had no idea."

‘A life saver’

Although the Hound isn’t a silver bullet for the drug problem, says Dave, the Task Force has documented situations this past year where the use of the Hound has helped to save lives.

In the case of the concealed under-seat compartment packed with bottles full of liquid methamphetamines, the identification capability turned out to be a life saver, according to Jose Ibarra, assistant commander of the Task Force.

When Texas Department of Public Safety officers punctured one of the plastic bottles containing the liquid, Ibarra wrote in a letter to Sandia, the substance reacted to air and began to crystallize. Officers were not sure what they were dealing with and contacted the Task Force, which used the Hound to identify the liquid meth, which is highly toxic and flammable, then called dispatch for a HazMat response.

"The Task Force is very grateful to have received this system for testing," Ibarra wrote. "Our officers were able to detect a very toxic material which could have had dire effects. Because of this tool, we were able to detect the hazardous material and handle it with all the necessary precautions….I feel that on August 7, 2004, it truly saved the lives of several officers."

"I am proud and grateful that Sandia has helped make this happen," adds Dave.