The Real CSI

The crackerjack scientists at Lawrence Livermore's Forensic Science Center aren't merely solving baffling crimes. They're also watching your back.

Brian Andresen remembers the day clearly: It was a winter afternoon in 1994, and San Francisco public health officials were on the phone, desperate for help. A weird green rain had just poured down over a swath of the city, and residents were freaking out. Was this a secret government experiment gone awry? Some weird public art project involving huge amounts of Gatorade? Had the environment become so polluted that the rainwater was now iridescent? Some people were even concerned that the stuff might have come from a UFO. “It was dark green. Light green. Shiny green. Just lots of green rain everywhere,” a woman who’d witnessed the bizarre storm told the San Francisco Examiner. “I don’t know where it came from or why, but it was kind of beautiful.”

The authorities wanted answers, and fast. “The health department ran their typical environmental tests and couldn’t figure out what it was,” Andresen recalls. “People were saying it had burned their skin.” So they turned to him. Andresen was director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Forensic Science Center — a high-tech chemistry lab he founded in 1991 that does everything from explosives testing to national security investigations to cracking difficult homicide cases. A trained chemist who had spent much of his career analyzing everything from weapons residues to unknown poisons, he was all set up to tackle such problems.

First and foremost in his arsenal was what’s known as a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer — an “exquisitely specific” instrument that first separates a chemical mixture into its constituent parts and then obliterates each of the purified components to determine its basic chemical composition. It doesn’t tell you exactly what you’ve got, but offers strong clues and weeds out thousands of erroneous possibilities. Say your sample lacks nitrogen: You can instantly count out large classes of drugs, poisons, and biomolecules.

As television news crews fanned across the city chasing what was a strange story even by San Francisco standards, the chemist got down to business. His GC/mass spec results indicated a potential culprit, which Andresen further investigated by going out to his 1969 Pontiac GTO and drawing some antifreeze to compare with the mystery rain. Bingo! The liquids were closely related: Standard automotive antifreeze is ethylene glycol. This stuff, it turned out, was a mixture of glycols, including propylene glycol, a less toxic version that also can serve as antifreeze.

But how could antifreeze have rained down on San Francisco? Andresen and his colleagues got SFO on the horn and found out that not only is the stuff used to deice airplanes during the winter — and it was indeed winter — but one of the central flight paths matched up exactly with where the green rain had fallen. Mystery solved. The freakish phenomenon was airplane deicer that had jelled on the wings and melted as the plane descended. “People were very relieved,” Andresen says. “It helped the community a lot.”

The mystery of the chartreuse precipitation was just the first of many high-profile cases for a fledgling lab that now stands at the forefront of forensic sleuthing and chemical counterterrorism.

For CSI fans, this here’s the real thing, the place authorities sometimes call “the lab of last resort,” the place they turn to when they’re fresh out of ideas. Powered by the know-how of fifteen of the country’s leading chemical and biological detectives, it has earned a near-perfect track record of beating the scientific challenges in its path.

Three years ago, its scientists solved a perplexing serial murder case years after the bodies were buried. They helped nail a sophisticated Fremont bomber who had stumped federal authorities. They were instrumental in identifying the suspects in a long-unsolved Northern California triple homicide. They’ve designed portable forensic analysis tools that authorities now routinely use in the field. Hell, these guys have even made their way into a Tom Clancy novel. And when they’re not solving crimes, they’re watching your back: The center is one of only two US labs certified to determine if a laboratory, factory, or government is stockpiling or manufacturing chemical weapons. And in the event of a domestic chemical or biological attack, these are the people Washington will call on to figure out what in hell has been released and what in God’s name we should do about it.

The Forensic Science Center’s spacious facility sits on the sprawling campus of Lawrence Livermore, well hidden behind two sets of security checkpoints. If you didn’t know where you were, and ignored the government minder who hovers over your interviews and the large plastic blue and white signs reading “Visitor: Unclassified Discussions Only,” you might mistake the place for a cutting-edge high-tech firm.

The center’s scientists are primarily chemists with backgrounds in toxicology, pharmacology, nuclear physics, biological weapons, DNA, explosives analysis, and forensic instrument design. Apart from their being mostly men, the Far Side stereotypes don’t seem to apply. These are good-looking, socially adept, articulate dudes with nothing about them that screams “geek” save the fact that mere science mortals often can’t make head or tail of their conversations. Recently retired director Andresen is a friendly, unassuming man who plays drums for a band called Rock Harbour alongside a Lawrence Livermore nuclear scientist (keyboards), a chemical and biological weapons guru (rhythm guitar), an electrical systems master (bass), and a circuitry whiz (lead guitar) who doubles as an air sampling expert for the Department of Homeland Security. The forensic team’s other crackerjack scientists shoot hoops, play guitar, ride their bikes to work, and dig the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.

That’s right, folks: The men and women who’ve figured out how to prevent America’s nuclear and munitions stockpiles from accidentally detonating are into punk rock. “If you have to cope in a Third World jungle or deal with cops and investigators like we do, it gets you out of your ivory tower real quick,” explains chemist Pat Grant, an amateur basketball champ who calls himself a big goth fan. “There’s nothing like getting out in the real world to get you out of geekdom.”

Indeed, despite the sensitive nature of the work being done here, there’s a sense of playfulness pervading the forensic lab’s culture, reminiscent of the late Richard Feynman, who as a young hotshot physicist would run around Los Alamos playing pranks on his Manhattan Project colleagues. Glenn Fox, who has replaced Andresen as the center’s top dog, looks more like an Aspen ski instructor than a forensic scientist. As he sits down for an interview, he offers his visitor a cup of coffee. “Do you like it strong?” he asks, smiling. “We’ve chemically analyzed it against other chemistry labs on-site, and ours is by far the strongest.”

Not so strong, however, as something that showed up in the US mail in 1997. The center was called upon by the US Customs Service to analyze shipments of white crystals its agents had recovered. The packages containing the stuff had been sent from mainland China to a private address in the Pacific Northwest. Customs fully expected the powder to be heroin, but it wasn’t. Pat Grant, who has worked on several criminal cases during his tenure at the lab, eventually identified it as tetrodotoxin, a deadly neurotoxin culled from the organs of puffer fish. “Chefs have to be specially trained in China to deal with the puffer fish,” Grant says. “If you ingest it, you die.”

After Grant identified the toxin, the FBI learned that the couple to whom it was addressed was selling it to medical schools for research purposes. “They’d violated every customs law on the book, but they weren’t terrorists,” he says.

Something that did look like terrorism, however, arrived in Fremont the following year, and local detectives were completely stumped. It was March 1998, and two sophisticated and powerful pipe bombs had blown a million-dollar home to smithereens. Not long afterward, four other explosive devices, less powerful than the first two, were discovered at the homes of Fremont’s police chief, a city councilmember, and other residents. Two blew up on their own, while the others were discovered and detonated by a bomb squad. Although no one had yet been injured, the bombs were causing profound anxiety in the suburban city. Fremont detectives were at a loss to find any pattern linking the targets. It was downright weird.

The local police had first called in the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to analyze the bombs, but the ATF was also puzzled. According to Tom Rogers, the Alameda County deputy district attorney in charge of the case, the ATF had described the devices as “the most electronically sophisticated domestic pipe bombs they’d ever encountered.” The technical know-how exhibited by the bomber, Rogers recalls, was well beyond the bureau’s expertise. So the detectives contacted Andresen at the lab of last resort.

Like most of his colleagues, Andresen is a jack-of-all-trades — and fortunately for this case, his range of expertise had come to include electronic circuitry. “Thirty years ago there were no circuit boards,” he explains, “so I had to learn to service all that analytical equipment used in the labs. I had to do everything by hand.”

He began piecing together the bomb fragments like a puzzle, all the while searching for chemical, physical, and environmental fingerprints that might yield clues as to their creator. There were pieces of metal, wires, chunks of wristwatch, spark plugs, batteries, and blasted circuit boards. In a painstaking process he calls retro-engineering — taking something apart to determine how it works — he unsoldered and identified each component of the boards, then tinkered with the wires and began retracing the circuits on paper as best he could to figure them out.

When he finally did, Andresen was blown away. It was clear how the ATF might have missed the boat. The feds were used to thinking about bomb design in a traditional way, but the devices that had destroyed the Fremont home were unique. The basics were simple enough — ten to fifteen pounds of black gunpowder ignited by a hair-thin wire heated white-hot by a battery. But what made this bomb special was its circuitry. The timing device, Andresen determined, was what is known as an anniversary watch, one you can program months in advance to alert you to future birthdays and such. The circuit board was cleverly designed so that the alert beep of the nearby watch — which sends out a one-volt piezoelectric signal — momentarily closed a relay, allowing juice to flow from the battery and rapidly heat the thin ignition wire — and kaboom! “The circuit was totally fabulous,” Andresen recalls. “It didn’t use the batteries until it really needed to.”

What this meant was that the bomber could plant his devices months before they were timed to detonate. From Andresen’s examination of the wiring, he later testified that the person who actually soldered the circuit boards was probably a novice, and most likely had not designed the circuit himself. “It had been wired upside down,” he explains. Andresen believes the bomber did it using someone else’s instructions, although that someone — if he does exist — was never identified by the authorities.

He explained to the Fremont detectives how the devices worked and how they’d been set. But it’s a big leap from understanding how a bomb functions to actually nabbing the culprit. Fortunately, the police got incredibly lucky — twice. They’d been doing a lot of gumshoe work, questioning residents in various neighborhoods. One man reacted very strongly to their inquiries, Andresen recalls. “He said, ‘This is too much. I’m being persecuted.'”

So they hauled him down to the station. Then came an even luckier break. An inmate who happened to be in the jail for an unrelated matter told a guard he believed the man they’d brought in was the Fremont bomber, and said he had some information that might interest the cops. He led officers to a storage locker, saying that the man he’d identified had paid him $20 to rent it in his own name.

The cops got a warrant and cut the locker open. Inside were more circuit boards and bomb-making materials. The man they had in custody was Rodney Blach, a former Chicago police evidence technician. Following the raid on the locker, he was charged with eleven felonies, including attempted murder.

The forensics work wasn’t yet over. Rogers had no eyewitnesses, and he would have to prosecute Blach based on circumstantial evidence, including the materials found in the storage locker. He needed something to link the materials to the bombs that had been planted. Andresen studied the new circuit boards, all of which were handmade, and closely compared their wiring and soldering techniques with the boards used in the bombs. He was able to demonstrate for the jury a strong likelihood that they were made by the same person. He also examined the seized chemicals and was able to show how they would have been useful in making the bombs in question.

It turned out Blach’s motives were as complex as the devices. The former police tech had become infatuated with a woman who spurned his advances. Although he was married, he became enraged and stalked the woman, who eventually got a restraining order against him. Seeking revenge, Blach had planted the pipe bombs in a home being built by the woman’s family. He timed the bombs to go off months later — after the house was finished and they had moved in. But her family ended up moving elsewhere and sold the house. Concerned he’d be found out after his original devices exploded, Blach planted additional bombs around Fremont to provide cover. He then checked himself into a motel in Southern California to give himself an alibi, Rogers says.

Andresen’s discoveries blew that alibi out of the water and made the timing device a key piece of evidence in the case against Blach. The chemist even built a mock bomb to help prosecutors rebut one of the key defense arguments: that a wristwatch simply could not be used to ignite a bomb. “The ATF guys came over to my house and I had to make a mock-up bomb,” says the 57-year-old, who now runs Andresen Forensics Services, a private consulting service in Livermore. “Instead of using explosives, I used a light-emitting diode. They showed it to the defense attorney, and that was the final end of it.”

Rogers was thrilled. “If we did not have Brian Andresen’s expertise, there would have been a giant hole in our case and Mr. Blach would have been able to pull the wool over people’s eyes,” he says. “It would have been like going to a gunfight with a can opener. Neither the ATF nor the FBI had any expertise in electronic circuitry.”

Because of the center’s work, the prosecutor adds, Rodney Blach was sentenced in 2001 to 37 years in prison.

It was the case of Efren Saldivar, however, that earned the lab a featured spot on 60 Minutes II last year. Saldivar, a respiratory therapist from Southern California, confessed in 1998 to killing dozens of his patients, but recanted his confession soon after. For the next three years Saldivar, who called himself the “Angel of Death,” maintained that he’d fabricated the confession because he was depressed and pressured by cops. Although he confessed again after being arrested in 2001, he provided no names or details — only that he’d used paralyzing drugs to kill patients during the nine years he was employed at Glendale Adventist Medical Center.

Members of the task force investigating the case needed to figure out how the therapist’s patients had died and whether they had been murdered. They called up Michael Peat, then-president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and explained the problem. He, in turn, directed them to Andresen’s team.

Saldivar, the detectives believed, had picked his poisons carefully. They suspected he could have used, at least with some of his victims, a drug called Pavulon, which paralyzes the muscles so that medical personnel can insert a breathing tube down a patient’s throat. Patients can’t breathe while on the drug unless a respirator is used. The task force needed a test to determine whether Pavulon was present in the corpses they planned to exhume. Andresen got right to work.

First stop: the butcher shop.

“I tried and tried and tried a bunch of ways to detect Pavulon with pig livers,” Andresen explains. With the help of a few colleagues, he injected the livers and other innards with the drug, and then put the tissues in a high-speed blender to break up all the cells. He mixed the resulting sludge with a specialized salt solution and filtered out the solids, leaving behind a rich soup of biomolecules containing minuscule amounts of the drug. This would be his test solution — an accurate mock-up of the real samples he would obtain from the human corpses.

From there, Andresen tried everything possible to isolate the drug from the thousands of other compounds in his test soup. It was a brutal, time-consuming endeavor, requiring weeks upon weeks of toil — he calls it “10 percent intuition, 90 percent perspiration.” The scientist tried filtering the test solution through more than two hundred different combinations of polymers, hoping that one of these chemical filters would cling to the drug while letting all the unwanted stuff pass through. For each combination, he tried lots of different conditions: He would tinker with the acidity of the test solution, or use different salt types and concentrations. Anything he could think of. And with every permutation, he had to use his handy gas chromatography-mass spectrometry machine to test what flowed through the filter for the drug’s presence. Nothing was working. “The pressure was starting to build,” he recalls. “They were getting ready to exhume bodies. That’s when I walked away from my house and started living at the lab.”

Finally, after weeks of being holed up sixteen hours a day with pig guts, Andresen tried a set of conditions that had been used in the past to detect certain chemical-weapons residues. “I was just working with an intuitive feeling, going on a hunch,” he recalls. With a little tweaking, it did the trick. He could now isolate Pavulon from tissue samples.

But there was another problem. His GC/mass spec machine worked by vaporizing samples before obliterating them, and the heat resulted in a Pavulon by-product, not the parent drug. That was good enough for research purposes, but it wouldn’t stand up in court. He needed a new ID test that would leave the drug intact. This meant more endless toying with conditions using an alternative pair of techniques called — take a deep breath — high-pressure liquid chromatography and electrospray ionization mass spectrometry. “It was hard to work out,” he recalls. “Every step was difficult. It took hundreds of hours to perfect.”

At long last, the scientist was ready for the real deal. The authorities exhumed twenty bodies, and Andresen went to work. On the fourth try, he saw the Pavulon spike. “Up until that point I could have gone either way — [Saldivar] was grandstanding and didn’t kill anyone, or he was actually responsible,” he says. “I got a hit on the fourth patient, and it took the wind out of my lungs. It was a real homicide. I had stepped into a completely different arena. It was a very sobering feeling, because the patients died a terrible death probably knowing what went on. They were paralyzed, fully conscious, but unable to do anything.”

Andresen kept testing and found five other Saldivar patients who’d been poisoned. Andresen’s test proved so conclusive that instead of opting for a trial, Saldivar pleaded guilty to killing six elderly patients by injection in 1996 and 1997. Four years after Saldivar’s original confession, he was sentenced to six consecutive life terms without parole.

Just how many patients he killed may never be known. He told police he had lost count of his victims, but in 1998 confessed to killing sixty people. Al MacKenzie, the Los Angeles County deputy DA who prosecuted the case, says that without Andresen and the Forensic Science Center, “we wouldn’t have been able to prove the case.”

These days the lab has trained its machines and intuitions on an entirely different sort of mission: counterterrorism.

Although the lab has done plenty to support national security imperatives since it was founded, 9/11 pushed that mission to the forefront. Days after the attacks, the scientists were summoned to Ground Zero with their portable equipment to determine just what exactly was in the air. They found refrigerants, cleaning solutions, printer toner — you name it, says Glenn Fox, the lab’s new director.

It would be the first of many deployments. A team from the lab was flown to Washington after the anthrax attacks to ensure that government office buildings in the nation’s capitol were clear of the deadly spores. They were stationed underneath the 2000 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles with their mobile forensics laboratory in case of a disastrous attack. Federal officials want the scientists on hand at big events in the event of an attack to find out what’s out there and what to do about it. “Any day we can get a call from the FBI saying we have a sample,” Fox says. “We never know when we’re going to get called to go.”

The lab’s anthrax work prepared the scientists for a multimillion-dollar study now under way. They are working in tandem with six other Livermore divisions to develop tests to determine whether a person has been exposed to bioterror agents such as anthrax before any symptoms appear. No such technology exists, but it would be highly valuable to health authorities trying to lessen the impact of a bioattack. The research community has dubbed the science “pathomics” — the molecular underpinnings of infectious disease. Learn how that works, scientists say, and you can develop an early diagnostic tool to determine exposure. “I know that there are lots of people working on this at our facility, at the national, state, and local levels,” Fox says. “It’s about how prepared are you. In some areas, we’re very prepared, and in others, we’re getting there.”

A few months after 9/11, federal officials turned to the lab in search of a quick, cheap, and portable detection method that could tell untrained people in a matter of minutes whether explosive materials are present. There were similar products on the market, but none good enough for the government. The feds wanted this new test to be more sensitive, and to screen for far more potential explosives than the tests that already existed. “The portable instruments on the market now to detect explosives are not that great — that’s why dogs are still used,” says Pete Nunes, a center chemist and a member of the explosives test team. “But you can’t take dogs everywhere, and you need trainers to use them. Dogs are not practical.”

So the team began tinkering day and night like bakers perfecting a recipe, adding this, taking away that, concocting new formulas, and brainstorming. Like most of their efforts, it was a grind. This test would have to identify 28 of the most common bomb-making chemicals. It would need to work under all kinds of conditions. It would have to survive being thrown, dropped, and kicked. And it would have to detect explosives on any conceivable surface — wood, cement, metal, plastic. It also had to be small, cheap, and so idiot-proof that any untrained person could use it.

Because nearly all explosives contain common clusters of nitrogen and oxygen atoms called “nitro” groups — think nitroglycerin, or a Ryder truck full of nitrate-rich fertilizer — it’s no big hurdle to detect them, Nunes says. But it was a challenge to devise a test that could pick up the most infinitesimal traces. The old, not-so-sensitive method — known as the “grease reagent” — is based on a liquid combination of three chemicals that turns bright red if exposed to nitro-anything. The team took the standard formulas and tinkered and tinkered some more, tweaking the recipes until they had increased the sensitivity a hundredfold, Andresen says.

The project also required a feat of packaging to accomplish in the explosives realm what others had done with once-cumbersome laboratory pregnancy tests. With the new palm-sized test the Livermore team developed, you put a little salt solution on a Q-tip and swipe the surface you want to test. You then apply their new, enhanced grease reagent, and in less than the time it takes to learn that you’re pregnant, you’ll know if you have a potential bomb.

Authorities who need to know exactly what they’ve just detected can reach into their field suitcases for an accompanying test known as thin-layer chromatography. Using the center’s TLC test, you can compare your field samples against known bomb-making chemicals, and accurately distinguish them by color. This was mainly the work of team member Jeffrey Hass, who tinkered with scores of different ingredients — a little gold chloride here, some palladium there — until he found the right color-enhancing combinations. It works “just beautifully for ultrasmall levels,” Andresen says. “It’s like a rainbow. It’s just fabulous.” Hass left the team last fall to found a startup company called Spectrex, which plans to market colorimetric explosives detection to the military.

The lab’s proven expertise in the explosives and chemistry fields has led to its role as one of two labs in the country — and just thirteen in the world — that are part of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty that bans production and stockpiling of chemical weapons. The treaty is overseen by the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, whose labs are authorized, once certified, to determine whether a facility anywhere in the world is producing banned weapons. It took three years for the forensics center to earn that credential, and the scientists must pass an annual fifteen-day test to keep it.

The test is a kind of scientific hazing ritual in which three unknown samples are sent to the lab, and a team of ten chemists must identify what is in them. The team must earn a minimum of two As and one B, or lose its accreditation. “It’s literally a 24/7 project,” Fox says, “and we have all your basic food groups here — pizza, donuts.”

The mystery samples are formulated by rival participating labs, whose scientists take pleasure in intellectually stumping their colleagues around the globe. For instance, they spike the samples with chemicals designed to throw the analysis teams off the trail. “Every test has a twist to it,” says Armando Alcaraz, who leads the center’s chemical-weapons challenge team each year. “It’s like being a chemical detective. We’re preparing the samples for next year and are asking ourselves, ‘What is the best way to cover something up?'”

In addition, because of the nation’s antiterrorism focus, the forensics center has standing agreements with several federal agencies. “If there’s a concern that there’s actually a terrorist sample somewhere, where do you send it and who looks at it?” Fox asks.

The Forensic Science Center has made itself that place. “Local agencies are focused on solving crimes of various flavors, but what happens if you actually do have a chemical weapon threat?” Fox says. “Is it an air sample, a dirt sample, or a piece of chicken? Is it a rutabaga or a piece of concrete?”

No matter what it is, the director boasts, “We can handle any type of matrix.”

Andresen predicts that the lab he founded thirteen years ago has two paths now before it. “If there is no national emergency like 9/11, it’ll be quietly working in the background developing tools and techniques for law enforcement and homeland security,” he says. But if there is another attack, he predicts, “The Forensic Science Center will be involved solving the crime.”

Andresen will, too, if his nation calls upon him. But the retired scientist hasn’t been especially aggressive in marketing his prodigious talents. These days, he spends much of his time perfecting a dying art form: clock repair. He can’t go anywhere now, he says, without people wanting to give him their old timepieces. Besides the lure of tinkering with intricate systems of tiny cogs and wheels, Andresen has opened old clocks to discover secret notes or photos of people long dead that the owner never knew existed. It reminds him of his old job. “Every clock or pocket watch I take apart is its own little mystery,” the scientist says. “It has a history and something to teach me. I find all sorts of stuff in these old clocks. It’s just like forensics, except I used to figure out why people died. Now I’m finding out how the clock has died.”

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