Showing posts with label New Jersey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New Jersey. Show all posts

04 November 2014

From The Case Files Of Chief David Dean: The Affair of the Threatened Summer

by David Dean

Occasionally, a case so strange, so baffling, so unusual that it defies easy description, arrives on the police blotter.  The following is such a case:

I found myself one early August morning in 2008 standing on a north-end beach of Avalon, NJ with the mayor.  He was not a happy man, and as a result of this, and the sorry mess I was there to witness, I found my own spirits drooping beneath the mercilessly revealing rays of the rising sun.  We were looking at several acres of medical waste festooning our once pristine beaches...and there were weeks yet remaining of the tourist season--the Labor Day weekend looming as its climax. 

This was a scene we had both witnessed a number of times in the past, being something of a Jersey Shore epidemic in the late eighties.  We both also believed that the source of this plague had been successfully squelched years before.  It had been two decades since we had seen the likes of this.  It didn't bode well for the town.  If you know anything about the economics of beach resorts in the northeast, you know that the season is short.  There are but a few months for the townspeople and its shopkeepers to make a year's worth of money.  Every day counts.  And if you know anything about medical waste dumping at sea, you know it takes several days for everything to wash up; sometimes longer, with the media gleefully documenting every syringe-laden tide.  If it helps, call to mind the scene from the movie "Jaws" where the mayor and Chief are standing in front of the billboard.  Remember the bikini-clad gal splashing along on her raft, while the vandal has added a crude depiction of a huge dorsal fin cutting through the waves toward her.  This was such a moment for us--we had just met our shark and he was eating our beach. 

Unlike the fictional mayor of Amity, however, our mayor had wasted no time in attacking the situation, having gathered volunteer firemen, lifeguards, and borough workers to begin the clean-up.  This was being accomplished under the guidance of our equally able Emergency Management Director and investigators from the NJ Attorney General's Environmental Crimes Bureau.  One of my detectives was documenting the scene.  We were treating it as a crime...which it most certainly was.  But it wasn't the detective, or yours truly, that first noticed that something was different about this particular wash-up--it was the mayor.  "Why's it only in this area?" he asked.  Or words to that effect. 

It took me a moment to grasp what he was getting at--we were looking at a fairly concentrated area covering what would be a few city blocks.  In the past, such spills were sometimes spread over miles.  A beach vehicle was dispatched to drive south along the shore to search for more wash-up.  His report was negative.  Then a boat was sent out to try and determine how far out the slick reached.  It was a few hundred yards at most.


In case you're wondering at the significance of these observations, let me explain.  Our previous dealings with illegal dumping had taught us that mostly it was accomplished far out in the shipping channels, and nowhere near shore.  Usually the deed was done from barges being used in the illegal trade of unauthorized medical waste disposal by companies that were lucrative fronts for organized crime families and organizations.  Generally, the material could be traced to medical facilities in New York City and its environs.  When investigators showed up, such fronts, and their employees, vanished like chlorine gas, invisible and toxic.  The practical result of their dumping efforts, however, would spread over many miles as the tide and currents moved them inexorably shoreward.  This was not what we were seeing.  This mess had started within sight of the beach.  This was local, and the joyous scent of prey was suddenly very near.

The waste material itself proved equally unusual.  When one of the investigators from the ECB showed us some of the gathered items, we were all baffled.  They were unquestionably of a medical nature, but nothing that we had come to associate with these events.  There were syringes, but of a type we'd never seen, lots of small cottony swabs, but no bandages, hundreds of small capsules containing some kind of unidentifiable material.  Even the ECB boys (who had been to sites all over the state) were flummoxed.  My detective took some of the evidence back to the station to begin researching it over the internet.  It didn't take long.  This wasn't material from a hospital or clinic--this was waste from a dental practice.  Someone who not only was familiar with the area, but who must have piloted a boat to accomplish this incomprehensible crime.  In my view, as well as others, someone who was close.  During the following two days less and less material washed ashore.  By the fourth day it had ceased altogether.  Only the very north end had been affected by the beach closings, though the publicity hadn't done the town any favors.  Still, it could have been worse.

As the buckets of material were sifted through, object by object, painstakingly photographed and recorded, the first really significant clue was discovered--a dental drill bit with its wrapper miraculously intact.  We had a lot number and a manufacturer. 

Then, like a dank, chill wind issuing forth from the cavern of the troll king, a summons was received from the county prosecutor to attend a strategy meeting at his offices.  As the head law enforcement officer for the county this was his prerogative.  While understanding it, I was also a little curious as to why.  From where I was sitting, our unfortunate situation had no ramifications beyond my own jurisdiction.  There had been no other instances at any other shore towns in the county.  Normally, as chief, I would have remained behind, leaving such meetings to my detectives.  But my antennae had detected a disturbance in the Force, and I decided to attend, as well.  It was good that I did.

Seated around a huge oval table in the prosecutor's conference room were myself, my detective, the two ECB investigators, the prosecutor and his chief detective, and two investigators that worked for him.  My detective laid out our findings.  The ECB boys nodded in agreement.  The prosecutor's crew...scoffed.  A couple of hypodermic needles had washed ashore in a town north of us. They had seen this all before.  This was just your usual off-shore dumping, and its effects would show up on other beaches in other towns sooner, rather than later.  A local event, indeed! 

It was clear that the publicity attendant to our unfortunate situation had gained the prosecutor's attention.  Seeing how my department was working with the state AG's environmental investigators (and she was the prosecutor's boss), he wanted in.   

It was also obvious that the syringes in Ocean City were a few insulin needles and did not remotely resemble ours.  I took umbrage.  Not with the prosecutor's rights, or even his motives, but with their sneering condescension.  Umbrage is something I've taken a few times both before, during, and after being a chief of police.  Umbrage means that I clench my teeth, hear bells ringing too loudly, and think dark and bloody thoughts.  Entering the fray, I politely, but forcefully, disagreed, outlining my own extensive experience with these very things; carefully explaining so that even those challenged by their own overblown, and totally unrealistic, high opinions of themselves could understand; making sure to prick the swollen balloons of their egos with the sharp needle of reason and objectivity.  After the long silence that followed, the prosecutor agreed that we should be allowed to continue our futile line of investigation.  He even agreed that a reward should be offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible.  I felt this would bring heat on our perpetrator, wherever he was, as well as the promise that we now had, courtesy of the drill bit maker, a very manageable list of dentist offices that had purchased the lot number recovered from our beach.  I could see no reason not to put this out there for him to hear and sweat.  We promised to stay in touch and left that dark, unhappy, place.

My plan did not take long to bear fruit.  On September 2, even as my detectives were making their way through the list of dental practices that ran from Jersey to the Philadelphia Main Line, a stranger presented himself in the lobby.  He wished to speak with an officer.  Before the day was over, a 59 year old dentist from Pa. had confessed to the illegal dumping of approximately 300 "Accuject" dental-type needles, 180 cotton swabs, and a number of plastic capsules containing filling material, as well as other items.  A search warrant executed at his home and practice revealed evidence that corroborated his confession and he was subsequently charged.

A few days later, the county prosecutor hosted a press conference lauding the arrest and the excellent cooperation between agencies that led to it.  His boss, the Attorney General, was in attendance for his big moment.  I was allowed a few words.  When asked by a reporter how I felt about the arrest, I smiled and said, "I could not be happier.  I feel like Chief Brody when he got the shark."

The strange dentist never offered a motive for what he did, and to this day, I sometimes find myself wondering why.  Medical waste disposal for the average dental office at that time cost about 700 dollars a year.  It couldn't have been the money. 

It had been twenty years since anyone had been arrested for illegally dumping medical waste in New Jersey ocean waters.





         

 





   


04 September 2012

Jersey Fresh

by David Dean

Not being a native of the place one lives in can sometimes offer a fresh perspective.  And even though I have dwelt in the Garden State for over twenty-five years, I do often find the place fascinating.  First of all, let's face it, Jersey takes an awful beating as a result of Snooki and the Gang, corrupt politicians, and the view from the infamous Turnpike of oil refineries, chemical factories, and rubber plants.  To some, these may look unappealing ( and I include Snooki and friends with this).  But there is a whole other New Jersey out there that is largely hidden away from the tourists on their way to NYC.  It is a place in which I often set my stories, and bears little resemblance to Soprano Land: a place of leafy suburbs and rolling farmland; salt marshes and barrier islands; pineland forests and windswept beaches.

The county I live in is called Cape May, and named after a Dutch explorer by the name of Mey who sailed by sometime in 1623.  He was too busy exploring, apparently, to bother landing on this new cape that he had discovered.  Of course, he had only discovered it for the Europeans who were to follow.  Native Americans had fished and hunted the area for thousands of years before Captain Mey bobbed by in his little ship.  The historical tribe was known in their own tongue as Lenape, an Algonquin peoples.  The Whites would call them the Delaware after the river, which was in turn named after Lord de la Warre, who saw to it that the English, and not the Dutch or Swedish, would dominate this part of New Jersey.  The poor Dutch got stuck with Soprano Land and NYC; the Swedes just went home.

The first European settlers to the area came mostly from New England, Virginia, and Long Island, and they came for the whaling.  In those early days, whales often traveled along the Atlantic coast side of what would become Cape May County, and even into the vast Delaware Bay that washes the western half of the peninsula.  The locals would simply row out to harpoon the great beasts and tow them back to shore.  Even back then, with only a sparse population of whalers, it didn't take long to deplete the animals and virtually kill the industry.  The English turned to farming and fishing, and for the next several centuries this was what they did.
Pirates frequented the region as Jonathan Dickinson wrote in 1717, "We have been perplexed by pirates on our coast and at our Capes, who plundered many of our vessels."  Captain Kidd, that most unfortunate of pirates, spent some time in the area, as did Edward Teach, of "Blackbeard" fame.  Naturally, tales of buried treasure abound.  Most of these are baseless, but try telling that to all the folks with metal detectors walking the beaches… fugedaboutit!  It never made much sense to me that pirates would risk hiding their treasure on land.  After all, sometimes they might be gone for months or even years.  But then it was explained to me that this was mostly done when the boys in pantaloons were planning a visit to a large town, such as New Amsterdam, to replenish their stocks and provisions.  There was always the chance that they might be recognized as pirates and arrested.  The treasure trove on board could be damning.  Hence the lightening of the load prior to docking.

The Jersey Devil legend sprang up in this period as well, and comes out of the haunted pine barrens.  It seems that the dirt-poor and miserable Mrs. Leeds of that neighborhood, upon learning that she was pregnant with her thirteenth child, cursed him; wishing the devil would take him.  Apparently, she had some pull in hell, for her son was born with wings and hooves and flew out the window to begin a reign of terror over that dark and lonely region.  He does so to this day.           

Cape May became a county in 1692, via a charter from the Crown. In those days there was a West and East Jersey--Cape May County being in the west.  There is a cemetery at the county seat, Cape May Court House, that dates to 1766; prior to that people were buried in their back yards, a custom still observed for former business partners in North Jersey.  By the way, nearly everything in the county is named Cape May Something: There is the aforementioned Court House, wherein sits a several hundred year old (you got it) court house, there is also Cape May City, West Cape May, Cape May Point and North Cape May.  There was even once a South Cape May, but the sea claimed it as its own some time ago.  God's judgement, perhaps, on one Cape May too many.  Enough already with the Cape May.

New Jersey became known as the "Cockpit of the Revolution" during the War of Independence because of all the important battles fought on her soil.  Washington slept everywhere, and New Jersey named not one, but several towns, after the father of our nation.  Having a maritime economy, the southern half of the state was affected by the War of 1812.  This region also produced one of our nation's earliest naval heroes in the person of Richard Somers.  This young man was to lead what amounted to a suicide mission against the Barbary pirates in Tripoli.  Sailing directly into their harbor under cover of darkness, he and his crew boarded a captured American vessel and blew it up in spectacular fashion.  Though the resulting explosion and fire damaged and destroyed many of the pirates' ships, it also took the lives of the brave American sailors before they could get away.  Their graves still lie in a small plot in Libya.  His home exists as a museum in Somers Point, the town named for his family.  I have had the privilege of visiting it.

As the northern half of the state embraced the industrial age, the south remained agrarian, not unlike the nation as a whole at that time.  The capitol even boasted the proud motto, "Trenton Makes, The World Takes," in huge letters across a bridge spanning the Delaware River.  It's there to this day.  South Jersey, meanwhile, continued to make the Garden State just that.  Most of the "industries" practiced in the south related to the exploitation of natural resources: cedar mining (the reclamation of prehistoric cedar trees from the fresh water swamps for shingles and ship building), bog iron collection from the streams of the Pine Barrens (this naturally occurring iron tints the water the color of tea), harvesting salt hay from the marshes for both animal feed and lining coffins, the production of glass from the fine sands of the region, etc... Then came the trains.

By the late 1800s, the great population centers of both Philadelphia and New York had discovered what would be forever more known as the Jersey Shore.  Trains made it possible.  The industrial era had given the working man both stable wages and a few days off a year.  He spent both at the shore.  The tourist boom was on and the great shore towns began to spring up--Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Wildwood, Avalon, and yes...Cape May.  Of course, many decided to stay, and the local population took a decidedly Irish and Italian turn.  Catholic parishes began to pop up amongst the Baptist and Methodists.  The small town of Woodbine was founded as a Jewish colony, while the town of Whitesboro became the the county's first predominantly African-American municipality--a by-product of the Underground Railroad, not the one from Philly.

By the mid-1970s tourism was king.  Though farms remained, they had grown smaller and began to adapt to specialized crops in order to survive.  Commercial fishing survived, as well, by both downsizing and growing more efficient.  The waters off New Jersey continue to be one of the greatest producers of scallops and clams along the eastern seaboard and oyster farming is making a comeback in the Delaware Bay.  But the tourist dollar, and vacation real estate, are the mainstays of the current economy--battered by the recession, but still king.  Unemployment here in Cape May County during the off-season (roughly from November to April) can reach 12% or worse.   But you take the good with the bad, and this is the place I happily call home.  My literary characters, Chief Julian Hall and Father Gregory Savartha, both live here, as does a ponderous and troubling little girl named Mariel, who is the subject of my next story in EQMM (Dec. 2012 issue).  The bewildered protagonist of "Tap-Tap", though he meets his fate in Belize, worked for a tourist agency here, while Kieran, the young kleptomaniac of "The Vengeance of Kali," lives just around the corner.  There are many, many more.

So, as you can see, after twenty-five years in a place, you make some friends; form some ties.  And luckily for me, having a fresh perspective, a "Jersey" fresh perspective on my adopted home, made it all possible.

23 November 2011

Growing Pains

by Robert Lopresti
 
David’s column two weeks ago got me thinking about my summers on the shore as a kid; in particular how a buddy and I used to don raincoats on foggy days and stroll down the beach roads, imagining ourselves to be private eyes in London, San Francisco, or some other suitably mysterious place. Good times.  But it occurred to me that our stories never developed very far, and I seem to see a pattern there.

Back home in Plainfield my friends and I used to play The Man From Uncle, and the plots never stretched out very far (in fact, the most imaginative conflict consisted of quarrels over which of us got to be Napoleon Solo.  Chris was always  Ilya Kuryakin, because he was the only blond in the bunch.)

People always talk about children having wonderful imaginations, and I agree, but it strikes me that they aren't very good plotters.


Ever read Beverly Cleary?  She's a children's writer from Portland, Oregon, where she is thoroughly beloved.  (The children's room at the main library is named for her, and there is a statue of her character Ramona, in the park in Ramona's own neighborhood.  But Cleary also wrote a terrific little book called Dear Mr Henshaw, in which a kid tries to deal with problems in his family by keeping a journal.  At one point a children's book author visits the boy's class and reads some examples of their creative writing.  Most of the kids made up stories but our hero wrote about a true experience.  The author gives him first place and explains that children his age don't have enough history to make stuff up yet; better to stick to real events.

All of which had me pondering when I did become old enough to come up with a complete (though God knows, not publishable) story.  I think it was sixth grade.   Mrs. Sonin, our English teacher, would let you stay after school and read your stories out loud to her while she graded papers.  Very tolerant was she, I suppose.  Amazing she didn't laugh out loud at our efforts, and not at the funny parts.

I was in grad school before I finally tried to get a story published , and I was twenty-five before I finally saw my name in print.

I read recently that someone said you had to write for 10,000 hours before you could be good at it.  It scares me to think about when/if I have reached that point.

So, a question for the scribblers out there:  When did you become a writer?