Toxic Justice

Investigators caught Manuel E. Rojas and his company attempting to dump toxins in the Everglades. Sounds like a simple case to prosecute. It wasn't.

From a distance, the midmorning scene in the fenced-in yard of a warehouse storage company in northern Miami-Dade County was so common as to be commonplace: two men standing in the open cargo bay of a panel truck, waiting for a series of metal drums to be lifted and loaded, one by one, into the truck by forklift.

This, after all, is what they did at County Line Moving and Storage. They moved things.

But then Phillip Shoemaker was not watching from a distance. He was one of the men standing in the cargo bay, and from that vantage point he couldn't help but notice that some of the details of this workday scene were anything but common.

For instance, the drums. It isn't every day a cluster of rusty metal and blue plastic drums is loaded onto a rented Ryder truck. Furniture, one would expect. But drums like these?

Most of them were standard 55-gallon metal drums; a couple were larger, holding 80 gallons; four were smaller and made of blue and black plastic. Some had ill-fitting, lopsided lids, others no lids at all. The metal drums were covered with patches of rust, and all were coated with drips and splatters of various hues -- pink, brown, red, blue, gray, and black. One had what appeared to be part of a ceiling fan stuck to it. And, while most were labeled, the writing was largely obscured and appeared to be in German.

Nobody knew where the drums had come from, or how long they'd been sitting in this corner of County Line's property. As the forklift jerked the barrels off the ground, liquid sloshed over their rims, onto the truck bed, even onto Shoemaker's arms.

Whatever the liquid was, the knowledge that it had touched his skin was making Shoemaker feel ill. In fact, the smell alone, which he later described as a "noxious odor," was sickening. But he'd expected as much; that's why he and his helper had brought along surgical masks and rubber gloves, which evidently weren't long enough to protect his arms.

But the strangest detail of all -- and also, to Shoemaker's mind, the most bothersome -- was the flash of metal that every so often peeked out of the forklift driver's waistband. He was obviously armed. And he wasn't the only one. Looking around, Shoemaker noticed "three guys standing around carrying guns," he recalls.

As he stood in the truck bay, facing a row of stinking drums, he considered the implications of everyone in sight being armed. Everyone but him. He decided to get out of the truck.

"All things considered, that didn't seem to be the best place to be, standing up in there surrounded by walls on three sides," he says. Once on the ground, he casually sidled around the corner of the truck and walked to the driver's side of the cab. Opening the door, he ducked his head and shoulders into the cab, reached behind the driver's seat, and unholstered his own gun. He put it between the seats, covered it with a newspaper, and ducked back out, leaving the cab's door open. If anything went wrong, he wanted to make sure he could make a beeline for the gun.

Across the street, Shoemaker's partner, Guy Gilbert, an investigator working for the Division of Law Enforcement (DLE) of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), stood behind the window of a fire station, silently watching, willing himself to wait. He says he knew that "if anything bad happened, I'd have been too far away to help."

But from that point on, everything rolled forward without a hitch. The drums were loaded, the rear door of the truck was hauled shut, and Shoemaker drove out of the front gate of the warehouse yard.

As he did so, the tension fell away from his body and mind. The difficult, dangerous, and stressful phase of the investigation was over. With only two days' planning, Gilbert and Shoemaker had pulled off a sting operation that had prevented yet another South Florida business from saving money by dumping toxic substances illegally.

Now all they had to do was finish up the lab work, serve the subpoenas, and help out the prosecutors. The evidence was in. They had the company's owners -- residents of Miami and Weston -- on tape, making a deal with Shoemaker to dump the drums in the Everglades. To the pair of veteran DEP investigators, the case seemed solid as a rock, in Gilbert's words, "one of the strongest environmental cases I've ever put together." The next day, he was filling out paperwork when he came across the following question on a briefing report: "What is the anticipated length and result of the investigation?" His confident assessment: "I anticipate it will take approximately two weeks for the investigation and procurement of arrest warrants."

He was wrong. Not until two years later were arrests made, and by that time Gilbert's case had been dropped by a county prosecutor and picked up by the federal government. Punishing the polluters, he found out, was a lot more complicated than catching them in the act.

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