Mad gassers burgle Button, or not

When I saw this story, a veritable cacophony of buzzers and warning sirens went off in my head. Readers may not be aware of how old this legend of gassing is and how LITTLE evidence there exists that supports any of it being true. But, here we go again…

Anaesthetic gas may have been used against Jenson Button and his wife Jessica during a burglary in France, the Formula 1 driver’s spokesman says.

Source: Jenson Button burglary: Gas suspected in F1 driver break-in

Button’s spokesman said: “Two men broke into the property whilst they all slept and stole a number of items of jewellery including, most upsettingly, Jessica’s engagement ring.

“The police have indicated that this has become a growing problem in the region with perpetrators going so far as to gas their proposed victims through the air conditioning units before breaking in.”

Some facts: The two were in a rental house, sleeping, when theft occurred. There was no reported smell or other physical reports of a gas. No one saw gas tanks. An A/C unit does not pull gas from the outside. The reason that gas was suggested was because they didn’t wake up and then felt “unwell”.

Who wouldn’t feel unwell after such a shock?

This story fails on so many levels.

The gas. There is no inexpensive, easy to obtain, odorless, colorless, quickly dissipating gas that will keep you sleeping and not have a high likelihood of killing you. Anesthetic gas, such as nitrous oxide, used for medical procedures is administered in controlled conditions. Xenon is more effective but prohibitively expensive and requires specialized equipment. Carbon dioxide and monoxide will suffocate you – it’s pretty stupid to risk murder for some jewelry. Gas remnants would be detected. Since many of these gases would be heavier than air, they would sink and not dissipate. They would leave residue.

The method. Nitrous oxide doesn’t do a great job to keep you under. A HUGE amount would be needed to fill even a room in a house to be effective. The culprits would have to transport the tanks, inject gas into the air from INSIDE (not outside unless they opened a window or gained access to the ventilation system from the outside by force). Then, they would have to carry an air supply for themselves while they removed items, all the while hoping that things worked as planned. Then, how did they remove traces of gas?

The history. There have been no case of people dying from such events. Or children, or pets which would be more susceptible. If it’s as widespread as some cops and security experts claim, there should be plenty of citable evidence. The legend has been passed around as a possible means of incapacitating victims since at least 1909. Just because there is no evidence for this method of enhanced burglary does mean police don’t believe it. As we know, officials regularly subscribe to silly and false beliefs and convince the public they are true.

Sports stars seem particularly prone to this type of “crime”. In 2006, footballer Patrick Vieira claimed he was gassed and robbed in the French Riviera. In September, 2011, it seemed to be a trend at upscale Italian villas. Note, in this case, once again, gassing is suspected but no evidence ever comes out of it. The “gassing gangs” of the 2011 Sardinia summer were more of an urban legend. But the media never clarified that, so people went on believing robberies had this nefarious additional aspect.

Gassing train compartments in Europe is a decades old legend that, once again, has little to support it as genuine. It’s hard to imagine how it would work. A modern equivalent is gassing campers.

The most famous American gassing stories come from 1920s and 30s Botetort County, Virginia and Mattoon, Illinois. A “mad gasser” or “phantom anesthetist” was said to pump a sickening gas into homes. Again, no gas traces were found and the cases are lumped into mass hysteria, better described as a collective delusion, based on cultural fears of the time.

Sensational tabloids like the Daily Mail are great as passing on these stories as true. In each case, the evidence is lacking and the police never confirm the victim was gassed. But the stories are so ubiquitous, people assume they really happened as noted.

I did find some reports (Source: The Straight Dope) that had been translated from a Swedish paper that remnants of hexane were found in campers that had been robbed. However, I don’t have the original sources or details. Hexane can be in the environment from auto exhaust.

How does using gas to subdue people normally work? Well, very badly. In 2002, Russian police raided a Moscow theater by using an aerosol version of a powerful, fast-acting opiate called Fentanyl to subdue Chechen extremists holding 750 hostages. It killed about 170 people. In this piece, research scientists note that it’s possible to develop a calmative gas but we aren’t there yet and it’s a big effort, not a efficient way of robbing someone.

Officials have done blood test on Button to see if they can find a mystery substance. But stories of rich people waking up with what feels like a hangover to find they’ve been robbed thousands apparently needs a extra boost in drama.

  12 comments for “Mad gassers burgle Button, or not

  1. August 7, 2015 at 3:06 PM

    You’re right – these stories have been around forever.

    I was reminded of the book “Extraodinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles Mackay, published in 1841. Readers might find it interesting. It’s available for free on the Gutenburg website. I seem to recall there was something in there about “mad gassers”, amongst other things.

    I had no idea Fentanyl could be used in an aerosol form. I can only hope that doesn’t make it onto the black market – people are already dying from chewing the patches.

  2. Kevin Fries
    August 7, 2015 at 4:13 PM

    I love doubtful news, and you do a great job of analyzing, debunking, and critiquing all the crazy crap that gets reported. And I also agree that this report of gassing is likely untrue. However, this is one of those rare times I disagree with you. While “knockout” gas like nitrous oxide and even hexane might not be all that useful, even fentanyl is not really potent enough (the Russians probably used carfentanil (or one of the many other fentanyl derivatives), 1000 times stronger than fentanyl (which is already 100 times as strong as morphing) there have definitely been cases of gassing, and there was a verified string of serial rapes committed in Bolivia using anesthetic gas.

    While I know Vice is not a scientific publication, they did an excellent job of reporting on what happened in a small Mennonite community in Bolivia. Vice was not the only publication to detail what happened either. Several men were convicted of a number of offenses using a veterinary anaesthetic gases piped into bedrooms to knock out married couples, and rape the women. The couples would wake up in the morning, the women often not where they went to sleep, feeling hung over, sick, unwell in general. The women would find rope marks around the hands sometimes. It took a long time for anybody to figure out what was happening, or even if anything was happening, and victims were not believed for a long period of time. Eventually 8 men were charged, some caught in the act, and convicted on 130 counts.

    I realize how crazy this sounds, it definitely is similar to the types of spurious reports that you commonly report on, but not only is this not impossible, it very definitely has happened.

    Speaking as a past pharmacist, current researcher, I know of a number of psychoactive drugs that can be made into aerosols, or that are already gases, that are very powerful and potent, readily available (especially in rural areas where there is a lot of large animal veterinarians), in large quantities, and not necessarily expensive. One need not even go to animal medicine – there are a number of anesthetic gases used in regular surgery (sevoflurane methoxyflurane) that are very quickly vaporized and only require minute amounts to anesthetize people.

    Given that the bedrooms of these houses were very small, the windows likely open due to the heat, there was no A/C or central air (this is a no-electricity Old Order Mennonite community), all the factors that would normally make this difficult, if not impossible, to do were absent, all the things that would make this easier to do were present.

    While most of these are very short acting, it would be relatively easy to dose people with longer acting drugs once asleep to keep them asleep longer – which is what was probably done in Bolivia, which is why they felt sick in the morning.

    While this may make me sound less than credible, I did have a relative in this area at the time, and the shock to the community was definitely real.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleeping_gas
    http://www.vice.com/read/the-ghost-rapes-of-bolivia-000300-v20n8

  3. August 7, 2015 at 6:21 PM

    I saw that article. I don’t disagree. However that is very different circumstances than this claim.

  4. VilaWolf
    August 7, 2015 at 11:21 PM

    I wonder if any of the psychological journals have been keeping up with this. I know the “Phantom Gasser” case was studied for decades as a sort of side-bar-example of mass hysteria. With the people who claim to have been targets of “gasser thieves” and the obvious xenophobia present in the reporters articles, surely there’s been mention in a Psych Journal.

  5. Bill T.
    August 8, 2015 at 12:27 AM

    thanks for the tip. I, for one, will be checking it out.

  6. Gary
    August 8, 2015 at 11:21 AM

    Correction. Window a/c units do bring in outside air.

  7. Sk3ptik0
    August 10, 2015 at 11:39 PM

    It’s more likely that Button had just received the latest report from Honda Mclaren from his team and decided to read it to his friends and his wife. thus putting them all to sleep.

    Else, Honda could have just delivered a new riding lawnmower and that machine was so slow and underpowered that put everyone too sleep.

    The burglars, knowing what kind of season Button and Mclaren are having probably just waited for such an occasion and broke into the house.

    It it also possible Button commissioned the burglars himself to see if they could steal all the remaining Honda Engines for the rest of the season and there was simply a misunderstanding.

  8. Dave G
    August 11, 2015 at 10:07 AM

    There is some truth to the Mad Gasser of Mattoon story. Both Fortean Times and the Damn Interesting website wrote stories about it in 2006.

  9. August 11, 2015 at 6:09 PM

    There are journal papers and books written on it. However, it doesn’t make the “story” told by witnesses true.

  10. Dave G
    August 18, 2015 at 11:33 PM

    I said SOME truth. The story had gotten embellished over the years, as invariably happens.

  11. Mike R
    October 24, 2015 at 8:25 PM

    This is absolutely possible and in fact is the modus operandi of a sociopathic eunich in Sunrise Florida. This psychopath not only robs the victims, but rapes, maims and kills them as well, including children. He connects a barbecue grill tank full of nitrous oxide to the AC drain pipe. Once the AC kicks on he opens the valve and the AC draws in the gas and blows it out the vents. He enters the house with a gas mask, an exterminators tank full of more nitrous for direct application, and a dropper bottle of knockout drops, probably Ghb. People need to have carbon monoxide detectors connected to alarm systems and video security to defend against this.

  12. October 24, 2015 at 8:29 PM

    You will have to supply sources for this. That’s quite a story.

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