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.

The meeting almost ended before it began, when Henry was patted down by a Rojas employee who, fortunately for Henry and Gilbert, overlooked the cell phone case. The meeting went forward as planned.

Later, after listening to the tape, Gilbert and Hardee knew they had something hot. On the tape, Rojas acknowledges that he had contacted DERM and a fire department to find out how much it would cost to legally dispose of the drums. Rojas didn't mention the actual cost at the meeting, and DERM officials say they don't have a record of the phone call. But, for comparison's sake, the BER later spent more than $50,000 processing and disposing of the 37 drums taken from the County Line location.

Henry told Rojas that his friend wasn't interested in disposing of anything that might be flammable. But, he added, he "knew a gringo" who would do the job. A meeting was set up for the following day.

Gilbert already had his "gringo" picked out: Phil Shoemaker, a friend who worked in the Resource Protection Unit of the Florida Marine Patrol, a branch of the DLE. The resource protection unit is more concerned with poachers than polluters, but Shoemaker seemed like the perfect choice. Why? "I looked like your basic dirtbag," answers Shoemaker. With a long, bushy ponytail hanging past his shoulders and an even bushier beard spilling over the collar of his shirt, "I could have gone outside and sat down on the curb at NW 75th Street and I-95, and I'd have fit right in," he says. "You'd have never known the difference."

The next day Henry brought Shoemaker to the warehouse, where he introduced the undercover enviro-cop as "Morris," a man with a truck and an interest in making money. After a brief excursion to the warehouse yard to show him the drums in question, Rojas brought Morris into the office of Rojas' father and business partner, Manuel E. Rojas. As Shoemaker recalls it, there was absolutely no chitchat involved. "It just became very apparent, very quickly, that the only thing that mattered to them was money," he says. "This was pure economics. They didn't care about anything else."

Shoemaker led off with a price of $15 for every drum that didn't have toxic material, and $25 for every drum that did. Because some of the drums were clearly marked "toxic," he planned on charging $25 per drum for the whole bunch. Rojas Jr. said that because some of the drums contained only water (which was true, as it turned out), he shouldn't have to pay the surcharge on every drum. But Shoemaker didn't budge. "I told him that my price for taking every one of those drums out into the Everglades and dumping them where nobody would ever find them was $25 per drum," he recalls.

So Rojas Jr. got out a calculator and came up with a total charge of $750, 30 drums at $25 per drum. Shoemaker agreed, and -- just to make sure -- again explained to Rojas Jr. that the drums were going straight into the Everglades. "[Rojas Jr.] lived out there [in Weston] and really didn't care where he dumped them," Gilbert later reported. "If questioned later about the drums, he would say he came to work one day and the drums were gone. If anything further came of it, he could just fire his father, and then nothing could be done to him about the drums." Business concluded, and the men shook hands.

The next day, Shoemaker and Henry returned with a rental truck and loaded up the drums as promised. Because of the noxious odor, and for safety's sake, the two men donned surgical masks and rubber gloves. About halfway through the job, a man Shoemaker had never seen before drove up in a pickup truck and told the forklift operator to get himself a surgical mask too. "That stuff's poison! It'll kill you!" he shouted. It was just about then that the contents of one of the drums sloshed over Shoemaker's arms.

The next few weeks were taken up with field-processing and lab work. The processing -- shooting photographs, writing detailed descriptions, reading shipping labels, establishing a chain of custody -- took place at a temporary field center set up at the Florida Marine Patrol's Port Everglades headquarters. The work was supervised by Cathy Porthouse, who was waiting for the arrival of the Ryder truck immediately after Shoemaker drove off the warehouse lot.

Content samples were sent for testing to the Tallahassee lab of the national environmental contractor Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. On May 20, 1997, the results came back: Of the 37 drums collected, nine had been found to contain materials defined by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as hazardous. The more prominent chemicals included toluene, ethyl benzene, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, and heavy naphtha. Transporting hazardous materials without a license is a second-degree felony.

As the lab work proceeded, the prosecution seemed to be moving forward as well. A week after the sting, Gilbert met with Miami-Dade prosecutor Gary Winston, who "reviewed the case and advised that his office would prosecute the felony case," according to court records. Then, on June 18, 1997, Gilbert sat down with Winston again. In a memorandum of the meeting, Gilbert wrote that an affidavit in support of a warrant for arrest had been filed, listing four felony charges: Knowingly disposing of hazardous waste at a place other than a hazardous waste facility; causing hazardous waste to be transported without a manifest; knowingly failing to file an application, or record, when disposing of a hazardous waste; and causing and authorizing an imminent hazard to occur.

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