INSIDE THE "CLAN LAB"
The much-ballyhooed “largest meth lab in the state” story turns out to not be entirely true
The sudden death of 29-year-old MIT electrical engineering and computer science graduate Kevin D. McCormick in a South Boston warehouse on November 13 reeked of intrigue. It had everything: allegations of methamphetamine production on a huge scale, rumors of bizarre sexual deviancy, warnings of imminent explosions, and a circus-like drug investigation—unprecedented in Boston—that shut down Congress Street for two days and involved the Boston Fire Department, the DEA Clandestine Lab Enforcement Team, the Boston Police Bomb Unit and even Animal Control.
While it made a great cover story, it was a little too juicy to be true. The Globe’s initial report that the Fort Point apartment housed “one of the largest methamphetamine manufacturing operations in the state” remains unsubstantiated. On November 22, the Globe itself reneged on its own claims of meth production, stating in another article that the lab “focused on making designer drugs,” not meth.
According to publicly available information, it seems that little to no evidence of meth production was found in McCormick’s apartment: A 29-page list of drug evidence seized at the location, filed in the South Boston District Court, is impressively long, but catalogues only small quantities of illegal drugs, among them LSD, MDMA (Ecstasy), marijuana, nitrous oxide, as well as an alphabet soup of more exotic concoctions such as piperazine mono- and di- hydrochloride and BZP, Procaine, MDPR (sometimes used as a ‘primer’ for psychedelics), TMA, DPT and MBDB. Methamphetamine is not mentioned.
The list does include small quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the core ingredients used in making meth. However, the total amount of the two substances found was only about half a gram, which is well below the whopping nine grams a consumer is allowed to purchase per month under the new anti-meth law just passed by the State Senate in reaction to this very investigation. Furthermore, the substances, which are also commonly used as cold medicine, were found in McCormick’s desk drawer, far from the alleged “clan lab.” Some of it was also quite old—the Perrigo Company, the distributor named on a few of the recovered packages, confirmed that some of the pseudoephedrine listed expired in 2004. All of which makes it unlikely that the pseudoephedrine and ephedrine were regularly used to whip up large batches of meth.
All the facts add up to make it pretty obvious that investigators and their media onlookers initially misjudged the contents of 369 Congress St. Officially, whether a clan lab ever existed at all is “still to be determined,” according to Anthony Pettigrew, spokesman for the Boston office of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
The aftermath of McCormick’s death was marred in other ways, most notably regarding the Globe’s repeated statement that there were “chains, wetsuits, and masks” surrounding him when he died, and that he was “clad in fetish gear.” Predictably, the Herald had a field day with this, tossing around phrases like “drug-fueled sex bash” and “wild weekend sex romp gone wrong”; but even the Globe went so far as to report that McCormick “moved in a world of clandestine sex and drugs.” Neither paper cited a source.
“I don’t know where they got that,” says Officer John Boyle, a spokesman for the BPD. “We don’t have information on that.” Indeed, he doesn’t—there is no mention of “fetish gear,” “chains” or “wetsuits” in either the police report or official court documents regarding the case, indicating that both papers likely published anonymous hearsay as fact.
Not to be deterred, the Herald let its dirty little imagination run wild, juxtaposing irrelevant and unrelated information about two gerbils that were removed from the apartment and that “hamsters” were rumored to live in the basement with an anonymous quote alleging that the apartment hosted “group-bondage parties.” This sparked many a bestial-drug rumor on the internet, where the Herald article was reposted widely.
According to competing anonymous hearsay gathered by the Dig from several of his friends, McCormick died in the midst of having sex with a single person: his significant other. There’s nothing to support the claim of “group-bondage parties” or the insinuation that the gerbils were in any way mishandled. “During the 12 months I spent at the warehouse, I certainly never witnessed any sex party,” says Vincent LeClerc, one of McCormick’s roommates at the time of his death, who also denies witnessing any gerbil abuse.
When news of McCormick’s death broke, MIT did little to dispel the misinformation. MIT spokeswoman Denise Brehm was all damage control, claiming no knowledge of how or why several pieces of MIT-labeled equipment were found in the Fort Point warehouse—despite the fact that, according to the Boston Police Department report, MIT Detectives Bolter and Perault were at the Fort Point apartment the day after McCormick died, investigating whether “MIT laser equipment” had been stolen from the school. It turned out that the lasers had been decommissioned, and therefore were probably sold legally to McCormick, along with two industrial coolers bearing MIT labels, which Brehm says also “appeared to have been surplused.”
The truth about Kevin McCormick isn’t easy to find. Often called “Frostbyte,” a nickname he earned at college, McCormick moved in a close-knit circle of artists, scientists, engineers and graduate students, many of whom were friends through MIT and through his fraternity, Tau Epsilon Phi, or TEP. Though most are unwilling to speak to the press about their friend, they make it clear that he was loved; mourners packed the MIT Chapel to overflowing at his memorial, with scores forced to stand outside.
McCormick was an artist, a born tinkerer. Seppo Helava, a friend from TEP, wrote on his blog that McCormick “was always doing some sort of project, whether it was rigging up an electronic jukebox for a bathroom in the years before .mp3, or building a crazy loft for a room, or firing a carrot through a box of Bisquick with a compressed air cannon.”
Some of his projects found their way into the outside world: “Late one evening back in 1996, he was pulling out an old iron and ironing board, and one fraternity brother commented that ironing seemed rather out of character for him,” says Bradley Rhodes, another TEP friend. “He just nodded, then proceeded to use the iron to transfer his printed circuit designs directly onto blank circuit boards.” These boards became the heart of “NetPods,” dollar-fed computer terminals programmed by McCormick that allowed the public to surf the internet. They were installed at Café Liberty, the now-defunct Central Square coffeeshop that, thanks to NetPods, was one of Boston’s first cybercafés.
McCormick’s true calling was electronic art, or as he refers to it on his Friendster profile, “things that blink.” He spent his free time creating innovative LED art installations and “wearables.” After he graduated, the staging ground for many of his creations was the 2nd floor of 369 Congress. In 1999, McCormick moved from TEP to the Fort Point warehouse, which he alternately called “Warehouse 23,” after his room at TEP, and “Phlogiston Research,” a reference to an obsolete scientific theory of combustion. The apartment functioned as McCormick’s residence and electronics laboratory, where he developed many of his electronic art projects. (Reports that McCormick and his roommates were “squatting” are erroneous—according to court documents, the landlord rented the warehouse to them as a residential space.)
“It was just an astonishing place, with … old laser equipment, and Frostbyte's assorted electronic stuff. It was pure chaos, but beautiful in its industrial and artistic functionality,” Helava wrote on his blog.
“There was a huge and sophisticated electronics lab and a lot of art in that space,” says an older TEP alumnus who refused to give his name. “There was a small machine shop. The chemistry capability that they focused in on was tiny in comparison.”
Warehouse 23 also served as a refuge for many friends who lived with McCormick for periods of time. Charisse Massay lived at Warehouse 23 from 1999 to 2000, and says that the insinuations that Warehouse 23 posed a threat to the neighbors or to the nearby Children’s Museum are ridiculous. “He had been there for six years, and had never raised a problem with the neighbors or the kids,” she says. Far from being a threat, Massay says his home was an artistic haven: “His home was more than a room or an apartment; it was a medium with which to create, and a gallery to showcase said creations.”
It was a space he enjoyed sharing with others. On McCormick’s Friendster profile, “throwing huge parties,” is listed as one of his interests. But far from the “group bondage parties” alleged by the Herald, the get-togethers at Warehouse 23 were more like well-run club events—complete with DJs, guest lists and McCormick’s light sculptures. Tronster Hartley, a friend of McCormick from high school, posted a detailed description of a February 2002 party he attended. According to Hartley’s account, a Warehouse 23 party featured “chill-out rooms,” “arcade rooms,” a kitchen “filled with plenty of things to eat,” bands playing “Happy Birthday” and a “Super-Mario-based song,” and “people dancing.”
Evidence suggests that McCormick consumed and produced drugs at his Fort Point apartment, but that he did so carefully and only for personal use. He listed "organic chemistry" as one of his hobbies on his Friendster profile, and one of his several e-mail addresses contains the word "piperazine," a substance that is sometimes used to create so-called "designer drugs" with effects similar to Ecstasy and LSD. According to the police report, when police responded to the scene to find McCormick in cardiac arrest, his roommates said that he had taken E several hours earlier. His friends believe that he took a 100mg dose, which is a “typical” dose, according to the DEA website. None of the authorities will comment on the cause of death at this time.
“His goal was to expand reality on every level, whether that meant using lights as never before, or transforming his space into an amusement park,” Massay says.
“He was very intense, very curious,” says the anonymous older TEP alum. “He had a drive to push the envelope. I think his drug use was perhaps a reflection of that.”
Another anonymous friend and former MIT student says, “He told me that he regularly produced MDMA, and I saw equipment over at 23 which I believe could have been used for that purpose. The scale of the operation was consistent with personal experimentation. It was certainly not ‘the largest meth lab in the state,’ as reported elsewhere. We're talking about something akin to a bench-top chemistry set.”
Several of his friends tell the Dig they believe it was unlikely that he sold drugs, because he made a good living at his job at Color Kinetics and because he spent most of his time and energy on his art. And regarding the nature of his drug consumption, they say that he was a cautious and meticulous user who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of drug dangers and risks.
“All of his habits and hobbies were well-researched. He was easily the most intense person I knew—he had a need to contextualize everything he did,” Massay says.
“He seemed to have such a thorough grasp on the chemistry and physiology behind what he was doing that I considered him to be in a better position to assess the risks than anyone else I knew,” says the friend and former MIT student.
“His drug use was extremely cautious,” says the anonymous older TEP alumnus. “He saved people from harm. He felt very strongly that information, especially information on risks, should be available. The central tenet of his approach was what he called ‘harm reduction.’ He was not a prohibitionist, as he dabbled himself, but he was a fanatic on the topic of harm prevention. And through his very active proselytizing, he saved people from harms of reckless exposure.”
His friends say that when McCormick was still an undergraduate at MIT, he was the anonymous author of “Drugs At MIT: A Practical Guide for the Intoxicated Engineer” (“DAMIT”), a pamphlet that appeared on campus in 1999. Prompted by the university’s response to the death of Richard Guy, an MIT student who died of asphyxiation as the result of nitrous oxide intoxication, “DAMIT” provided detailed advice and information about recreational drug use, with the goal of minimizing risk.
“I don't know whether Kevin was the sole author of the ‘DAMIT’ pamphlet, but as far as I know he was at least the primary author,” says Rhodes.
In a press release received by The Tech, MIT’s newspaper, the anonymous author of “DAMIT” said that by “declaring its intent to crack down on drug use … the MIT administration has unequivocally and directly put students in a position of greater danger.” He told The Tech that he wished to provide an alternative to “street lore,” and wrote in the pamphlet, “people need to know how to be safe if they choose to use recreational drugs.”
“I took the route of trying to say that there are some recreational drugs that are quite safe and that produce truly mind-blowing experiences,” the press release said. “But you need to consider all the ramifications first and decide for yourself.”
In the end, it seems that McCormick did just that