Kaitlin Drollette will never forget when she started testing evidence last year in one of the biggest drug busts the region has seen in decades. She opened an evidence bag under a lab hood, pulled out a brick of white powder and scraped off a tiny sample. She dropped a pink solution on it and waited.
She already had tested two other identical-looking bricks of white powder from the same case. Each time, the pink solution turned blue, indicating cocaine.
But the third time, the solution didn’t change color. So she tried a different solution. This time, the sample turned orange.
“I started having a bit of a panic attack,” Drollette said.
The forensic chemist was standing before a huge batch of pure fentanyl.
Though she had followed safety procedures, she still was terrified. She never before stood before so much of something so deadly. Inhaling just a few grains could have killed her.
The Erie County Forensic Lab stands on the front lines of a lethal and ever-changing landscape. It identifies the newest drugs hitting the streets. The lab’s work has contributed to three opiate-based drugs being added to the federal government’s list of illegal substances.
This is the kind of lab you might imagine seeing on CSI or other criminal investigation TV shows – but forensic scientists despise the comparison.
The lab tests all kinds of evidence, from DNA to firearms. But the lab’s chemistry division has witnessed the biggest change in criminal evidence in recent years.
Until three years ago, almost all opioid drugs tested by the lab’s chemistry division turned out to be heroin. The only kind of fentanyl the lab ever tested as evidence came from prescription patches used for pain control.
Compare that to now. In the first two months of this year, only 16 percent of all opioids tested in seized drug cases were heroin.
The rest of the drugs in criminal and overdose cases have turned out to be fentanyl and other fentanyl derivatives or synthetic drugs seen nowhere in the region prior to 2015.
In fact, Erie County crime lab chemists were the first in the country to spot one of the newest street drugs – butyryl fentanyl. Their work contributed to butyryl fentanyl and two other drugs being added to the federal controlled substances list. That makes it much easier to prosecute dealers of these substances, said Central Police Services Commissioner James Jancewicz.
“This is what’s going to put people in jail,” he said.
Drollette slides on a pair of gloves before she handles the small, waxy envelope under the lab’s fume hood. She reaches in with a little metal spatula and draws out a few grains of the drug inside. But the gloves she wears for protection aren’t white latex.
They are black. The thicker nitrile gloves have become a symbol of the tight safety standards the lab instituted to prevent any trace of opioid substances from reaching the skin.
About 70 percent of all evidence submitted to the crime lab for testing involves drugs.
“We’re busy all the time,” said Michelli Schmitz, who supervises the lab’s controlled substances division.
Not all drugs demand extraordinary safety precautions.
Marijuana – a tame drug to handle – accounts for half of the evidence the crime lab receives. But opiate-based narcotics comprise at least a third of the drugs the crime lab tests.
For that reason, safety standards at the lab have changed. And so have safety standards for police and undercover agents.
The lab has become one of the few places where increasingly powerful narcotic drugs can be safely tested and stored. Powder street drugs have become so toxic that police investigators who used to conducted field tests by mixing the drugs with a chemical solution in a small, sealed pouch now send them straight to the county lab for processing.
Some fentanyl and fentanyl offshoots are 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, according to health officials. Lab chemists started seeing powder fentanyl show up in “heroin” bags three years ago.
In 2015, the lab started finding other fentanyl derivatives and opiate powders it had never seen before.
Last year, heroin accounted for only 41 percent of all opioid drug cases the lab tested.
Drollette drops a few granules from her spatula onto a spot plate, which resembles a flattened, rectangular golf ball with 12 enlarged divots.
She starts with a simple color test, adding several drops of a sulfuric acid and formaldehyde solution. The solution gradually turns purple.
If the solution had turned orange, that would indicate fentanyl.
But the worst-case scenario is when the solution turns a different color shade, or no shade at all. In May 2015, one tested drug turned brownish gold, stumping everyone.
A sample of the unknown drug with the weird color test was dropped into a 2-milliliter glass vial, mixed with a clear solvent, capped and taken over to one of the lab’s gas chromatograph mass spectrometers.
The machine injected the drug solution into an oven that bakes at temperatures as high as 572 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking down chemicals into their molecular fragments.
Those particles showed up on a computer display as a wavy pattern. Schmitz could often identify a drug on sight by the pattern formed on the screen.
Not this time.
She contacted the other upstate crime labs, checked with Pittsburgh. No one had any idea.
“We were on our own,” she said.
The end game
Erie County crime lab chemists are the first to identify new variations of street drugs locally.
Fentanyl, heroin and other potent opiate drugs usually look exactly the same to the naked eye. The grains typically have a light, tan-colored tinge.
“Without analysis, there’s no way to know what’s in it,” said Schmitz, who supervises the lab’s controlled substances division.
That’s why drug addicts often wind up overdosing and dying. They could buy 10 bags of “heroin,” all with the same exterior markings, from the same dealer, and each one could hold a different mix or type of drug even though they all look the same.
“Traditionally, if you got one of the bags, there was going to be heroin in it,” Schmitz said. “Now, anything goes.”
The drug that first turned brownish gold eventually was identified as butyryl fentanyl, a drug responsible for local overdose deaths. Erie County’s Forensic Lab was the first to spot it, and was among the leaders in 2015 and 2016 to find the synthetic opiate U-47700. The lab was also among the first in the northeast to see furanyl fentanyl.
Drugs added to the federal Schedule I list are considered illegal, controlled substances because of their lack of acceptable medical use and high potential for abuse. When emerging drugs like butyryl fentanyl, U-4770 and furanyl fentanyl are added to Schedule I on an emergency basis, it makes it much easier to prosecute dealers who sell these newer opiate concoctions, said John Flickinger, resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Buffalo.
He praised the Erie County crime lab for its role in helping to identify new drugs that can aid law enforcement prosecution efforts.
“They’re really being a leader nationally in helping to add these drugs to the emergency Schedule I list,” Flickinger said.
Jancewicz, the Central Police commissioner, said the county’s crime lab scientists are key warriors in the fight to get lethal drugs off the streets.
“They’re in the shadows,” he said. “The work that they do behind the scenes is absolutely instrumental in people going to prison. It’s as simple as that. Without their work, cases would not be prosecuted. We would not have a community as safe as we have.”