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Drug Wizard Of Wichita

When Drug Enforcement Administration agents began a search two years ago for the maker of a mean designer drug called fentanyl, they had a strange profile to work with. They were looking for someone with access to a high-tech lab, a master chemist willing to brave highly toxic fumes-and to risk a life sentence if caught. The Feds didn't expect their quest to end in tiny Goddard, Kans., with the arrest of George Marquardt, 47, a onetime high-school dropout clad in overalls.

As the DEA quickly learned, Marquardt is no amateur but a self-taught scientist obsessed with improvising complex drugs. And fentanyl is certainly complex. In its legal form, it's a powerful anesthetic. On the street, it's a prized artificial form of heroin, so strong it can kill users before they have time to tug the needles from their arms. Few illicit chemists have the sophistication or the equipment to make fentanyl in marketable quantities. But early in 1991, it became apparent that somebody was. Junkies in New York City began turning up dead with the drug in their blood. Similar overdoses occurred in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and other Eastern cities. By the time of Marquardt's arrest last February, the death toll had climbed to at least 126. He now awaits trial as authorities explore whether East Coast mobsters bankrolled the fentanyl operation. And the DEA, NEWSWEEK has learned, is investigating whether scientists he knew helped him make the drug.

The arrest in Kansas wasn't Marquardt's first encounter with the law. In 1978, Oklahoma narcotics agents raided a remote farmhouse lab, only to have Marquardt usher them in and proudly explain his recipe for a methamphetamine they had never heard of (He later pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the bust.) The chemist hasn't changed his ways: at a hearing in Wichita this spring, he startled a federal judge by politely stating his occupation as "drug manufacturing." Of what sort, inquired the judge. "Clandestine," Marquardt replied.

Marquardt's fascination with drugs started early. He once told a reporter that, as a schoolboy, he was captivated by an anti-drug film in which a mouse on LSD chased a cat. At 19, he stole lab equipment from the University of Wisconsin, where he worked as a researcher. At 20, he pleaded guilty to impersonating an official of the Atomic Energy Commission specializing in isotope development. In that guise, Marquardt had hoodwinked a Milwaukee college into accepting him as a lecturer in physics. "He should go on to college," a Wisconsin scientist told the Milwaukee Journal in 1965. "But he seems to be convinced that he's too smart."

Those who know Marquardt say he is motivated by the love of chemistry, not money. "He wants to be a wizard," says John Duncan, intelligence chief of the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. "He wants to bestow drugs that will magically alter consciousness." Marquardt told Duncan he made AZT for AIDS sufferers who couldn't afford the drug, and provided survivalists in the Northwest with the key component of nerve gas. Marquardt has said he solves problems by envisioning himself as one neutron within an atom, imagining how molecules might form around him. OBN's director, Elaine Dodd, points to an interview in which Marquardt mused that drug making was "the last American folk adventure ... the light in the moon ... narcotics agents chasing you all over the land. It's a fantasy made real."

This time Marquardt was tripped up when a clue from a drug dealer in Boston led narcotics agents to Marquardt's home in Wichita and to a larger lab in ail industrial park in nearby Goddard. Marquardt has said in court that he won't contest the charge of conspiracy to manufacture fentanyl; neither he nor his attorney will comment further. An alleged accomplice, a Wichita geologist named Phillip Sam Houston, knew nothing about fentanyl production, his attorney says. Two others face charges of conspiracy to distribute the drug. The Boston dealer was mysteriously shot to death hours before the DEA planned to arrest him.

Investigators believe Marquardt was betrayed by those who used his skills to turn a profit. Marquardt shipped the fentanyl East in pure form, says Barry Jamison of the DEA office in Wichita, to be cut with other powders for distribution. Pure fentanyl is lethal in doses as small as three grains of salt. Whoever cut the East Coast product, investigators say, left "hot spots" in some street bags, creating a deadly game of addict's roulette. It's not yet clear whether Marquardt knew that others were improperly cutting the drug. The DEA claims a crucial victory in his arrest: he was the only U.S. source of illegal fentanyl.

Before Marquardt's 1978 sentencing, prosecutor John Osgood gave him a tip: show a little remorse. But Marquardt, acting as his own lawyer, couldn't lie. He told the judge that drug making was his career, Osgood recalls, and he'd probably return to it when he got out of prison. This time, drug agents hope the wizard of Wichita won't get another chance.

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