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DETECTIVE'S JOB IS TO SNIFF OUT ILLEGAL DUMPERS

It makes a difference, says a member of the Sheriff's Office Environmental Crimes Unit.

The veteran investigator combed the makeshift landfill, stopping occasionally to snap photos to help him close this case.

But Detective Charles Freeman wasn't looking for evidence. It was all around him, acres of it, knee high piles of worn out tires, two small abandoned boats, junked computers and televisions and lots more, all dumped in a field without the land owner's permission.

The puzzle Freeman grappled with was figuring out who put it there. Weeks and months after the dumping, such cases are almost impossible to solve.

"I don't get a rush when I catch the person who's been illegally dumping, just like I don't get depressed if I don't catch them," he said. He just does the best investigation possible based on what he can find.

For eight years, Freeman has been a detective in the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Environmental Crimes Unit. He and eight other deputies spend their days investigating complaints about litter. They write citations and try to shut down hauling companies that dump illegally.

He admits its not the most glamorous job on the force, but it still makes a difference.

"Part of the job is education," the 49-year-old Pensacola native said. "And when you get a $105 ticket for leaving a garbage bag on the sidewalk, you'll think twice about doing that again."

However, the Sheriff's Office doesn't respond every time someone drops a cup on the sidewalk.

Cases are usually referred to the Environmental Crimes Unit from the Hillsborough County Solid Waste Department if its half a dozen investigators have trouble solving it, Freeman said.

Each detective carries a caseload of 12 to 14 per month, said J.D. Callaway, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

The two boats in the field were just one folder in a thick briefcase - waiting to be solved.

- - -

It was barely 8 a.m. on a recent Tuesday when Freeman got an e-mail from a fellow detective about a woman whose property had become littered with other people's junk.

He hopped into his Ford F-250 - a standard issue truck for a environmental detective - and mapped out his stops for the day on his laptop.

When he arrived, Jessica Marshall's 50 acres near East Bay High School on Bullfrog Creek Road look more like a local dump than an undeveloped tract.

An old Cypress tree shaded an electronic graveyard of computers, TVs and gadgets that outlived their usefulness.

And as the road curved past a gutted house covered in graffiti into a clearing, two boats, and piles of tires, children's toys, and household items appeared strewn across what might have been a yard at one time.

She told Freeman the offenders had been breaking her lock and chain to get onto the property. The last time was about six weeks before.

Fed up after having to have several broken down vehicles towed off, Marshall reported the illegal dumping to the Sheriff's Office.

As Freeman looked around, he noticed the boats still had their vehicle identification numbers. That doesn't usually happen and it's a help. The numbers lead to names.

And the names could lead to answers. But first he had to take pictures.

- - -

Freeman said he isn't worked up about there being no real criminals to catch in his current line of work.

"If I had this job when I was still a young cop looking for that adrenaline rush, it may be a different story," he said. But he's had plenty of excitement in his 25-year law enforcement career. He began with the military police, then he moved to the Florida Highway Patrol.

Looking for some variety, Freeman took a job at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office more than 21 years ago.

"I've done a little of everything," he joked. "Prostitution. Sold dope. Served warrants. All the stuff where young cops get their cop stories."

But he was just working an off-duty security job at a McDonald's years ago when he had his most dangerous day on the job.

A rumble in the restaurant parking lot left Freeman with a bullet wound in his right leg.

Still his thirst for excitement hasn't been completely quenched. To fill in the spaces between his environmental crime duties, he's a member of the sheriff's Bomb Task Force.

"I could be called at anytime," he said. "It's completely different from what we do here."

And even environmental crimes help out in big cases.

"Whenever there is a search for a missing person, we're one of the first or second calls," he said.

The detective's trucks and familiarity with abandoned or undeveloped areas of the county make them a natural choice to help lead search parties through thickets and wetlands.

"We can go into places other vehicles can't get," he said.

- - -

Following the trail the boat numbers left, Freeman found potential owners.

For the small speed boat, the search seemed fruitless. One owner was dead. The other had just had a heart attack - and would die a week later.

And the hand-painted, teal and orange wooden motorboat had been reported stolen.

So Freeman became the bearer of bad news.

Milton Santiago's eyes dimmed as Freeman explained to him that the boat he'd crafted with his hands had been gutted and dumped on someone else's land.

"What about the trailer?" he asked, still hopeful he could tow the shell home and start over.

"The trailer, the motor, the console. They're all gone," Freeman said.

Santiago had parked the boat at Countryside Baptist Church, around the corner from his home in the Diamond Hill subdivision, and someone stole it three months ago.

There wasn't any room for his pet project in his driveway. With a car, two SUVs, a minivan and a motorcycle spilling out from the garage into the street, space for a boat was slim.

And the most devastating news about the wooden boat was yet to be delivered.

Freeman told Santiago that because the boat ended up on private property, it would be his responsibility to get it hauled away.

Even if he didn't want it.

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