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TALKING TRASH // Sheriff's deputy finds trash talks

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Hillsborough Sheriff's Deputy Wayne Daniels almost missed the pile. Driving along Harney Road, he saw the tire tracks just as he passed them. Then he slammed his truck around and pulled onto the grass.

"Fresh tracks," he said.

The mud prints stretched from an interstate overpass to the side of the road, where grass had been trampled in four paths.

Tandem wheels.

Someone took off in a double-wheeled vehicle, Daniels figured.

Whoever sped off left behind two mounds of trash: a gas water heater, a fiberglass shower, a kitchen sink, a step ladder, a faded luggage bag, empty containers of paint.

Daniels, a 6-foot-7 sheriff's deputy in cowboy boots, had found his crime. The 23-year veteran works for the environmental crimes unit of the Hillsborough sheriff's office, a staff of seven deputies who track down polluters and trash dumpers.

Daniels, who worked the streets and trained K-9 dogs for 18 years, says environmental crime-fighting is just like any other detective work: He searches the crime scene for clues, examines evidence and evaluates suspects.

Daniels' unit arrests about 50 polluters a month, said Sgt. Ron Hartley of the special operations division. Most of the busts come from dumpers who abandon tires or hazardous materials.

The environment suffers, Hartley said, but so do taxpayers. Florida law requires the county or a landowner to clear garbage even if they did not dump it. Authorities can fine polluters $150 for civil crimes or punish serious offenses with as much as 15 years in jail, Hartley said.

One way to help reduce illegal dumping, some officials believe, is to make trash pickup mandatory for Hillsborough residents via an annual charge on tax bills. The thinking goes that if people are forced to pay, they will go ahead and use garbage collection service, instead of dumping illegally for convenience or to save a few dollars.

But those who find ways to legally dispose of their garbage without hiring private haulers oppose such charges.

A morning with the environmental cops began last week with roll call in Ybor City.

Enforcement officers from the Hillsborough solid waste department, the Environmental Protection Commission and Tampa police meet twice a month to share stories about cases.

Then, the cops break up and head out to the woods and byways.

Daniels pulls into his territory in north Hillsborough in a GMC 4-by-4 with a shotgun in back. Like a vice squad officer who knows what corners to check for drug deals, Daniels knows where he can find dump sites.

Most of Daniels' stops came up clean last week. Land owned by a Pinellas church remained littered with construction material, but none of it looked new. On another parcel, Daniels found a stolen Coke machine standing in the middle of a pine grove. The Cokes were missing.

Days often end this way, with no busts, Daniels said. Deputies seldom catch polluters in the act. Instead, deputies identify dumpers by the clues they leave behind.

On this Wednesday, even that seemed too much. Daniels had pointed his truck back to Ybor when he spotted the day's find.

"This could be a big case," he said.

Early Wednesday, a truck had backed up into bushes by Interstate 75 and unloaded about 500 pounds of construction material, which appeared to come from a remodeling job.

"That is downright brazen," he said.

Bold, but not too clever.

Right away Daniels spotted boxes from Home Depot with a customer order number. With some luck, he will be able to trace the number.

A man had written his name and Social Security number on the box. The same man also identified his name and Social Security number on a military-style coat bag left in the trash.

"They get careless," Daniels said.

He photographed the scene with two cameras, making sure to snap a picture of the tire tracks. He took note of a house nearby, where neighbors might have seen someone dumping. He placed evidence in a sealed envelope.

Then he dug some more.

Yellow butterflies fluttered past the stench.

Then, in a find he later described as the most unusual of his five years on the environment unit, Daniel pulled out a tag from a TECO electric meter.

Every tag includes an ID number. The identification should tell Daniels where the trash originated. Once he knows that, he can ask the landowner who dumped his trash and when.

"Now that's a screw-up," he said.