In the early morning hours of Jan. 30, 1997, garbage sorters at the Metro Waste Transfer station in Northwest Portland noticed an unusual item amid the piles of refuse on the conveyor belt that fed the gigantic garbage shredder: What they saw was not paper, plastic, glass or metal. It was a dead body.

The corpse was later identified as Richard Phelps, a 47-year-old transient who had apparently been sleeping in a dumpster in downtown Portland when a garbage truck emptied the dumpster into its hopper, then compacted its load en route to the transfer station. The medical examiner concluded that Phelps had been crushed to death.

Homeless advocates say such gruesome accidents are not uncommon--especially in winter, when people are regularly turned away from emergency shelters. "This has happened a number of times," says Chuck Currie, director of the Goose Hollow Family Shelter.

"It's a regular event," agrees Dr. Neal Rendleman, who has treated the down and out for almost 20 years.

Six people have been crushed to death in garbage trucks in Oregon since 1988, according to state death records, and a transfer-station supervisor is quoted in legal documents saying she has heard of eight to 10 survivors arriving at Metro waste stations in the same period.

Because the victims tend to be homeless, most accidents involving trash compactors generate little interest beyond a few lines in the back pages of the local paper. But this case may turn out differently. Phelps' sister, Barbara Bassett, has filed a wrongful-death suit in Multnomah County seeking $10 million in punitive damages from USA Waste of Oregon for failing to take precautions to forestall these tragedies. For example, trash haulers could install locks or inspect dumpsters before unloading them into their trucks.

"The company knows there are human beings in dumpsters," Bassett's attorney, Greg Kafoury, declared last week in a pre-trial motion before Judge Nely Johnson. "There's a risk that there's someone inside. Were the precautions adequate or inadequate?"

Kafoury says the subsidiary of Waste Management Inc. has taken "no steps whatsoever" despite knowing about the episodes.

The company declined to comment on the case. But last week its attorneys insisted that dump-truck accidents are rare and that the company, which reported profits of $503 million last year, is not a social-service agency. "What we do for a living is collecting garbage," said lawyer Jeff Johnson. "Greg Kafoury wants to put corporate America on trial--that's what this is all about."

Like many homeless people, Phelps suffered from severe mental illness. A commercial photographer who held a master's degree in advertising, he developed symptoms of schizophrenia in the 1980s, lost his family and his business, and wound up on the streets of Chicago.

With the help of his sister, he made a partial recovery in 1996 and moved to Olympia. He called her from Portland on Jan. 26, 1997, with a confused story about losing his car. She did not learn he was dead until several months later.

The case is scheduled for trial next month. As WW went to press, it remained unclear whether the two sides might reach an out-of-court settlement.