Cops Mistake Baking Soda For Cocaine, Innocent Couple Jailed For 2 Months

By Keri Blakinger 11/21/16

Faulty $2 drug testing kits landed an elderly working-class couple behind bars for over two months. 

Cops Mistake Baking Soda For Cocaine, Innocent Couple Jailed For 2 Months

One couple just wanted to treat their upset stomachs—but it landed them behind bars when police mistook their bags of baking soda for ounces of cocaine.

Gale Griffin and her husband Wendall Harvey are truck drivers who haul explosives for the military. During a routine inspection in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas last May, police came across baggies of baking soda in the couple’s vehicle. 

“I use baking soda for everything,” Griffin told ABC affiliate KATV. But when she and her hubby are on long, cross-country routes, they don’t bring a whole bulk tub of it. Instead, Griffin puts some in a sandwich bag to carry along. Over the course of many trips, partially filled baggies ended up scattered about the trailer. 

But when Fort Chaffee police came across the unidentified white powder, they called in the local narcotics unit to investigate the nature of the seemingly suspicious baking supplies. 

"They thought we had like 13.2 ounces of cocaine, and the guy said I had over $300,000 in cocaine," said Griffin.

Harvey, a former cop, couldn’t believe it when two different test kits identified the substance as cocaine. "You don't even doubt the tests because I guess I'm stupid, I'm just a citizen and it never occurred to me that the tests were invalid,” he said. 

But the tests—$2 Narcotics Identification Kits commonly used by law enforcement nationwide—is surprisingly error-prone. 

In fact, in Florida, the Department of Law Enforcement Lab Systems found that 21% of substances tested for meth gave false positives. 

But the police didn’t know it was a false positive, so they sent the couple off to the county jail, where they waited 10 days for a lawyer. Because they didn’t have important phone numbers memorized, it took them four weeks to get in touch with family. 

In June, the couple finally heard back from a lawyer, who asked the prosecutor to re-test the supposed drugs in a crime lab. In July, the prosecutor asked the state to expedite the testing. And on July 14—more than two months after the initial arrest—the lab finally figured out it was baking soda and the beleaguered couple was released. 

"We're not chemists, and we don't roll with a chemistry set in the back of a police car," said Fort Chaffee Police Chief Chuck Bowen. 

The couple have lost their jobs and are relying on family and friends to make ends meet. The couple's grandchildren have set up a GoFundMe account to help them recuperate the money and work that was lost while they were behind bars. 

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.