She was a freshman on an academic scholarship at Bryn Mawr College, preparing to fly home to California for Christmas, sleep-deprived, with questions from a calculus exam still racing through her head.
In the space of a few hours on Dec. 21, 2003, Janet Lee landed in a Philadelphia jail cell, where she would remain for three weeks, held on $500,000 bail and facing 20 years in prison on drug charges.
All over flour found in her luggage.
"I haven't let myself be angry about what happened, because it would tear me apart," Lee said. "I'm not sure I can bear to face it... . I'm amazed at how naive I was."
That naivete, she said, began when screeners at Philadelphia International Airport inspecting her checked luggage found three condoms filled with white powder. Lee laughed and told city police they were filled with flour. It was just part of a phallic gag at a women's college, she told them, a stress-reliever, something to squeeze while studying for exams.
The police didn't find it funny. They told her a field test showed that the powder contained opium and cocaine.
A lab test later proved the substance was flour - and no one now disputes that Lee is innocent, including the prosecutor.
But the case returned to the courts last week as Lee filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against city police. The lawsuit seeks damages for pain and suffering, financial loss, and emotional distress.
Capt. Benjamin Naish, a spokesman for the Police Department, declined to comment, noting that the department rarely comments on litigation. Cathie Abookire, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, also declined to comment.
Lee's lawsuit seeks to answer a central question: Why did the police field test initially conclude that the white powder contained drugs?
Her lawyers, former prosecutors David Oh and Jeremy Ibrahim, say there are two possibilities: Either the field test was faulty or someone fixed the results.
Ellen Green-Ceisler, who directed the Police Department's Office of Integrity and Accountability from 1997 to 2005, called Lee's case highly unusual. Field tests are rarely wrong.
'Almost Never Happens'
"I've looked at thousands of these cases, and in the context of trained narcotics officers, it almost never happens," she said. "The whole issue will come down to the field test. Was the officer trained? Was the test contaminated?"
Ibrahim said he waited to file the lawsuit until last week, on the eve of the end of the two-year statute of limitations, because Lee needed time to process what happened.
"She was devastated emotionally," Ibrahim said, noting that the event became a minor scandal among her Korean American family and friends. "She lost significant face with this event."
Many records in the case are still confidential, not yet accessible even to Lee's lawyers. What is undisputed is that she was detained at the airport shortly before she was to board a plane to Los Angeles. Court records confirm her arrest and three-week detention on drug charges. Records also confirm why prosecutors dropped the charges.
Lee, who is now a junior comparative-literature major at Bryn Mawr, gave the following account in an interview this week.
Just before she was to board the plane, someone called her name on the public-address system, and she reported to the ticket counter.
An officer told her that she had something in her luggage that shouldn't be there.
"I was like, 'Is it my curling iron? Because it's metal?' He was like, 'No, something else.' "
The officer asked about the white powder in the condoms.
They were filled with flour, she said, and were silly stress-relief contraptions that she had made with classmates as part of a freshman rite of passage in her Main Line dorm.
'It's A Girl Thing'
"I tried to explain that it was a joke, a gag gift for friends. It's a girl thing. I said, 'You squeeze them to reduce stress.' "
Police stared skeptically. They took her to the Southwest Detective Division, where they tested the powder. Lee figured it would be sorted out soon.
"Mostly, I was worried because I had missed my flight, and now I had to make up an excuse to tell my parents."
When the detective returned, he said the powder tested positive for opium. Police returned her to her cell. "I started hyperventilating," Lee recalled. "The detective was very nice, and said he would test again."
The result was the same.
She said that someone came by her cell and read her an arrest warrant, which mentioned amphetamines. Then police fingerprinted and photographed her. She called her father but couldn't quite express herself through her tears and panic.
"A detective gave me a hug because I was crying so hard," she said.
Police put her into a van for the trip to court. She said she overheard talk about "a kilo."
"Up to that point, I still thought it was a joke, that someone was trying to teach me a lesson," she said. "I was telling everyone my story, and no one believed me - except the people locked up inside with me."
Because the amount of powder was so large, Lee faced 20 years in prison. A judge set bail at $500,000. He also mentioned something about cocaine.
"That's when it sunk in that they were serious," she said. "I said, 'I didn't do it. It's flour.' No one listened."
At that point, having just finished her finals, she had been up for four straight days, she said. "I'm the kind of person who can sleep anywhere or eat anything, but I stopped eating and sleeping," she said.
Later, she hit a bit of luck. A prison guard recognized her from a Bryn Mawr volunteer job at Overbrook High School and took pity on her. The guard told Lee that she believed her and that the whole thing was probably racial. The guard got her a trashy romance novel to help kill time.
Lee acted tough to protect herself. She did modern-dance moves to keep limber. Inmates saw this and gossiped: "Everyone thought I knew karate because I'm Asian." She certainly didn't discourage the stereotype.
Inmates saw the high volume of visitors and figured she was important. Again, she did not discourage the notion. She did not tell her cell mates that the visitors were actually volunteers from Catholic churches in Philadelphia who had taken up her cause.
The volunteers helped her hire Oh.
"I believed her story because things just didn't add up," Oh said. For one thing, Oh said, the field tests were odd because they detected the presence of not one drug but three.
"People don't mix drugs like that," Oh said.
First, Oh contacted Bryn Mawr and confirmed that Lee's dorm mates had, in fact, made the condoms together during a pre-exam session they call a "hall tea."
Then, Oh said, he called Assistant District Attorney Charles Ehrlich, who agreed to expedite laboratory tests. Ehrlich also agreed to help seek reduced bail, Oh said. A day after the new test came back and confirmed that the substance was flour, Lee was released.
She flew home first class.
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