Giving New Meaning to the Word Trashman

A former top official at the Department of Environmental Resources Management is under criminal investigation for illegal dumping

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 8, Metro-Dade police responded to a report of illegal dumping at Chapman Field Park, a South Dade haven for softball players and nature lovers. Ofcr. Zane Jones drove his squad car past the baseball diamonds, past two unlocked and open gates, and down a gravel road that leads through acres of mangrove and brush to Biscayne Bay. Normally that road is closed to vehicular traffic, though hikers are welcome.

The officer came upon an odd sight as he neared the road's end. In a report he later wrote, he said he observed two men "throwing large pieces of wood ... onto the ground" from a U-Haul truck. Jones also encountered an official from the county's Department of Solid Waste Management -- photographing the scene. The officer quickly radioed for backup.

Officer Jones and the solid waste official approached the two men and discovered they spoke very little English. They were, however, able to ascertain that the men were there working for a third person, who was nowhere to be seen. Before being placed in the squad car, though, the two laborers indicated that their boss was somewhere in the vicinity.

Soon a second police officer arrived. As he and the solid waste official were measuring the pile of debris (they estimated it to be 760 cubic feet), a man stepped out of the bushes and announced that the two workers in the squad car were his employees, that they should be released, and that he had permission to be inside the locked gates of Chapman Field. The police officers didn't know it at the time, but the man who had just assumed responsibility for the incident was a former high-ranking official of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM).

The strange circumstances that led to David Ettman, a former DERM assistant director and fourteen-year veteran of the department, becoming the target of a criminal investigation are still being untangled. Four separate county agencies and numerous individuals are involved. Neither Ettman, who resigned from DERM in 1994 and is now president of the consulting firm Ford Environmental, Inc., nor his attorney would comment for this article despite several opportunities to do so. The following narrative was derived from documents provided by police and officials from the solid waste department, as well as from interviews with employees of the Metro-Dade Park and Recreation Department.

According to Officer Jones's report, written eleven days after the event, Patrick Schlagheck, an enforcement officer with solid waste's illegal-dumping squad, told Jones the alleged dumpers had been denied access to several Dade County minidumps -- known as transfer stations -- before they ended up at Chapman Field Park. (Police sources will not say how Schlagheck knew this, but they acknowledge that it is common practice for solid waste officials to tail individuals who are turned away from transfer stations to see where they dispose of their rejected debris.)

Chapman Field Park is divided into two sections, one of which consists of three baseball diamonds and a row of batting cages. Positioned on a rise overlooking the westernmost diamond is a county solid-waste transfer station. The other section of Chapman Field, many times larger, includes a sprawling expanse of coastal mangrove and undeveloped land.

Approximately ten minutes after Jones radioed for backup, Metro-Dade Det. Thurl Corson, Jr., arrived. Corson often works in conjunction with solid waste's illegal-dumping unit on cases that do not involve chemicals (which are the province of DERM). The illegal-dumping specialists then forward their reports to the State Attorney's Office for possible prosecution. "When something may be criminal, we sometimes back up [solid waste]," explains Metro-Dade Det. Peter Caracilio, who replaced Corson as the case's investigator when Corson went on vacation shortly after the incident.

Former DERM assistant director David Ettman told Officers Corson and Jones that he did "consultation work for the Dade County parks and that he had a key for the gate.... [Ettman] stated that he had burned debris for Dade County at the location on previous dates [and] that he intended to burn this pile of debris.... [Ettman] repeated several times that he was allowed to be at the location," Jones's report reads. Corson decided to call the parks department to verify Ettman's story.

On that Sunday, Carol Kruse, parks department finance chief, was serving as duty officer, the contact name police and fire department switchboards have in case of an emergency on weekends or after hours. She says Corson called her around 3:30 p.m. and told her that a man named David Ettman claimed he had permission to dump solid waste in Chapman Field Park. "They asked me if this was authorized," Kruse recalls, "but it seemed suspicious to dump on Sunday."

Ettman was a familiar face around Chapman Field Park, according to park personnel, because of work he had undertaken there on behalf of a client company called the Gables. In the course of a residential development project in Coral Gables, the company had been permitted to destroy a thin band of mangroves, according to DERM officials. As part of an agreement with DERM, the Gables agreed to restore 1.5 acres of mangrove wetlands at Chapman Field Park. The developers hired Ettman for the restoration project, which involved planting mangrove seedlings and then monitoring them for a minimum of three years to ensure that they grew and that no exotic species took hold.

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