Civil Liberties

Box of Dreams

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

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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.

"We were all sitting in the school board auditorium," Halbig remembers. He had invited Quattlebaum and the former police chief of Harleyville down to demonstrate the tracker after an enticing phone call from a Florida Quadro distributor, who also happened to be the mayor of the small Florida town of Lake Helen in Volusia County.

"They walk in with it in hand. You see the antenna swing. It points to a sign. You move the sign, there's a bullet. They had a gunpowder chip in there. We were finding bullets, we were finding marijuana. I saw the big picture: A device that could serve as a deterrent! Just let kids know we have a tool that can find those substances." Halbig trails off wistfully. A dream too fine to come true. But Halbig got a hint of how it might have worked.

While using a Quadro on loan before purchase, he wandered around middle school hallways and parking lots, letting the antenna swing where it would. It reacted to a car driving into the school parking lot. Halbig is sensible about the subject–now, at least.

"I used to be a customs inspector. We tried to be rational. We knew the profile. Why would Quadro react to one bunch of kids and not to another? You see a car drive in with a bunch of kids. Windows closed. They're bouncing their heads. Next thing you know, you get them to admit, 'Hey, I was smoking marijuana this morning.'"

The demonstration, and even some experience, made Halbig a believer. It took a magician to convince him that the Quadro Tracker's magic was just an illusion. "Just as I was ready to make a commitment to buy one, I got a call from this fellow named James Randi. He told me, 'Before you buy it, can I come up and show you a test?' I checked the guy out on the Internet."

Thus Halbig learned about James "the Amazing" Randi, professional magician and debunker extraordinaire. Through the generosity of some of his supporters, Randi has a standing offer to pay $624,000 to anyone who can conclusively demonstrate to his satisfaction any method or device that works by supernatural or extraphysical means. As a professional fakir, Randi is not easily fooled by others. Despite the plethora of the supposedly mystical in the world, no one has yet won Randi's booty.

Halbig let Randi supervise a double-blind test of the tracker. It didn't work. Later, Halbig began to wonder: Did the magician fool him? He tested it again, doing his own single-blind test in which he placed a bag of pot on a desk, and then put in different frequency chips without himself knowing what chip he was using. The Tracker failed. He similarly tested a colleague who had gone through extensive personal training in Harleyville with Quattlebaum. He failed too. The Quadro Tracker had lost a customer–a $49,000 customer, since Halbig had planned to buy one for every school in his district.

Soon, Quadro was losing more than that. In addition to the problems in Beaumont, the attorney general of Iowa obtained a court order enjoining both the national Quadro Corp. and its Iowa distributor from trying to sell the device. After the FBI sent notices in January to every law enforcement division in the country declaring the device a fraud, sales slackened. Post-injunction, of course, sales have stopped entirely. Quadro's employees are out of work. And now there's the grand jury indictment.

If there's a lesson to be learned from this, it goes beyond the old standard that people can be really dumb. From talking to Quadro believers, you can sense the sheer desperation of the fight against drugs and guns in the schools and in public that drives a man who might not be a total nincompoop to want to believe. Randi was on a crusade to convince Quadro buyers to renounce the device, but he didn't always succeed.

"Most of them get very angry at the suggestion they were fooled, and they probably never will change their mind," he says. "People have such faith in their own perception–they think what they see and hear necessarily represents the real world, but it's a very filtered view. That's why magicians are so successful. The spectator chooses to believe they are seeing what they think they are seeing."

Randi may be understanding, but the FBI's Kelly is positively peeved at people's stupidity about the Tracker–especially in schools: "School districts using them to search lockers–that's just outrageous. All they had to do was talk to their physics teacher, and hopefully the teacher would tell them it's a bogus find. If not, get a new teacher."

Kelly had to deal with many perplexed law officers after the FBI spread word the device was a no-go. "People who have been conned have a hard time coming to grips with it," he says. "Police officers are supposed to be skeptical. That wand will wobble whichever way–gravity, wind, the way you move your hand, will all move it."

Any successes attributed to the device–and plenty of buyers insist the device did find things–Randi can explain: "They know where it is, so they incline it that way." That knowledge need not be exact–the intuitive cop's or guardian's suspicions can be enough.

Beyond the madnesses that a war on drugs can lead to, the sordid saga raises questions of proper government reaction to this sort of fraud–which in most cases is self-fraud. That a lone judge can ban a device nationally on his own say-so might seem alarming. After all, where was the harm? One potential problem was the use of Quadro evidence as probable cause for a search, which alarmed everyone from the U.S. attorneys on the case to the American Civil Liberties Union. But at the Quadro trial, the government produced no evidence the device had ever been used that way.

Kulp, the Quadro lawyer, thinks the government overreacted. In fact, he thinks they had no business getting involved at all.

"Where's the beef? If it's not inherently dangerous, and if purchasers believe it works and it comes with a money-back guarantee, what's the fraud? The rate of dissatisfied customers was 0.6 percent. But the FBI comes in with search warrants and seizes records anyway," says Kulp.

"One of the things the government didn't try to prove was that anyone was duped. We had satisfied customers ranging from narcotics agents in New York to sheriff's deputies in Lubbock, Texas.

"If we legally have to prove how it works, then the whole psychic phone network is absolute wire fraud." (Psychic phone networks do, however, include disclaimers saying their services are for entertainment purposes only.)

To avoid the injunction, Quadro even offered to attach with all sales literature and the Tracker itself a notice with the money-back guarantee which would read, in part: "Some scientists believe no known scientific principals [sic] could be responsible for Quadro Corporation products operating as we believe they do. The principals [sic] underlying the operation of Quadro Corporation products are not generally accepted by the scientific community. We invite you to examine Quadro Corporation products for yourself, educate yourself in the proper use and limitations of these products and make up your own mind."

Sounds like a reasonable, liberal compromise between the free play of products and ideas and the government's desire to prevent fraud, but Judge Heartfield said no. The government's tactics when it gets peeved at a product can be extreme, as in the 1950s, when scientific papers of the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich were burned by the government in the course of stopping the sale of a device he sold that it judged fraudulent.

In the Quadro case, the defense had called to the stand Guy Womack, a solid citizen, an assistant U.S. attorney in the southern district of Texas, and a Quadro distributor. The day he was to testify, the prosecution informed Womack that he was under investigation for his role as a Quadro salesman. On the stand, instead of singing the praises of the product, Womack took the Fifth 42 times and clammed up.

"That's not the way they're supposed to do business," says Womack, who four months later is still an assistant U.S. attorney and has not been officially charged with anything. Womack laments that Judge Heartfield couldn't hear from more satisfied users, and insists that the device has worked for him under circumstances where he had neither knowledge nor even any traditional context clues to go on–where there is no explanation other than that the Quadro Tracker can do what it claims. "The things I found with the Quadro Tracker, I never would have dreamed of looking there without it.

"I guess I'm not skeptical enough. Living in Houston, I'm hearing about new science discoveries almost every week, from NASA to the Texas Medical Center. So it wasn't hard for me to believe this could work if it appears to work."

The government is charging Quadro and its salesmen with fraud. That implies a culpable attempt to fool people. Surely, you'd think that the Quadro guys knew that the device was useless. That's not the sort of thing people involved in criminal investigations admit, even if they will talk to you. Halbig certainly has suspicions that the Quadro people had no real faith in their device: In their instructions, they tell people not to reveal that Quadro was the key to finding any guns or drugs that might be found. "Wouldn't you want Quadro to get the credit?" Halbig wonders. "You need a history of success to get courts to validate it."

But there seems to be no detectable stream of dissatisfied customers. The U.S. Attorney's Office can't name any. Angus Williams of the Polk County School District in Florida tells me he got a refund, no problem. Other school board officials haven't even tried to get a refund. Womack, the former distributor, says no one has asked him for their money back. Kulp claims Quadro refunded $35,000 to a disgruntled Texas distributor. Quadro may have made a lot of money off the deal, but without upsetting too many people. Numerous officials expressed regret that the FBI publicly blew the whistle on the device, ruining the possible deterrent effect on superstitious crooks, cowed by weird science into fearing that there would be no concealing their contraband from the molecular-frequency detectors of the law.

The Amazing Randi, sworn enemy of all metaphysical fraud, is strangely more charitable in his dissection of possible motive. As with all devices working on the dowsing principle, he says, it's very easy to fool yourself that the Quadro Tracker is working.

"They could start out thinking it works, test it and find it doesn't make sense, and then decide that there must be some sort of unknown principle of science or divine influence. They don't know why it worked in the first place, and then they've invested their money and reputations in it," he says.

"I got an amusing letter from the Quadro people in response to my $624,000 challenge, which they wouldn't take. That's as stupid as you can get, not trying for that much money just to do something you claim you do every day. But they said, 'We may call upon your magical powers to get us out of prison.'

"They may need me yet."