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You remember the Tracker -- the portable device touted by the South Carolina-based Quadro Corporation as a technological marvel that would give law enforcement and other authorities the ability to unerringly hone in on all sorts of concealed contraband. Among the near-miraculous ends for which the Tracker purportedly could be put to use were the detection of illegal drugs in a user's bloodstream or in a rubber tube that might be lodged in some miscreant's bowels.
But given those pesky Fourth Amendment strictures on search and seizure, even its manufacturer foresaw some problems with the Tracker's practical application. In a letter entitled "Probable Cause" that was directed to Tracker users and distributors, Quadro vice president Malcolm Roe suggested that lawmen might try fibbing under oath if they were under the impression the Tracker had actually uncovered something unlawful.
"Please be wary at this time of stating in court that the find was made solely as a result of using the Quadro Tracker," Roe warned. "We feel that if it is taken into court before we are fully prepared, it may have an adverse impact on getting the clearance [from the Justice Department] we so badly need. Tell them the dog did it! Or you were told by an informer."
Well, the Tracker is about to have its day in court, and Quadro will be hard-pressed to argue that the dog did it. After a five month-investigation, the FBIhas concluded that the Tracker is a fraud. Last week, the U.S. Attorney in Beaumont obtained a temporary restraining order blocking Quadro from manufacturing or selling more Trackers. A criminal investigation continues.
It may be too late, however, for the purchasers of the estimated 1,000 Trackers that were sold nationwide -- mostly to police agencies, school systems and correctional facilities. The FBI's Beaumont office first learned of the Tracker after the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department forked over $3,500 last August for one of the devices. It wasn't the only taxpayer-supported agency in southeast Texas to buy into Quadro's spiel. At least two of the instruments were purchased by the Houston Independent School District, and the New Caney and Galena Park school districts also are known to be the not-so-proud owners of Trackers.
As Press staff writer Tim Fleck reported in his November 2 story "Gotcha!", the Tracker was marketed as a sort of modern-day divining rod that operated on principles too mysterious to be fully explained. A small piece of plastic, similar in appearance to a phone receiver with a pivoting antenna, the Tracker supposedly worked its magic by matching the molecular emissions emanating from particular substances -- drugs, guns, etc. -- with the molecular emissions from a "locator card" placed in its handle. If the illegal stuff was in the vicinity -- bingo! -- the antenna would point in its direction.
According to an FBI agent's affidavit, a bottom-of-the-line Tracker retailed for $395, while a "Polaroid version," which supposedly could direct the wielder to an object whose photo was placed in the handle, went for $8,000. The price of the locator cards seemed to be based on the value of the object sought: a "golf ball card" went for a mere $25, while a "heroin card" commanded $250.
But tests performed last November at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque found that the Tracker was just a hollow piece of plastic attached to a common transistor-radio antenna. As a Sandia researcher noted, a Tracker user could "easily [whether consciously or unconsciously] make the antenna to point to wherever" he wanted. The lab also determined that the locator cards were nothing more than small pieces of polymer-coated paper, similar to a candy bar wrapper. An analysis of a "gunpowder chip" by an instrument capable of discerning a trillionth of a gram of the substance detected only a minute trace of an acid "commonly found in human perspiration," Sandia reported.
That must have been the 1 percent perspiration added to the 99 percent inspiration that went into the Tracker's marketing. Part of that strategy, the FBI says, was a false claim by Quadro that it was working with the Justice Department in "qualifying" the Tracker to meet constitutional muster; it also included having especially gullible (or greedy) law officers demonstrate the device to their colleagues. "In fairness to the agencies that bought it," observes one FBI agent, "it was marketed really well."
Part of its appeal was the deterrent effect the Tracker supposedly would have on inmates and students once word of its dope and gun locating prowess spread. "However," as a Sandia scientist noted, "any agency or school using such a device, if publicly shown to be bogus, would lose credibility with future endeavors."
As it turns out, the man who demonstrated the Tracker for HISD and the sheriff's department in Beaumont had a credibility problem himself: According to the FBI, Bill Long of Shreveport, the authorized Quadro distributor for Texas, was convicted in 1992 of numerous counts of mail fraud and theft. Long had been accused of embezzling federal job-training funds granted to a research facility he directed at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, and was also found to have embellished his academic background. He was sentenced to ten months in prison.
A call to Quadro headquarters was referred to the company's lawyer, who did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did we hear from Long or Brian Clements, the security chief for Galena Park ISD, who demonstrated the Tracker at local schools and posed with one for the cover of the Press last year.
HISD security chief Bruce Marquis did phone us back. To hear Marquis tell it, he reluctantly okayed the purchase of two Trackers as a deterrent of sorts, to stave off a mad shopping spree by school principals. "We were instructed to buy these things," he says, "so the principals wouldn't go crazy, and instead of having two, we'd have had 250." Marquis says he was "skeptical from the beginning," but only after the Press arranged for two Rice physicists to test the Tracker at HISD was he convinced the device wasn't what it was cracked up to be.
Marquis says HISD spent about $1,900 for its Trackers, but he hopes the district can get its money back. The Tracker was advertised as being able to locate "hard currency," so he may want to start dowsing.