LOWELL, Mass. Mexican police call him "El Cerebro." The Brain. Ricardo Valdez, rogue chemist, spent 11 years in a U.S. prison for making a synthetic drug called fentanyl, which is like heroin times 50. And when he got out, he quickly set up shop in Mexico.
He cooked another batch, 22 pounds, authorities claim -- enough to get 80 million people high if it didn't kill them and sent it across the border.
The drug's trail is easy to trace.
More than 1,000 dead nationwide. Suburban kids, city kids, folks like your neighbor or hard-luck cousin.
This is the tale of a killer no bigger than a few grains of salt, the swath it cut through the heart of America and the reality that it could happen again.
Valdez's family left Mexico for San Diego when he was 7. When his father walked, Ricardo looked after his five brothers and sisters, as well as young nephews after his drug-addled sister stopped caring for them.
And then there was the gravest mistake of his young American life, the contours of which are contained in Case No. 92-0015-G, U.S.A. v. Ricardo Valdez, a drug trial in federal court in San Diego.
Standing before the judge in the spring of 1993, prosecutor Laura Birkmeyer described a man his relatives said they scarcely recognized, a man who ruthlessly manufactured a lethal street drug known as fentanyl. A man the government had chased since agents discovered more than two pounds of homemade fentanyl in a California apartment in 1988.
"Quite honestly," the prosecutor told the judge, "he has a very dangerous knowledge, and I think we should do everything we possibly can to keep him from ever manufacturing any synthetic or a natural drug again."
Valdez was sent to prison; he would be back on the streets in 2003.
In its legal form, fentanyl has been around nearly 50 years.
A synthetic alternative to morphine, it was 100 times more powerful than its opiate cousin, 50 times stronger than heroin and highly addictive.
It is still commonly prescribed as a skin patch, lozenge or intravenous drip for patients with cancer and other chronic pain.
Clinical fentanyl has sometimes been abused by doctors or medical workers, and hospitals developed elaborate safeguards to monitor supplies and stem its release onto the black market.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, outlaw chemists developed a new, more powerful twist on fentanyl in private labs. They called it China White, a name given high-grade heroin. This was no accident. It mimicked heroin's high and satisfied the same cravings. Its staggering potency made it attractive for street sales.
But powdered fentanyl is so powerful, so toxic, an extra grain or two can render a dose lethal. Some people who shoot up can't even slide the needle from their vein before they die.
Every couple of years, street fentanyl kills a dozen or so addicts somewhere in the United States.
In October 2006 in Lowell, four people died after using heroin cut with fentanyl. Police said the overdoses likely occurred because the drug is exponentially more potent than the victims were used to injecting.
The outbreak that quietly began to percolate in northern U.S. cities in summer 2005 and would reach a crescendo in May 2006 was beyond anything law enforcement and health officials had seen.
Paroled in May 2003, Valdez was deported to Mexico.
He settled into an apartment 40 miles southwest of Mexico City, in Toluca. Mexico was a strange new land for a man who had not lived there since he was a child. But he was free and, before long, back in business. He and an accountant friend formed a new company amid a cluster of factories in the industrial town of Lerma.
Valdez would be the director of operations for the new venture, which they named Distribuidora Talios. It was a chemical company.
By late summer 2005, clandestinely produced fentanyl was turning up in the Midwest.
In Chicago, there was no shortage of dealers willing to sell it. Police say the Mickey Cobras street gang turned a south-side housing complex into a virtual fentanyl supermarket, peddling packets of fentanyl-laced heroin stamped with names like Reaper and Lethal Injection.
The labels didn't lie.
Drug agents pored over coroner reports, trying to account for a rising number of heroin deaths. Ambulance workers reported that, after years of using one dose of Narcan, which reverses heroin's suppression of the respiratory system, they now needed four doses to counteract the new dope.
Federal agents at first thought they were seeing the fallout from a major theft of pharmaceutical fentanyl. But no one knew for sure.
They put James DeFrancesco on the case. DeFrancesco, 44, a Chicago-based U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chemist, tended to find clues others missed.
He knew that commercial fentanyl, the kind doctors prescribe, was readily identified by its purity. The kind made on the street, no matter how talented the chemist, invariably carries flaws or impurities or different ingredients altogether, altering the molecular structure of the drug.
When DeFrancesco finished his tests, the results were unmistakable.
Someone, somewhere, was cooking the stuff up in a lab.
A few weeks later, in October 2005, Tiffany McKaye, a forensic chemist with the Detroit Police Department, was also running a packet of suspected heroin through her lab.
"It didn't seem any different than the heroin we were seeing. Nothing to set it apart," Gayle O'Neal, McKaye's supervisor, said. "We weren't looking for fentanyl, but she recognized it right away."
Within a week, two or three more samples came back as fentanyl.
The chemists warned the narcotics squad to be on the lookout -- and use caution.
Meanwhile, heroin overdoses, or what was assumed to be heroin, kept the Wayne County, Mich., morgue busy through the end of 2005 and into the new year.
They were quick deaths, investigators noted, almost instantaneous. A 30-year-old woman discovered in the fetal position, a needle still in her arm. A man, 44, facedown on the floor of his home. A 54-year-old with Love and Hate tattooed on his knuckles and a cocktail of drugs in his blood.
In January 2006, the daughter of a 52-year-old overdose victim called the medical examiner's office, alarmed, not just by her mother's death, but that other heroin addicts in her neighborhood were dropping, too.
Death moved east.
By April 2006, emergency workers in Philadelphia, Camden, N.J., and Delaware were swamped with overdoses. Heroin laced with fentanyl and sold as Al Capone, Flatline, Rest in Peace, Rolex and Exorcist was dropping addicts everywhere.
As in Chicago, Philadelphia emergency workers were going through an astonishing amount of Narcan.
"Today, when we give people Narcan, they're not coming out of it," Philadelphia Fire Capt. Richard Bossert said. "We had no idea what we were getting into."
Across the river, New Jersey was also counting dead bodies. Emergency responders were handling 60 overdoses a day, compared with the usual 10 cases.
Minutes after New Jersey health officials posted the jump in overdose deaths in an Internet alert, an official from Maryland called: People were dying there, too.
In May 2006, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration caught a break -- it received a tip about a drug smuggling operation in a small town near Mexico City.
On May 21, 2006, 10 Mexican agents carrying guns, bolt cutters and a video camera, burst through the gate of Distribuidora Talios. The men wore gas masks and protective suits. Gun battles and lurid, drug-related killings are endemic in Mexico, so the agents came prepared for war.
But the raid proceeded peacefully.
The agents' video shows a bespectacled, middle-age man wearing a beige jacket, golf shirt and blue jeans. It was Ricardo Valdez, the company chemist.
"This stuff, what do you call it, this final product?" a voice from behind the camera asked.
"I call it heroin," Valdez said softly. "Synthetic heroin. It's formulated in the laboratory."
How much have you made?
"Perhaps five kilos," Valdez answered.
Valdez and three others were taken to jail. Distribuidora Talios was out of business.
Sometime after the raid, U.S. authorities said, Valdez upped his estimate from 5 to 10 kilos, or 22 pounds. That's enough for 80 million doses on the street.
But authorities found only residue inside the building. The fentanyl was gone.
Sitting inside the Reclusorio Norte prison this February on the northern edge of Mexico City, where agents have held him since the raid on his lab last year, Valdez, 53, was polite but defiant.
He said he has cleaned up his life since his 2003 prison release and ran an honest company. Later, over the phone, he is reminded about that videotape, the one in which he confessed to Mexican authorities. He said the agents punched him in the kidneys to encourage his "confession," a claim to which Mexican authorities did not respond.
Valdez and his codefendants await their fate in Mexico's byzantine judicial system. He faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.
American prosecutors want to extradite him to face charges in the United States, which could put him behind bars for life.
Has the epidemic of fentanyl finally played out?
Or, as some experts surmise, have fentanyl dealers and users simply gotten better at using it?
And if Ricardo Valdez really did create 10 kilos, where is the rest?
Drug experts from Washington to Detroit say they simply don't know.
Police in Philadelphia say they still see fentanyl, often combined with cocaine.
In Chicago, deaths are way down, but officials think fentanyl is still around. It's just being used more cautiously. A massive police raid on a Chicago housing project last spring produced scores of arrests and major drug indictments.
In metro Detroit, fentanyl's presence is harder to gauge. Long after it vanished from other cities last year, it peaked again, killing another 29 drug users in Wayne County in November. Since then, fentanyl deaths have largely disappeared, said medical examiner Carl Schmidt.
"I think it will reappear," Schmidt said. "It has done so in the past."