The Case of the Felonious Bread
Posted on December 4, 2019 Posted by John Scalzi 81 Comments
A few months ago, Seamus Blackley (who you might know as an engaging Twitter presence, oh and also the father of the XBox gaming console) started making bread using 4,500-year-old yeast scraped from ancient Egyptian pottery, and prepared as closely as possible to how it was made back in the old days (here’s a write-up about it in Eater, that’s worth reading for its own sake). At one point he offered to make a loaf for me — for the purposes of science, specifically, making a grilled cheese sandwich from the bread — and I of course accepted. He sent me a loaf via Fed Ex this weekend, and yesterday I got a notice through email that the package had been delivered. I went down from my office to retrieve it —
— and it wasn’t there.
Which confused me. I don’t live somewhere that thieves can easily nab things from my porch, and usually my package notifications are accurate. Fed Ex packages don’t just not show up at my house. So I went online and discovered that not only did Fed Ex claim the package was delivered, it was, in fact, signed for. This was especially odd, since a) I was the only one home, and b) the Fed Ex person did not, as they usually did when something needed to be signed for, ring my doorbell to get my attention.
Then I looked to see who it was who signed for my package:
Oh, well, see. That was interesting.
I used Fed Ex’s online help to try to delve further into the issue. The Fed Ex automated response told me that the package had been left “at a guard shack or station,” which confused me further, as there was no guard shack or station I could think of. Bradford, my home town, doesn’t even have its own police force; we are serviced by the county sheriff’s office. I thought maybe this was the Fed Ex delivery person’s way of saying they left it in my mailbox (which is a distance from my house on a rural road), but when Krissy got the mail on her way home from work, there was no Fed Ex package. Could the package actually have been intercepted by the police?
Reader, it could and had! When I spoke to a live person at Fed Ex, I was informed that the person who signed for the package had left a number to call. I called it; it was for a detective with the Dayton Police, Dayton being the city the Fed Ex facility is in. I called the number a couple of times and left voice mail, to find out what had happened to my bread.
And then, about an hour ago, Fed Ex showed up and delivered a package. It was the bread. And with the bread, a note from the Narcotic Bureau of the Dayton Police Department, which began:
On 12-3-19, during a routine check of freight at Fed Ex, a certified narcotics detection dog alerted to the scent of a narcotic on your package. The package was then opened by this office in order to determine its content.
In addition to this letter from the police was a copy of the search warrant which was executed in order to open the package, and a copy of the police report about opening the package, in which the detective in question found… bread. And nothing else, because, really. It’s bread. Seamus Blackley suspects that the coriander in the bread (which is historically accurate, incidentally) might have tripped up the dogs; I suspect it was the 4,500-year-old strain of yeast, or possibly the dogs working that line just going, holy shit I smell delicious bread and trying to get a slice. And who can blame those hard-working canines? Bread is yummy.
I will note I don’t think the police examining this package is an outrageous violation of my civil rights, especially since I now have it in my possession, without slices hacked off for “testing.” I do find it interesting that there clearly a certain number of people dim enough to send illicit narcotics through Fed Ex that drug sniffing dogs are needed. I also wonder how many false positives the dogs rack up, and how many baked (heh) goods are delayed a day or two thereby. I appreciate that there was an actual search warrant, signed off on by an actual judge and everything, along with a note saying “O hai we thought you might has the druqz but you dint, kthxbye.” It’s a nice bit of transparency about the process. That said, it’s… bread. Coriander or yeast or whatever else was the problem, it seems like it should make it through without delay.
In any event, it was quickly ascertained that the bread was not in fact heroin or cocaine or marijuana or whatever, at which point it was repackaged and sent along to me, a day late, sniffed by dogs and examined by humans, but otherwise unmolested. My plan is to saw off a slab of this felonious bread and make a nice ol’ felonious grilled cheese sandwich out of it. A happy ending to an exciting journey.
Update, 3:12pm: Got off the phone after a very pleasant conversation with the detective on this case, during which he detailed the process of examining my bread. I was pleased to learn that while it was taken out of the box, it wasn’t otherwise taken out of its packaging; it was x-rayed and then repacked. So if you ever have plans to bake a loaf around your contraband, well, maybe don’t do that (or, you know, send contraband through Fed Ex anyway, I mean, honestly, folks).
OK, I LOVE this story. It made me laugh! I also love your take on the whole thing, and that due process was followed in the examination of the bread–and quickly! No one likes stale bread. Now I’m very curious about coriander in bread… and a little freaked out by the old yeast…
Now I know not to ever send donuts through the mail.
I can only imagine what would happen if you tried to send a traditional German baked product with dried or candied fruit, coated with powdered sugar or icing. Could the person getting it be charged with Receiving Stollen Goods?
But if the cops didn’t hack off slices, did they X-ray it or poke holes in it?
Yikes! Was there any inner packaging for the bread to keep it sealed? Was any of that opened, if present? Just curious – there are many food allergies in my family, and we have been known to mail baked goods to one another, so I’m curious if it would still be sealed up enough to be safe for someone in my situation!
I’m very glad you got your bread, and look forward to hearing the results of your grilled cheese experimentation.
The dog wanted his fair share of the bread.
Felonious Bread would be a great name for a band.
Some years ago I rode a ski lift with a guy from Florida whose other favorite sport was motorboat racing. He said anybody who owns a fast boat in Florida gets VERY accustomed to seeing Police, Coast Guard, and DEA helicopters overhead.
Thank you for sharing this valuable evidence that law enforcement is, actually, attempting to do something about the yeast-growth curve of drug-trafficking via FedEx (and, presumably, other delivery services.)
It is a real issue, with very powerful drugs like fentanyl having such a high dollar value as additives in the street market (because you need only add a minute quantity to a batch of other drugs to make them HELLA powerful and often fatal, so a small quantity goes a LONG way) that they are being heavily trafficked via delivery services and mail services. The days of an airplane full of weed bales or a cargo hold full of coke bricks are long gone. A tiny packet of fentanyl is worth as much and more as those used to be, so why not let the delivery services do the work?
This is the first I’ve heard of actual evidence that interdiction attempts are being made, and made with procedural correctness. False positives are inevitable, but at least they’re trying.
Felonious Bread- released early on account of Gouda behavior.
(When I get banned from here, it will have been entirely justified.)
So… if I want to ship drugs through the mail, I should bake the packet inside of a loaf of bread, heavy on the coriander?
Are you going to follow up with the officer and ask how often this sort of things happens? I mean, you have an audience of A LOT of people who are just genuinely interested in stuff! I can’t be the only one who wants to know more.
In other headlines: Author John Scalzi under investigation for drug trafficking.
Happens all the time. The cops even have a form letter to mock the occasion.
I wouldn’t be so blase about your civil rights being violated. Also, surprised they didn’t think the bread might have been baked with drugs, ie marijuana, or otherwise have drugs hidden inside it. Especially after all the horror stories of cops claiming innocuous things are drugs during traffic stops. I guess they are mostly looking for very lazy criminals.
My sister works for UPS. The number of people who send drugs, weapons and any other illegal things you can think of is insane. She has some great stories.
My feloney has a first name…
Don’t see any civil rights violation here. Drug dog hit certainly creates sufficient grounds for a search warrant, which was obtained. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I suppose you could try to argue that the dog shouldn’t have been given the opportunity to sniff the package, but given that (a) it wasn’t your property (at least not yet), and (b) the sender chose to hand it over to a third party shipping service, that’s a very tough hill to climb.
*Two days later* “Woke up in a dumpster two miles south of Santa Monica with a blinding headache and no memory of anything after the toaster oven chimed. ‘Corriander’ indeed”.
Of course, outside of controlled environments, Drug sniffing dogs appear to be wrong most of the time. Many studies show 70-85% of the time, often with targeting of minorities. Apparently, it is worse if the police officer has knowledge of the accused. Obviously that is not the case with a piece of mail.
Police did what they are suppose to do, get a search warrant etc. No blame to them for doing their job, as trained, and to the best of their ability.
One should wonder whether this is a great use of public funds, even if it makes a great story.
The case of the Pinched Loaf.
@Stevie: *Five days later* Scalzi woke up in a field outside Warsaw, Poland, with 10,000 zloty in the pocket of the bespoke suit he found himself wearing. He had no memory of the previous five days, but he *also* found a handwritten note in his pocket. The note was in his handwriting, but in Polish, a language he does not speak.
IIRC, and as uuleaguehub said above, China had been using Fed Ex to ship fentanyl into the US. One of the major routing points was (…wait for it…) Dayton, Ohio.
There’s yuge scope here for all kinds of punnery, hilarity and humorous mayhem to ensue…
Drug dogs and the Clever Hans error: https://health.ucdavis.edu/welcome/features/2010-2011/02/20110223_drug_dogs.html
But how did it TASTE??
I am a big fan of ancient Egypt, and have done a lot of research to support my historical novels. I have tried for several years to reproduce their bread, using their flour and their techniques. I always wind up with a mess or, as Seamus says, a puck. The only time I could get Einkorn bread to rise was to add yeast to it, and of course all I can get hold of is modern yeast. I really hope Seamus follows through on his dream to make this available to others. It would be the crown (ahem) of my annual Egyptian picnic, which includes only foods available to the builders of the Pyramids.
Your cheese sandwich can also use semi-authentic Egyptian cheese. There are a lot of varieties, dating back to the First Dynasty: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_cheese
I would love to hear how your Pyramid Builder Cheese Sandwich (sounds like something from Monty Python) turns out.
Athena – “Still tastes better than 1/3 of the stuff from Australia, even WITH the police dog drool.”
Poppy seeds are a classic problem. There is really no difference between the breadseed poppy and opium poppy either by smell or genetics.
No more different than a white petunia and a pink one. You can make drugs from either — dogs can’t tell the difference.
Maybe FedEx is not the best choice for a drug mule… Stick with Prime for fast free shipping!
@Shava — There’s a brilliant Harper’s article about Poppies by Michael Pollan (1997, apparently) that discusses just that.
Making a grilled cheese sandwich with ancient bread with modern cheese* seems to be a crime similar to many of John’s burritos
*I’m by no means an expert here but when I started making cheese a few years back I was shocked at how “modern” cheese is … i.e. Cheese as we know it is less than 2k years old while bread/fermentation is much older.
Poppyseed muffins was the punchline for a Seinfeld episode where Elaine kept failing a drug test.
I second the request for a follow up article on how the bread tasted.
It’s worth pointing out that the letter doesn’t even make it one line in before lying: “a certified narcotics detection dog alerted to the scent of a narcotic on your package.” Ummm, nope, since you yourself opened the box and ascertained that there was no narcotic it alerted to… who knows. We’ll call it “not-narcotic,” since this test was a false positive. As pointed out above, dog sniffs are notoriously bad but on the upside the Supreme Court said that it doesn’t matter that they’re demonstrably bad they’re still okay. No, really, they really did rule that whether they work or not doesn’t matter.
I’d personally question the assertion that they actually got a warrant unless you got a copy of it.
So the real takeaway here is… if you ship drugs through FedEx and you get a notification that they’ve been delivered when they haven’t, it is time to skip town.
So, how was the sandwich?
It is a funny story that includes a sad truth.
The drug sniffing dogs, the drug field tests, and most breathalyzer are not accurate. They all have a very high false positive rate.
In the real world it seems drug sniffing dogs trigger more often if the person being checked isn’t white. Field tests for drugs have reported positive results for crumbs from glazed donuts. In the last month there have been several articles about breathalyzer tests returning results that were as much as 40% higher than the actual blood alcohol level.
All of those things have put innocent people in jail. Sometimes for a few hours, sometimes weeks, and sometimes for years.
So, as a big fan of freshly-baked bread, I would like to know if the 4,500 year old yeast actually makes the bread taste better or different. Please elucidate.
Never send your dog to work hungry. Especially not when your dog and the entire program average about 80% false positives.
~gazes wistfully at the bread~ Glad it all worked out in the end and you got your bread.
I notice that you got day-old (at least) bread, which was a synonym for “not good*” until modern preservation methods. It’s a good thing you were planning to (ahem) toast it in a cheese sandwich before eating it.
*Taste and consistency, not “gonna kill you or make you sick” not good, which would be difficult with bread unless moldy/ergot.
Drug dogs alert whenever their handler wants them to. As has been noted already, their accuracy rate is really really bad, and the courts don’t care.
What that amounts to is cops planting evidence with court sanction. That isn’t due process, and I don’t think it’s something to be amused about.
The Dawg was trained by gen-x cops to sniff out gluten.
Drug detection dogs have a pretty good rate of success, and officers routinely get warrants before opening packages. When the dogs start returning false positives (and that can happen), they are generally taken out of rotation. It is a terrific waste of time and resources to open packages of bread.
As far as the civil rights question, search warrants are issued if the police have probable cause to believe that something illegal will be discovered. The process contemplates occasional errors, as it must; it’s a search for contraband, not a confirmation of what is already known. And I wouldn’t be suspicious about whether the police actually had a warrant. It was in their interests to get one, as they wouldn’t be able to use anything they found as evidence if they failed to do so.
Years ago I had fresh sourdough bread sent to an editorial assistant who had been super nice to me. Boudin has a bakery right at SFO so it goes on a flight very quickly; she worked for a publisher in downtown Manhattan. She got a call from the mailroom requesting her to come down in person to pick up a package. Staff could smell the bread and demanded she open it for inspection. Only three of the four loaves made it back to her office. No police were involved in the theft.
Day old bread. Yuck. THAT I would be offended by.
Today must be ‘National Fun Story Day’ – this morning there was a headline about a guy who picked up an injured dog off the roadside – except it was a coyote! Anyway, glad coyotes didn’t steal the bread ;-)
My wife and mother (who was 78 YO at the time), can attest that sometimes detection dogs do detect the contraband for which they seek. At Santiago airport, the detection dog went bananas over my Mum’s bag. The contraband? Dried bananas, which apparently are verboten in Chile because of risk to the Chilean banana industry. [No doubt the justification for a trade barrier to protect local agriculture from cheaper imports].
Mum was most disappointed to lose the dried bananas, but was mollified because we later discovered that they had miseed the trove in my wife’s bags!
As a criminal defense lawyer, I can attest that yes, there are people who are dumb enough to ship drugs through the mail and FedEx.
“I love my Fed-Ex guy cause he’s a drug dealer and he don’t even know it…and he’s always on time. ”
Don’t fly with bread. I bring homemade bread to my daughter when I visit. Which always leads to enhanced screening in the TSA pre check line at MCO.
“What’s the story?”
“Got a loaf of bread in the mail. Dogs hit on it.”
“What, is it made with pot?”
“We think it’s unfamiliar yeast.”
“I guess it’s true. Crime really is–”
“–on the rise.”
Ken, as someone who lives in a country that doesn’t have the banana diseases and doesn’t want them, I wouldn’t be so blase about saying it’s a trade barrier. Considering that all bananas of a given variety are clones, so all susceptible to the same disease, and that there are known diseases wiping out the all Cavendish bananas in some areas, and entire varieties of bananas have been lost entirely world wide before, it’s a bigger deal than you obviously think. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we do lose the most common banana variety again in the future, but let’s try and keep it as long as possible, OK?
Breaking agricultural protection rules is not funny, and if you try it here you’ll get fines as a minimum.
Mmmm… felonious bread…… glllaaggaaaghhhhh… *drool*
Ahhhh grilled cheese sandwiches, just like the ancient egyptians used to make….
“In addition to this letter from the police was a copy of the search warrant which was executed in order to open the package”
Did you invite the detective to join you for a grilled cheese?
I wonder how many false positives are just particularly successful drug dogs getting the munchies.
@ Ken: Beware the impending Bananapocalypse. The barrier is to protect local banana crops from being utterly wiped out. Losing a bag of dried bananas is unfortunate. Losing all bananas is considerably worse.
Former prosecutor here, and I’m here to tell you people use Fed Ex and other similar companies to send illegal substances to each other all the time, based on the number of times I prosecuted cases like that… and I too live in the middle of nowhere in the midwest.
Also, this is now officially my favorite Whatever post of all time.
I love the detail that they X-ray-ed the contents, re-packaged everything, and included a letter.
Here, in Argentina, you’re lucky if you ever learn what happened to the package, AT ALL.
No paper trail, story, no nothing. Just the mystery of what happened to the ancient bread.
The Darwin Awards, reality TV, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and more generally the Internet show that the answer to the question “Are there people dumb enough to do X?” is almost always yes, regardless of what X is.
Since this bread was made with ancient Egyptian yeast, did any of the kitties try demanding a small piece as tribute?
As someone who enjoys baking my own bread I love what Blackley did, and I’m quite jealous of you! I don’t mind how the police handled the case, but I think FedEx couldn’ve done quite a bit better
Seeing this story from my past QA experience with FedEx, let me offer a little more insight. The term “at guard shack or station” refers to the facility from which the package was supposed to be delivered, not the police station. Most larger facilities have a “guard shack” for security purposes, which everyone passes through when entering or leaving the facility, and that’s also the point where QA will hand off any package for will-call deliveries. The signature would have thus been obtained by the law enforcement agent who retrieved the package from FedEx at their facility.
So I worked as a K-9 handler largely inside FedEx facilities for the past seven years (though not for the police, but often alongside them) and what I can tell you is what most likely happened is the officer profiled your package, pulled it off the belt and checked out the addresses, then had their dog check it to see if they could open it. Sometimes the officer might cue the dog just to ensure they can get the go-ahead to create the warrant, sometimes the dog might give an indecisive response that basically results in the same actions. The parcel facility dogs are very good at their jobs, mine consistently had a 99%~ positive response rate (we were agriculture detection, not narcotics) but a new scent it hasn’t come across before, such as the ancient yeast, might have caused enough reaction to warrant (heh) opening the package.
As for the question of whether it’s a violation of rights someone brought up, of course there are laws that allow the opening of packages. Police do tend to need a warrant, but I can tell you that I did not, as my agency had statutes written into state law that allowed us to open anything we wanted, dog response or no.
Also, the amount of drugs that get sent through facilities like FedEx is crazy! While my dog wasn’t trained to respond to drugs, and we were to discourage it if they did, he still found some on occasion. Usually weed, since it’s a plant material and we worked agriculture detection, and often in the 10-30lb range. Even vacuum sealed and obsessively wrapped in plastic and inside various cases and double boxed, my dog could find it.
(A side note – narcotics dogs are usually much more toy-driven than food motivated, so the bread probably wasn’t in any real danger of becoming a dog snack, haha!)
That’s consistent to what the detective told me, yes.
John, PLEASE tell us what the bread tastes like! I’m so jealous!! :-) I’ve been reading Seamus’ old-bread sagas since last spring. I blame him totally for my current sourdough baking obsession! Tell us what Old Egyptian tastes like!! :-)
PS – fresh Coriander smells AWESOME. I’ve been grinding my own, and I’m hooked! :-)
I’m trying to think of a good word play here: “The Mummy’s Meth” or something like that… “Loaf of the Undead!” is fun but doesn’t quite catch the full experience!
I’m thinking that a determined band of monkey-wrenchers could have fun with this. Put yeast and maybe coriander in all your packages, however innocent, until the system bogs down. Then switch to parsley. Work your way through the spice rack!
Sorry, the old hippie anarchist in my distant youth comes back once in a while ;-)
I think you’re right about the rye! The fungus that produces LSD comes from rye plants- https://www-britannica-com.cdn.ampproject.org/v/s/www.britannica.com/amp/story/how-rye-bread-may-have-caused-the-salem-witch-trials?amp_js_v=a2&_gsa=1&usqp=mq331AQCKAE%3D#aoh=15755537638420&referrer=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.com&_tf=From%20%251%24s&share=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.britannica.com%2Fstory%2Fhow-rye-bread-may-have-caused-the-salem-witch-trials
Thanks for today’s chuckle.
Glad all ended well and that you are not currently writing from the slammer.
I, myself, have a bread baking quasi-hobby. This last year’s obsession has been cultivating sourdough and using it in my recipes. I make a mean English muffin if I do say so.
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away (Actually, 1988 and about a half mile from my current office.) I worked Christmas Rush for UPS in Chantilly Va. One fine day a package “somehow” came open while proceeding through the facility. A package with about a pound of weed in it. By the time it got to the end of the line it was empty. So it was taped back up, marked as damaged, and sent on to its destination. I’ve often wondered how paranoid the recipient was after that.
I live in Florida, where we have an endless list of environmental apocalypses caused by people illegally importing things that then get loose in the ecosystem, breed like mad, and cause horrible damage. A friend of mine works with detector dogs in a long-running program that, with luck and still more time, MIGHT succeed in ridding us of the giant African land snails that not only eat everything, but also spread meningitis. She works her butt off, and so do the dogs.
Since the 2011 report on the high rate of false positives from police dogs, the inconsistency of dog training practices, and the level of handler bias, there’s been some progress made in addressing the problems, at least in the US. (Apparently Australia has a much worse problem.) Fortunately for Florida, it turns out that dogs are way better at sniffing for biological targets (such as snails, bedbugs, etc.) than their drug-sniffing counterparts.
I needed a laugh. Thanks!
Also, the bread article in ‘Eater’ was pretty cool.
Can you elaborate on “friggin’ delicious”? How does Egypt Bread differ from the stuff we’re used to? How does it grill up? DETAILS, man!
Despite all its adventures, your bread looks mucho more edible than the one I receive in my country every day. The low cost cuban bread is rejected even by street dogs (tested by myself, several times, after that, never again tried to feed bread to the street dogs) and requires additional ingredients and processes to become something you want to eat. And being hungry at 7 AM also helps.
Thanks for sharing! This article provided a much needed laugh. I hope the bread was tasty. It looks amazing!
Great point about not needing a warrant in all circumstances. If you were doing agricultural inspections, you weren’t specifically looking for evidence of crimes, so the Fourth Amendment doesn’t come into play in the same way. You were presumably on the “administrative search” end of the spectrum, which largely took you out of the warrant requirement. The more interesting legal question would be how the Fourth Amendment came into play when you opened a package to find a prohibited agricultural product, but you found narcotics inside.
I didn’t realize that there was an entire screening process governing agricultural products in FedEx/UPS/USPS sorting facilities, but I’m glad it’s there. Invasive pests pose a huge risk to our country’s agricultural infrastructure — a threat that too many people disregard, regrettably — and so effective enforcement efforts are critical. I would imagine it’s harder to train a dog for that sort of work, because there’s a lot more variety of things you’re trying to find, right? Drugs are a relatively short list, by comparison.
And, finally, it really is crazy the amount of drugs that get shipped through Fed Ex and the like. And it’s always amusing to hear people talk about how they were going to “dog-proof” their shipments. Dogs are so insanely good at defeating all those counter-measures.
I need a follow up test. Would bread made from 4500 year old yeast make good French toast?
Pre-TSA airport security stole a single slice (of 3) of chocolate cake out of my suitcase. I’m not sure where but it’s entirely possible it was at the Dayton Airport. I SUSPECT A PLOT.
Thinking of writing a song about this to the tune of Alice’s Restaurant.
@Ziggy: MUTT JEALOUS OF PURE BREAD
Reminds me of a study about whether you can send a brick through the mail (USPS). Long story short, your odds of having the brick arrive intact are inversely proportional to the distance it has to travel, because it’s more likely to get flagged at larger (metro & regional) facilities. And because bricks don’t x-ray well, they have to be examined destructively.
The recipient will, however, usually receive a baggie full of ex-brick with a DEA release number inside.