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.

This was one of those times.
"Basically, we got lucky," says Gilbert. "We found some shipping labels on the drums, and we were able to trace them back to an address in Hialeah. That address turned out to belong to an empty warehouse, so we had a talk with the property owner. He told us a fly-by-night company by the name of ARSCO International had recently abandoned its lease and moved out suddenly, leaving behind a mess. He admitted that the mess included some drums and said he'd hired a guy to clean up the space and haul away the trash."

In March 1997 Gilbert tracked down this man -- a man he'll refer to only as "Henry" -- and began asking questions. Henry turned around and pointed his finger at the landlord.

"Yeah, [Henry] had been hired to clean out the warehouse, but he said there'd been another truck -- he remembered it was yellow; it looked like a Ryder truck -- and he remembered it hanging around one day while he was working, loading up something. He didn't pay too much attention," says Gilbert.

One thing was obvious: Somebody, either Henry or the landlord, was lying. The question was who. "At this point, one and one just weren't adding up to two," Gilbert recalls. "Basically we had the owner of the property telling us one thing and this guy Henry telling us another thing."

It's at this point that environmental criminal investigations often break down, local prosecutors say. The reason? It's not enough to simply establish a connection between an abandoned drum and a place of business. "It's not an actual crime until we determine intent, motive, capability, opportunity -- all the elements necessary to make a viable criminal case," Gilbert explains.

Palm Beach County prosecutor Darren Shull recalls a case in which sheriff's deputies came across roofing debris that had been dumped illegally. "Searching through the debris, they found a pizza box which had an address on it," Shull says. "When they went to that address, the deputies noticed that the house had a new roof. So they asked the owner of the house who had done his roofing job. Eventually, they backtracked to the guy who'd been driving the truck."

Instead of asking the driver whether he knew anything about the debris, they simply told him they'd found the mess and he needed to clean it up. But they didn't mention the location of the dumpsite. The deputies then waited to see if the man would drive to the right dumpsite, which he promptly did -- thus providing proof that, at the very least, he had knowledge of the illegal dumping. But the deputies waited until the driver had reloaded the debris before arresting him. They didn't want the state to have to pay for the cleanup.

In his case Gilbert took a similar approach with his main suspect. As lead investigator, he made a tactical decision to make nice with Henry, while surreptitiously checking him out. It was a decision that would later prove controversial. "We decided to try to build a rapport with him," Gilbert says, "because we didn't have any solid evidence to connect him with the drums." (The landlord was charged with transporting hazardous waste, but the case was settled without adjudication; the landlord ended up paying a fine of $15,500.)

For Henry, the friendly arrangement was a godsend. He was already on probation for a theft conviction, and an arrest for illegal dumping, a felony, could have put him in prison for five years. Over the next few weeks, Henry deluged Gilbert and Shoemaker with phone calls: Did they want to be lead to a truckload of stolen frozen foods? How about power tools? Sports equipment? Tires? Medical equipment? But none of it panned out.

"Basically, he's a con man," says Shoemaker. "Any officer with four or five years experience, he's going to run across guys like Henry. He wants to talk, so you say, 'OK, we'll talk,' and he just keeps talking. Now if you have the patience to sift through the dregs, a lot of times you'll find a useful nugget. And that's what we did."

That nugget appeared on April 22, 1997, when Henry told Gilbert he'd just been contacted by a company that wanted to hire him for a dumping job involving some kind of poison. Was he interested?

Tell me more, was Gilbert's reply.

Manuel J. Rojas, co-owner of a Miami outfit known as County Line Moving and Storage, wanted Henry to remove debris from the company's warehouse. Henry told Gilbert he'd done jobs for County Line in the past; but this time, as he and the owner were discussing a fee, Rojas suddenly asked whether Henry could "dispose of about 30 drums containing various chemicals that would be very costly to dispose of legally," according to court documents. When Henry replied that he knew someone who might be interested in the job, Rojas "said he did not care if he dumped the drums into the ocean; he just wanted to get rid of them."

It took Gilbert and fellow DEP investigator Tim Hardee less than a day to arrange the sting. Later that same April afternoon, Hardee met Henry near the warehouse and wired him with an audio cassette recorder hidden in a cell phone case. Henry went to the warehouse and met again with Rojas, a resident of Weston.

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