Box of Dreams

How a too-good-to-be-true tool fooled drug warriors.

Wade Quattlebaum had a dream, and he wanted to tell the world. Even better--and all the more American--he wanted to sell the world. He had built a better mousetrap--better than a better mousetrap, really. Quattlebaum went beyond doing something better to doing something that couldn't be done at all without his magic widget. He had designed a box that could find things-- somehow. He wouldn't tell you, me, or anybody, not even the U.S. Patent Office, exactly how. It looked like just a plastic cellular phone, about 4 inches long, with a chrome antenna loosely attached. If you walked around, looking for something, the antenna was supposed to pivot around and point in the direction of what you were looking for. It was sold as a golf ball finder to begin with. But then Quattlebaum discovered further benefits and further possibilities for his gadget. With the insertion of the right preprogrammed "frequency chip," Quattlebaum claimed, the device could find most anything--drugs, guns, even missing persons. The law enforcement benefits seemed obvious--not just to him, but to cops, school board officials, even U.S. attorneys around the country.

He called his little magic box the Quadro Tracker, and it was a small-business success story that should make any hometown boy, high school dropout, and ex-car salesman from Harleyville, South Carolina, proud. Quattlebaum claimed sales of at least 1,000 Quadro Trackers, at prices ranging from $400 to $8,000--the cost rising the more frequency chips you bought. He had distributors across the country helping get his helpful product into the hands of customers. A fine customer base it was, too: mostly local school boards and police departments.

It might have been happily-ever-after time for Wade, too, if it hadn't been for that meddling FBI. Their entrance on the scene as an unexpected spoiler turned the story of Quattlebaum and his amazing Quadro Tracker into even more of an archetypal modern American dream/nightmare--one that casts aspersions on the good sense of those embroiled in the front line of the war on drugs.

Quattlebaum doesn't seem to want to tell the world much anymore. The phone just rings and rings, hollowly and eternally, at the headquarters of his besieged company, the Quadro Corporation of Harleyville, South Carolina. Directory assistance in Harleyville has no listing for him. His lawyer won't tell you how to get in touch with him. His vice president, Ray Fisk, doesn't return repeated phone calls.

Surely, Quattlebaum should have expected trouble--selling a device like this to law enforcement officers. He should have known someone might take a jaundiced look, maybe decide it was too good to be true. That's exactly what happened, and that's exactly the argument that Wade's lawyer uses to defend his sincerity.

Tim Kulp, a lawyer out of Charleston, says he knows fraud--the unlovely accusation that Federal District Judge Thad Heartfield of the eastern district of Texas heaped upon the head of Wade and the whole Quadro Corp. with his April injunction against the further sale or promotion of the Quadro Tracker. And, says Kulp, his client is no fraud: "I was in the FBI. I've dealt with these sort of boiler room fraud cases. And I tell you, those sorts don't try to sell things to cops. They sell them to old grandmothers, retired people down in Florida."

Still, facts are facts. And when FBI agent Ron Kelly, stationed in Beaumont, Texas, got savvied by one of his boys on the Jefferson County Narcotics Task Force in nearby Louisiana about this miracle device, which was sweeping the imaginations of various cops and school board officials in 1995, he thought it sounded screwy. Later on, big-shot scientists at the Sandia National Laboratories backed him up, but at first he just decided he wanted to get a look inside the magic box. So he took it to the nearest place that could help: He ran it through the courthouse X-ray machine.

"It was clearly hollow," he recalls with almost a chuckle. "It didn't take a lot of effort on our part to determine it was phony."

At first Kelly thought they might just be dealing with a local bunco artist; soon he realized the Quadro deal was big, bad, and nationwide. The FBI boys in Beaumont brought it to the attention of the U.S. Attorney's Office there, and they told it to the judge: Judge Heartfield, who decided to put the kibosh on it. Heartfield permanently enjoined the Quadro Corp. and its staff from, and pardon the legalese, "using the United States mails or private commercial interstate carriers, or causing others acting on their behalf to use the United States mails or private interstate carriers, to solicit customers or entities, promote, sell, transfer, or demonstrate the Quadro Tracker and devices of a similar design marketed under a different name." The same went for using telephone or other wire communications to do the same.

That's not the end of Quadro's troubles. On August 21, a federal grand jury in Beaumont indicted Quattlebaum, the company, its officers, and a Quadro distributor in Texas on four counts of mail fraud and conspiracy to commit mail fraud. Each defendant is facing a possible five years in prison and a $250,000 fine per count.

All this Quadro Tracker business sounds too silly to be true, and it sounds worse yet when you read some of the Quadro Corp.'s promotional materials. A brochure selling the device to a school swears: "The tracker will also locate specific drugs in solution. This means that even a person who had been using drugs will have traces in their bodily fluids, blood, etc. Thus the Tracker will indicate people who are using drugs, as well as those who are merely carrying it. Therefore extreme caution should be taken if searching a person, or making accusations, as they may, indeed, not be carrying drugs on them!"

Philosophy-of-science mavens may detect a hint of what Karl Popper calls "unfalsifiability" in the above claim--and that means bad science, in Popper's eyes. But people buying this device seem to have more problems with science than merely failing to grasp Popper's philosophy of demarcation.

And that's not all, as they say on TV: "Quadro units have been designed to locate people from a photograph, as well as from a fingerprint. Thus missing prisoners, or escaped prisoners can be located with ease. The machine will identify an individual, no matter what disguise or surgery is undertaken. It has been tested over a distance of 500 miles, and will track, we believe, at any distance."

Well, it's possible, isn't it? It's possible! Isn't anything possible in this topsy-turvy world of ours?

Maybe in the topsy-turvy world of an ultimately futile war against drugs, any old flimsy straw looks like a mighty log with which to build. Certainly, school officials who bought, or thought about buying, Quadro were really convinced it worked. Never mind that the "frequency chips" that had to be loaded in the Quadro (and cost hundreds of dollars extra per chip), which were said to be "oscillated by static electricity produced by the body inhaling and exhaling gases into and out of the lung cavity," were merely small photographic images of the search target, sealed in plastic. But the Quadro boys were good salesmen. "It was a very exciting demonstration," admits Wolfgang Halbig. "I was excited." Halbig, director of student discipline for Seminole County in Florida, only narrowly averted wasting the school board's money on the device, through magical intervention of a sort.

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