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.
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.
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.