ASHLAND -- A metal trunk rests on a sterilized table ready for forensic surgery, its four padlocks standing between men in protective suits and the elements of death and international smuggling that lie inside.
Originally shipped from Lusaka, Zambia, the trunk is one of four that spent nearly three years crisscrossing global shipping routes in a laundering attempt by a string of faceless importers trying to sneak them into Laos.
Interpol agents last year seized the trunks in Singapore. X-rays there suggested this one contains ivory tusks, likely from poached African elephants.
But the trunk also could house anthrax or other contaminants, a possibility that has kept anyone from cutting the locks and inspecting its contents — until now.
This small, isolated room was built last year inside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland for just such a trunk. The lab's scientists are just the right people to peek inside.
By morning's end, the scientists will have inspected the trunk for far more than its treasure. They will look for trace evidence — fingerprints, pollen, dead bugs, dirt, organic material, blood — that could provide clues to where these elephants lived, perhaps even to who killed them.
"Right now it's a complete mystery," says Ed Espinoza, the lab's deputy director, as he peers into the lab from behind protective glass. "We hope to find evidence that leads us to where these tusks came from, maybe even the village near where they were poached. If we're lucky, some guy's credit card fell in as he packed it. We don't know."
Then Mike Scanlan, the lab's firearms examiner, cuts the locks. Lab Director Ken Goddard, shielded by rubber gloves and a breathing apparatus, creaks open the lid.
Beneath blood-soaked nylon bags lie 18 tusks of different sizes, broken and hacked and covered in dirt but still worth up to $30,000 to ivory-carvers had they reached the Asian black market. They are waiting for Goddard's crew to decipher their story.
"Just look at those," Espinoza says. "Amazing."
Goddard never imagined he would be wearing surgical suits in an isolated lab in the early 1980s when he sketched the designs for the world's only full-service wildlife forensics lab.
Completed in 1989, the lab off East Main Street in Ashland handles scientific investigations for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and for agents in 169 foreign countries that are part of a global effort to stamp out the illegal international trade in endangered species.
The lab's unique cases quickly outgrew its facilities. Necropsies of a grizzly bear and several other animals had to be done at Goddard's rural Ashland farm. Occasionally some investigations were handled in the parking lot.
The lab now accepts about 750 cases a year. In recent years, wildlife diseases have moved to the forefront, especially as agents became more heavily involved in handling potentially contaminated animal parts from around the globe.
The service last year completed a $15 million makeover that included a special containment lab to deal with the nastiest of cases, the first of which is this trunk.
The Bio Safety Level III, called the BSL-III, is equipped with special filters and a ventilation system, so any spores or bacteria exposed in this lab stays in this lab.
The chances that this tusk-laden trunk is laced with diseases is light, Goddard says, but the risk is too great to take.
"This is from Africa and we do know there's some nasty stuff there," Goddard says. "Anthrax is certainly an issue. Here, we can protect ourselves and others from it.
"This is exactly the kind of case we should be doing," he says.
One by one, Goddard pulls the tusks from the opened trunk and places them on a separate table, and the story of their gruesome deaths begins to come into focus.
The lower ends of the tusks have a pinkish tint, most common among forest elephants. And some appear to match.
Two pairs are longer and thicker, suggesting they are from elephants at least 20 years old. Others are smaller, as if from youngsters.
"What you see are the tusks of eight to 10 elephants, perhaps a family," Espinoza says.
Standing outside and looking through the glass just a few feet away is Cookie Sims, a forensics morphologist. Like Espinoza, Sims is trained in ivory identification, and the tusks start screaming their story to her.
The light coloration on the tops show that the animals were killed and their jaws were cut out and left to decay to make their crude processing easier, Sims says. Dirt in the nerve cavities suggest they were buried, she says.
Cuts on the upper end show the bone was hacked away, probably with a machete or hatchet, to expose the ivory that would have been still growing inside the elephants' mouths at the times of their deaths.
The poachers didn't just saw the tusks off and haul them away hastily, Sims says.
"They were after all they could get," she says.
One large tusk captures Sims' attention. Inside its hollow nerve cavity is mangled ivory, evidence of an abscess. Under what would have been the gum line is evidence of a gunshot wound.
It appears this elephant was shot, survived but suffered an abscess, only to be shot again and killed, Sims says.
"That trunk," Sims says, "is like a casket."
Three other tusks sport bullet holes. One has entrance and exit wounds suggesting it was shot from behind. Others have cuts where a bullet likely ricocheted off.
Goddard detects some discoloring from gunpowder residue, suggesting it was shot with a shotgun at very close range. The kill shot, perhaps.
One small tusk contains a smear of red paint, like a transfer from getting tossed into a vehicle.
"They drive a lot of Isuzus in Africa," says Espinoza, a veteran of African investigations like this. "My guess is we're looking for poachers in a red Isuzu."
Last out of the trunk is its liner, an empty nylon bag of Asian rice with a logo of two red elephants.
In all, Espinoza says, it appears the animals were killed and their jaws removed and buried while they decayed. Eventually, the jaws were dug up, the tusks removed and somewhere along the line the tusks were placed in this metal trunk — maybe packed in some Asian restaurant somewhere, he says.
"We have more hypotheses than time," Espinoza says.
Besides, it's the little things inside the trunk that are most telling.
"Trace evidence is going to be the most important thing we find, by far," Goddard says.
Suddenly, some of that trace evidence begins to move.
Goddard brushes away some of the loose dirt, revealing a small red spider walking toward his hand. He withdraws as if it is a grizzly bear. Then some fly larvae wiggle free.
Goddard places them in a plastic case, then holds them up for view to a growing number of lab scientists drawn by the spectacle.
"I don't know what the hell they are," Espinoza says. " But they look nasty."
A shake of the nylon bag exposes a pair of bright green adult flies, possibly tse-tse flies. They will be sent to Pete Schroeder, a forensic entomologist at Southern Oregon University, for identification.
They could be region-specific insects that could help nail down where these tusks originated, or at least where they were buried, Espinoza says.
One tusk sports a clean bullet entry but no exit wound. It's probably inside the tusk. Once removed, it could help match the gun used to poach that elephant.
Dave Stoney, a pollen expert flown in from Washington, D.C., for this investigation, takes dirt scrapings from inside some of the tusk cavities. Isotope studies could reveal were the dirt came from.
Blood scraped from the tusks will go to geneticists.
"That could tell us what elephant population it came from," Espinoza says.
The trunk's interior is laced with rusted red blemishes. They are fingerprints left by whoever packed the trunk, and they turned to rust over time by the salt in their owners' sweat.
Then a wasp nest falls from inside a tusk cavity. And finally, fragments of a leaf are found at the bottom of the trunk. Both could also identify a region, even an area, in Africa.
Goddard skips through the BSL-III's double-chamber like a kid running downstairs on Christmas morning.
"We certainly got a lot more than we thought," he says. "We didn't expect bullets. We certainly didn't expect insects. They're probably the most significant find because they can be region-specific.
"What we're seeing is probably all the raw data we need," he says.
But it's probably still not enough to solve the crime, Goddard says.
Hopes that scientists in Ashland can finger African poachers and Asian ivory smugglers appear out of reach even for Goddard. Yet this is far from an academic exercise.
Weeks' worth of analyses could put together enough pieces of this smuggling mystery to help African wildlife agents know where to start.
"Maybe the best we can do is focus investigators where the smuggling exists," Goddard says. "Maybe down to a village? That would be lovely if we could take it that far."
The raw data will find its way into Interpol databases that might help crack other cases.
Ballistics on the bullet could help identify a gun found in a hut somewhere in Zambia someday. Fingerprints could one day match those of a suspect in another crime. Pinpointing the herd where these tusks came from could help agents better protect what's left.
"Obviously, there must be a lot of people in a lot of countries involved," Goddard says. "We're shedding a little light on it."
The BSL-III's maiden voyage is a success, certainly a far better space than the lab's parking lot.
"We would have lost half, or even three-fourths, of our evidence," Goddard says. "The bugs would have flown away and who knows what we would have lost to the wind."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.