Giving New Meaning to the Word Trashman

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.

Ettman's planting phase at Chapman Field ended in May 1997, according to DERM officials. Only during planting was he allowed to store material on the Chapman Field grounds, as well as burn limited amounts of organic waste for disposal, says parks and recreation spokeswoman Beatriz Portela. Officials at both DERM and the parks department believe such permission did not exist on March 8, as the planting phase had been completed. "There was no waste being generated from the project," explains parks spokeswoman Portela, "so there would be no reason to dump anything there."

Carol Kruse says Officer Corson told her Ettman claimed he had received permission to dump the wood from Howard Gregg, chief of planning and research for parks and recreation. Spokeswoman Portela disagrees. "Gregg wasn't even in town," she says. "[Ettman] just mentioned his name. The dumping was definitely unauthorized." (Gregg could not be reached for comment.) Kruse says she gave Corson the phone number of Steve Grant, manager of Chapman Field Park, and told him to ask Grant if Ettman did indeed have permission to dump. "Maybe [Ettman] was supposed to be there," she recalls thinking.

Corson telephoned Grant at home, according to the park manager. "When the name was mentioned, I thought it was a mistake," he remembers. "I thought they had it wrong and David Ettman had ratted out someone who was dumping." Grant says -- and Officer Jones's report corroborates -- that he told the police officer to make sure the dumper removed the material but not to press criminal charges. "I said, 'No, just make him move the stuff,'" Grant recalls. "I was happy because [the debris] wasn't there any more."

Illegally dumping more than 500 pounds or 100 cubic feet of solid waste is a third-degree felony under the Florida Litter Law. Violation carries a $1000 fine, a possible jail sentence, or community service. The filing of criminal charges will now depend on whether Ettman had prior written permission to dump waste at Chapman Field Park.

Less than a week after the incident, Ettman began making a series of telephone calls to Mara Austin, chief of solid waste's enforcement division. According to a memo written by Austin, Ettman inquired about the status of his case. "He asked about the law governing illegal dumping (he seemed confused with the hazardous waste laws) so I told him we were going under the Florida Litter Law.... He also wanted to know what could happen to him if he was prosecuted."

During another conversation, according to Austin's memo, Ettman "said he had contacted the Parks Dept. and they were providing him with a letter stating he had prior permission to dump at that site." As of March 24, Ettman had not produced such a letter.

Austin's memo notes that Ettman called again March 19 to tell her he'd been contacted by a newspaper reporter. "He apparently suspects unknown persons at DERM have caused the media to be interested in his case," Austin wrote. That Ettman would be suspicious of former colleagues at DERM could be explained by his reputation for angering environmentalists inside and outside the agency, who accused him of favoring developers over nature. "It's fair to say he has generally been developer-friendly," notes Dennis Olle, conservation chairman for the Tropical Audubon Society.


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