To Catch a Thief, Dead to Rights

Or dead, anyway. This little drama unfolded over my recent vacation.

A friend had been talking with a coin collector he knew, who has a store in the area. The collector had come into possession of an old safe, along with the contents thereof, and it included a pair of aluminum containers. Inside the containers were vials of clear liquid, bolted to the inside. What was really strange is that the vials were sealed shut — no stopper or cap at all. There would be no way to get the liquid out except by breaking the vial.

Well, that made my friend nervous. One reason for storing a liquid like that is that it is nasty stuff, and hanging on to them would be potentially dangerous, so he urged the coin collector to turn them in to some responsible party. I got peripherally involved when he asked my advice, thinking that if these were a weapon of some sort, I might know someone who could help figure the mystery out, but I don’t. The consensus we reached was to contact the local Hazmat unit, but he ended up turning them into the cops, after some prodding by my friend.

The verdict? Poison gas. Or something that turns into poison gas; the word I got was phosphene (or phosphine), but the story has now hit the paper and they say phosgene. In either event, it’s nasty stuff.

Authorities say they believe the ampuls, which were held two apiece inside metal brackets, contained liquid phosgene, a deadly World War I-era chemical weapon used to choke enemies and, later, as a booby trap for safecrackers.

The idea being that if you drill the safe, you break the vial. Internet references more often point toward tear gas as being used, but something more sinister wouldn’t be out of the question. It wasn’t hard to find this picture of a different safe with a “Beware of poison dog” label on it, stuck over a tear gas warning label.

Takes a little romance out of the portrayal of the TV/movie jewel thief.

3 thoughts on “To Catch a Thief, Dead to Rights

  1. I spent some years as a heating mechanic, back when they used “freon” as the coolant. When a compressor would burn out, it would often scorch the coolant and when you opened up the system you’d get a face full of some nasty stuff that the old guys assured me was phosgene – “same stuff from WW I”, they’d say.
    Just a bit would burn all day – probably the reason I’m not an olympic athlete. Ok, maybe not the ONLY reason.

  2. Phosgene boils at 8.3 C, 25-30 psi vapor pressure at room temperature. It is not irritating inhaled in lethal concentrations, smelling like new mown hay. It is not reactive with water. A modest dose will acylate lysine residues and such in lung proteins. Autoimmune response leads to pulmonary edema. You die foamed and drowned in your own fluids about 12 hours later.

    Uncle Al dehydrated N-alkyl and N-aryl formamides to isonitriles with COCl2 and Et3N in CH2Cl2. Wonderful reaction (high yield, very clean). We only evacuated the lab once. Scrub effluent with KOH pellets in n-butylamine.

    Don’t try the glass ampoule trick with Vikane (sulfuryl fluoride) – 230 psi, and it is odorless.

Comments are closed.