Matthew Lowry always wanted to be in law enforcement. As a boy he dressed in a police uniform and was delighted when his father, a police officer, ran the lights of his police car outside their home in rural Prince George’s County in Maryland.
Lowry eventually became an FBI agent and began working major drug cases. Next week, Lowry will learn how long he will spend in prison.
The 33-year-old pleaded guilty in March to 64 criminal counts that he stole nearly 2 kilograms of heroin from evidence seized in drug cases, dipped into the bags to feed an addiction that began with prescribed painkillers, and then cut the drugs with protein powder and laxatives to cover up the crime.
"I knew what I was doing was wrong," Lowry told NBC News’ Kate Snow. "But there's also that side of me that knows what's gonna happen if I don't use that day. What's gonna happen the next couple days if, if I stop taking or if I stop using heroin? I know what's gonna happen."
The withdrawals were agony, he said. "You're sick, and you're throwing up … you just never know when it's gonna end."
The year-long scheme came to an end on Sept. 29, when felt groggy out behind the wheel of his FBI vehicle in Washington, D.C., pulled over and came to hours later as worried colleagues tried to call him. He faces between 7 and 9 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 9.
"I put so many people behind these bars ... and then all of a sudden, you know, I'm the person in the handcuffs."
Lowry said his descent from working with the nation’s preeminent investigative agency to drug addict began like many other cases: Prescribed the opioid painkiller hydrocodone after he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a painful inflammatory bowel disease, he started taking the drugs more and more frequently and became addicted.
When his doctor disappeared and the pills ran out he turned to heroin — a drug that he had easy access as a member of the FBI Cross-Border Task Force, investigating drug sales and logging evidence.
Lowry first sniffed heroin inside his FBI vehicle in 2013, when he was suffering from withdrawals from painkillers. It was supposed to be just enough to stave off the sickness, until he could figure out what to do next.
"Within a couple minutes all those withdrawals and all those feelings ... it just goes away," he said.
"I was thinking, "Okay, this is something, no one will ever know about this. This is just something that — all right, I just need to get through today. And then I'll deal with tomorrow later," Lowry said.
He soon began using it every day, just to feel normal. He knew he should stop, but kept waiting for a better time — when his wife and child were away for a weekend, or when he could take a week off work. It was just luck that he hadn’t been picked for a random drug test from 2013 to 2014, he said.
Health officials have warned that abusers of opioids like the Vicodin Lowry was prescribed often move on to heroin. Prescription opioid painkillers have the same effect on the brain and body that heroin does, but heroin is cheaper.
The use of heroin among young people rose from 122,000 people in 2002 to 272,000 in 2012, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Lowry’s career had appeared to be on an upward path. After graduating with honors in just three years from the University of Maryland at the age of 20, he applied to the FBI, was accepted and began working surveillance cases. In 2009 he was accepted to become an agent and entered the academy, and he later joined the Cross-Border Task Force, a unit that works along the borders between DC, Maryland Virginia.
"I was thinking, "Okay, this is something, no one will ever know about this. This is just something that — all right, I just need to get through today. And then I'll deal with tomorrow later."
Lowry’s theft and tampering with evidence led to 28 drug suspects going free. "I put so many people behind these bars. ... And then all of a sudden, you know, I'm the person in the handcuffs," Lowry said.
Lowry’s father, Bill Lowry, said he knew his son was on painkillers due to his condition, but had no clue of the secret he was hiding. He encouraged anyone who suspects a loved one has a problem to "ask them, and ask them again."
"Not looking through the eyes of a father … should I have seen some things?" Bill Lowry said. "To this day that kind of torments me, that if I had maybe I could have done something."
Lowry went through three months of outpatient rehabilitation after he passed out on Sept. 29, and says he has been clean ever since. He says he betrayed his colleagues at the FBI and doesn’t know what he’ll do once out of prison, but hopes to be a good father to his 16-month-old son.
"I don't know what it will be," he said. "But I know my family, hopefully my family will be there, and I'll be there for them."