That Monday in early April, the humidity swept over the forests north of Houston like a soggy blanket. The eminent cell biologist Dr. Barry Van Winkle was not pleased. Humidity always gave him a stuffy nose, and he had no time this morning for such matters. There was an important paper to finish for the Journal of Histochemistry and Cytochemistry and an experiment to perform involving a heart-cell membrane. Van Winkle was an ambitious, impatient man. The advancement of modern medicine depended on the research of biologists such as he. As soon as he parked his car, he headed straight for his office, where he kept a bottle of Afrin nasal spray.
Van Winkle worked in a small one-story building called the Cryobiology Research Center 27 miles from downtown Houston. Established by the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the cryobiology center was tucked away in a thickly wooded, little-known tract of land known as Research Forest. Home to a cluster of small biotechnology companies and obscure laboratories, Research Forest is a quiet, mysterious place where, under shadowless fluorescent lighting in windowless labs, scientists carry on their inquiries uninterrupted. “We never have any idea what they do there,” said a nearby resident. “Every time we see something strange in the back yard, like a squirrel without a tail, we say, ‘Uh oh, here comes another experiment from Research Forest.’”
It was there that Barry Van Winkle worked tirelessly toward a breakthrough in cell biology. He quickly said hello to the center’s secretary, Lillie, walked to his office, grabbed his Afrin, put it to his nostril, and squeezed.
From down the hall, Lillie would later tell the police, she heard a sharp cry and then saw Van Winkle rush to the bathroom. He had apparently snorted something up his nose that felt, he said, like battery acid. There was an explosive, burning sensation and a sharp, pungent smell.
After he washed out his nose, the scientist quickly performed a pH test on the Afrin. The previous week, Van Winkle had used that very bottle without incident. But the test showed the spray was extremely acidic. Van Winkle looked at his secretary. Neither of them spoke. “I don’t think,” he told me later, “that Lillie or I wanted to admit to ourselves what we were thinking.”
And thus began a curious tale of crime and mystery, one that not only would affect the lives of a small group of distinguished scientists but also would cast an unsparing light on modern science itself—how it works, how it can fail, how it is affected as much by laboratory rivalries and academic infighting as it is by the pursuit of knowledge. The Afrin affair had all the elements of the classic whodunit. But it also would turn out to be much more: a cautionary tale about the high-stakes world of research and the way scientists relentlessly grapple with the unknown.
That day, an anxious Van Winkle took the Afrin bottle to the main UT Health Science Center campus near downtown Houston and gave it to the university police, asking that the ingredients undergo toxicology tests. The results, he was told, would not come back for several days.
Claiming that he was under deadline pressure to finish his article, Van Winkle returned to his office the next day. He picked up the phone to make a call—and immediately dropped it. He had felt something sticky smeared on the receiver. It had the same pungent odor that had emanated from the Afrin bottle. “My God,” said Lillie, when she came into his office, “it’s the same stuff.”
Was this a prank? Or was someone stalking the scientist? A few days later, Van Winkle started to open the door to his office. With a muffled cry, he pulled his hand away. Lillie came running. There, on the doorknob, was a fresh coat of the same substance.
The UT Health Science Center police, who have jurisdiction to investigate crimes committed on university property, told Van Winkle that there was nothing yet to investigate. But he decided to do some investigating himself. He came across a canvas bag he said he had never seen before. Furtively, he peered inside, receiving what he would call “the shock of my life.”
He found books with such titles as The Poisoner’s Handbook, Hit Man, and Silent Death—underground publications that the police would later tell him were written to teach people how to kill.
Digging deeper into the bag, Van Winkle spied two hazard sheets from the Sigma Chemical Company in St. Louis, Missouri, for the chemicals d9-isofluorophosphate ( DFP) and beta propiolactone. Van Winkle knew about DFP: It was a highly toxic chemical used in experiments to stop a certain enzyme in a cell from attacking protein. But what was beta propiolactone? Van Winkle had never heard of it.
He opened the refrigerator that contained all the lab’s chemicals. There, amidst hundreds of vials and containers, he saw an opened bottle of beta propiolactone and an unopened bottle of DFP. Then, he said, he saw two other tightly sealed, unopened bottles. They held a chemical called tetrodotoxin—one of the most toxic compounds on the planet. A human who ingests less than a milligram of tetrodotoxin—about the size of a grain of pepper—will die within thirty minutes. Van Winkle said he was terrified. Like DFP, tetrodotoxin has legitimate research uses “but not in this lab,” Van Winkle told me. “That, I admit, scared the shit out of me.”
With a syringe he withdrew a sample from the opened container of beta propiolactone and took it to UT police headquarters, where he told officers that he suspected it was the substance that he had been put in the Afrin bottle. More than a week later the lab tests came back. Indeed, the acid in his Afrin was beta propiolactone, a chemical normally used in controlled experiments to sterilize bacteria. The chemical came with a warning: It had been found to cause cancer in animals, and humans were warned not to ingest