In more than two decades with the Drug Enforcement Administration, Carl Kotowski had never seen anything like it.
At the conclusion of a nine-month heroin task force investigation that led to more than 100 federal agents and Baltimore police officers fanning out yesterday morning and arresting 11 people, authorities made a most unusual find: a woman's purse made entirely of $100 bills.
The illegal drug organization was "very unique in some of its concealment," Kotowski, the assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's Baltimore office, said of the suspects' hollowed-out cans of bathroom cleanser and soda cans with secret compartments to store drugs. "But not in this case."
Authorities have arrested 11 of the 21 wanted people from the Central, Western and Southwest districts of the city. Federal officials said the organization sold heroin, powder cocaine and crack, principally along Pennsylvania Avenue.
"This is part of our targeted enforcement," said city Police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, whose organized crime division helped lead the investigation.
Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy argued that the investigation showed why an emphasis on drug interdiction - and not just on the illegal use of guns - was needed to lower the city's violent crime rate.
The probe was nicknamed Operation Fowl Play by the task force because one of the principal leaders of the drug organization - who remains unidentified and at large - raises pigeons, officials said.
Agents also served 10 search and seizure warrants, including one at a Frederick Avenue shop call Fat Cats Variety where investigators found 1 million vials that could be used to hold heroin, officials said. While the 21 people sought yesterday were from a single drug organization, officials said, the stash of vials was used to package heroin for several drug organizations in the city.
The Fat Cats store had a sign that read: "To whom it may concern: These oils vials are sold only for the purpose of putting fragrant oils in. We do not sell them for any illegal use. Management." But Kotowski said agents found little evidence of the legitimate use of oils, and he considered the vials to be drug paraphernalia.
In additional to the vials, authorities seized crack, heroin, five guns, three vehicles and $20,000. Before yesterday's arrests, investigators charged 15 people and seized a kilogram of heroin, 120 grams of crack cocaine, three handguns and $40,000 in cash as part of the same operation.
"From the information we learned from those people, we believe we prevented two homicides," said Ed Marcinko, a DEA spokesman.