Matthew Lowry was out of pills and getting desperate.
The doctor who prescribed pain medication to ease his chronic and painful inflammation of the intestines had disappeared. He went to clinics, but his wife had begun questioning the bills. He was shaking, sweating, tired.
It had been four years since Lowry graduated with honors from the FBI Academy, and he had just been assigned to an elite drug task force chasing the biggest narcotics dealers along the border shared by Maryland and the District.
He was also addicted to his pain medication and going through withdrawal that felt “like the worst flu you ever had.”
His wife, pregnant with their first child, suspected. He needed to find a new way to get through the day.
As he drove home from work one August evening in 2013, Lowry remembered a man he had interrogated months earlier. He, too, had a family, a profession and an addiction to pain pills. He told Lowry that snorting heroin was “just like taking a pain pill.”
The agent pulled over near the U Street corridor. Protected from curious eyes by the tinted glass of an unmarked FBI sedan, he pulled out a bag marked “FBI evidence.”
The heroin had been seized during one of the first drug busts Lowry had worked — operation “Midnight Hustle.”
Lowry carefully broke the red evidence seal and used his finger to remove roughly a quarter-gram of brownish, powdery heroin, and he made a line three inches long on the hard cover of an FBI notebook.
He rolled a piece of paper into a straw, put it to his nose and snorted.
“Within 15 minutes, I was fine,” Lowry said. “It gave me energy. It made me feel euphoric, like I had confidence. You feel like you can take on anything.”
Lowry took heroin nearly every day for the next year, usually while in his car, usually once after work. The soothing high he felt that first day had quickly vanished, but the need for heroin never lessened.
He was taking it, Lowry told himself, “to feel normal again.”
A rise, then a fall
Lowry was using drugs when the District’s top prosecutor hailed his work helping to dismantle a coast-to-coast drug organization importing pounds of cocaine and heroin into the city. He was using drugs while living with his father, a seasoned cop with 40 years’ experience, and while his son, Luke, was born in February 2014.
For more than a year, Lowry, now 33, managed to steal heroin from his FBI office without anyone suspecting, taking advantage of lax rules for handling and tracking evidence.
He got caught only when he self-destructed and was found incoherent Sept. 29 on an empty construction lot at the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington. Lowry’s misconduct forced prosecutors to dismiss cases against 28 drug defendants, many of them convicted, putting each one back on the streets.
Now, it is Lowry who could go to prison. He will be sentenced July 9 in federal court after having pleaded guilty in March to 64 criminal charges, including obstruction of justice, tampering with evidence and possession of drugs. The FBI fired him.
“The hardest part is the unknown,” said Lowry, who spoke about his addiction and crimes during extensive interviews with The Washington Post.
“Where am I going to be a couple months from now?” the onetime agent said, holding Luke, now 16 months old. “How is my wife going to raise my son? How is she going to take care of the house? I spend as much time as I can with my wife, with my son, with my parents, because I don’t know when it’s going to stop, and I’m not going to be able to see them for an extended amount of time.”
A lifetime obsession
As far back as he can remember, Lowry wanted to be a cop. His mother sewed her young son a uniform from one of his father’s old police shirts. He liked to put on his father’s oversize police cap.
At age 7, given a day to do as he pleased, he chose to accompany his father to the annual police memorial in Washington, and he stood quietly for the solemn ceremony honoring officers killed in the line of duty. When a sergeant under his father’s command was fatally shot while arresting a drug suspect in 1988, a young Lowry watched as a procession of police cars passed for the funeral.
His father, William Lowry, is no less committed to policing. The elder Lowry got married on a Friday in 1973, and he joined the Prince George’s County police academy the following Tuesday. There was no honeymoon. He spent 27 years with the department, rising through the ranks, before leaving to head security for the Washington Redskins and later the Miami Dolphins and NASA. Now 62, he is a deacon and elder at the First Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro, Md.; his wife, Sylvia, teaches Sunday school.
Matthew Lowry, the middle child of three boys, graduated from a small private high school, Grace Brethren Christian, and sped through undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, earning a degree in criminal justice in three years. He had a 3.9 GPA and graduated magna cum laude. All as he interned with Prince George’s police, helping them find stolen cars and investigate homicides.
After school, he joined the FBI’s Washington field office as a civilian, working surveillance that often went through the night, earning a master’s degree along the way.
He met his wife, Shana, at the Front Page bar in 2008. They joked about who liked whom first, but Shana told him, “I liked you right way.” He told her he was working toward being a full-fledged agent.
“I loved it,” Shana said.
They married in 2011.
A familiar story
Matthew Lowry’s addiction to heroin began the way many do — with pain medication. He had struggled with colitis since 2007 and eventually found a doctor who helped him manage the gastrointestinal disease that causes frequent and bloody diarrhea and sharp abdominal pain.
But that doctor left private practice for research in 2010, a year after Lowry graduated from the FBI Academy. He went through four or five more doctors, and one prescribed hydrocodone, an opioid. Lowry was soon hooked on medication that eased his pain but didn’t attack his disease.
When he could no longer get the prescription meds, Lowry, like so many others, turned to heroin. Maryland’s governor has made treating heroin addicts a state priority. Last year in the state, 25 percent more people died from heroin overdoses than the year before, and double since 2010. It is a problem being felt across the country.
William Lowry knew his son struggled with his disease and with the medication he took to tame it. He had even watched him collapse in a seizure. But he did not see signs of addiction.
As a police officer, William Lowry had listened to the parents of countless addicts claim they didn’t know. Now, he was one of them.
“Now I’m looking at it through the eyes of a father,” he said. “You don’t want to see what you don’t want to see.”
By late 2012, Matthew Lowry was working drug cases. In 2013, his father left NASA and returned to policing after being named the assistant chief in Anne Arundel County.
Father and son talked shop, immersed themselves in cop shows, debated big cases and dissected tactics. They texted each other every day to make sure the other was safe.
For a long time, Lowry hid his problem. Neither his colleagues nor his bosses suspected. He was lauded at an annual awards ceremony in September 2014 for narcotics cases and for the time he chased down a carjacking suspect after overhearing a D.C. police radio transmission.
Wary of the limelight, Lowry couldn’t help reveling in his accomplishments. There were 100 agents in the room. Some won one award. Most got none. He got four.
“I was good at what I did,” Lowry said.
His certificates were for drug cases “Midnight Hustle” and “Broken Cord.” Two of the cases from which he was stealing heroin.
World crashes down
Success brought added responsibilities and pressures.
Lowry was for the first time made lead agent on a drug case. By the end of September 2014, his squad was behind writing warrants to get wiretaps to listen in on drug dealers. The prosecutor was pushing.
Matthew and Shana had moved in with his parents in Upper Marlboro while they built a new house — a $1 million, 6,200-square-foot home between Annapolis and Washington — and the strain was beginning to show. They lived in an attached apartment, but there was little privacy. Their newborn kept them up at night. The couple were arguing.
Lowry was dragging at work, and he told fellow agents he was getting little sleep with his infant son. Shana suspected something else.
The night of Sept. 28, just weeks after the awards ceremony, the couple had a bitter fight. “The argument was based on her thinking I was taking something,” Lowry said. “She couldn’t prove anything, but she knew that I was, and that I was lying about it the entire time.”
Shana stormed out with Luke, and Lowry had to come up with a cover story for his parents. He told them his wife went to visit her mother. Shana texted Matthew that he wasn’t a good husband or father.
At work the next day, Lowry finished up paperwork and left at mid-afternoon. He turned his FBI Chevrolet toward the Navy Yard. At some point, he said he took heroin. He might have snorted more than usual, he said, but his memory is fuzzy. He hadn’t had food or water all day.
His marriage, his family, his job, were crashing.
He remembers standing by his car, out of gas, in an empty construction lot across from the Marine Barracks, staring at a desperate text message from a colleague asking him where he was. He didn’t notice dozens of missed calls and texts.
Back at his home, William Lowry was getting worried. He had texted and called his son but got no response. He called his son’s colleagues, enlisting their help. When Matthew Lowry finally answered a colleague’s calls, he told him where he was. “We’ll be right there,” he recalls the agent telling him.
The agent called William Lowry. He had found his son but warned, “Bill, it doesn’t sound good.”
William Lowry panicked. “I have had two calls like that in the past, almost the exact words, almost verbatim,” he said. “One was when a member of my SWAT team was killed; the other was when a sergeant who worked for me took his own life.”
The assistant police chief for Anne Arundel County called his boss, then his pastor, preparing for the worst. He jumped in his unmarked Ford Explorer and raced, lights and siren blaring, the 20 miles into Southeast Washington, busting through red light after red light, heading to his son who he thought had been shot in the line of duty.
“I wanted to get there before he died.”
A new perspective
Matthew Lowry and his father rarely talk police work anymore. When “Cops” comes on TV and both are in the room, the father quietly turns the channel. The son notices but stays silent.
One wall of the bedroom where the son grew up is lined with police patches and crime scene tape, memories the mother wants to preserve. But at Matthew Lowry’s new home, the FBI honors are tucked in a drawer. He keeps only a coaster with the agency’s insignia on a bedside table.
Matthew Lowry didn’t tell his father he was addicted to heroin even after colleagues found him that September night. William Lowry learned only when federal investigators called days later.
“How do you tell someone you’ve idolized your entire life that you’re a heroin addict?” said the younger Lowry.
William Lowry wants to help his son, not dwell on the past.
“I have experienced the death of both of my parents, right in front of me,” the elder Lowry said. “Police officers have died in front of me. Nothing has torn at the fabric of my being as this. . . . I am not ashamed of my son. I’m proud of my son. I love him. But this has been the hardest thing that I have ever dealt with.”
Both Lowrys said the ordeal has given them a new perspective on heroin.
“When I was in narcotics, I had very little compassion for people who were drug abusers,” William Lowry said. “As a cop, I never understood how you could take the things that were important to you, your family, your job, your integrity, your career, your life, and push all that to the side.”
His son now thinks back to his days in rehab. He met fellow law enforcement officers, a firefighter, health-care professionals. “It’s people with families,” he said. “Regular members of society. People like me.”
The younger Lowry is not alone, but he feels isolated.
His former FBI co-workers have dropped out of sight, now on the other side of a criminal case. He had lied to his friends, to his wife, to his parents. His mother put together a photo album of his life — not as a keepsake, but as an exhibit for a judge.
On July 9, William Lowry plans to stand up in federal court and plead for leniency for his son.
He will show the judge the photo album, his son in an oversize police cap, his son standing at attention to honor the dead. He will read letters from his friends. His lawyer will emphasize that the drugs weren’t taken for profit, but to feed a disease.
The prosecutor might point to more than two dozen drug dealers who walked out of prison because of one agent’s drug habit, upending the hard work of his colleagues.
“I worked so hard, and now it’s gone,” Lowry said. “This is all I wanted to do, and I lost it all because of an addiction.”