Growing up on Army bases in the South, Bobby Heaukulani’s favorite TV show was Hill Street Blues. He liked to play with BB guns. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he always said policeman.
When Heaukulani (“Huk” for short) was 13, his dad got transferred to a military base in Hawaii, the family’s ancestral home. There, Heaukulani got to spend time with his uncle, who was on a fast rise through the Honolulu Police Department—eventually retiring as assistant chief.
Huk grew into a mountain of a man. He played fullback and linebacker in high school, then got recruited as a tailback to Linfield College by legendary coach Ad Rutschman. Oregon has been Heaukulani's home ever since.
In 1989, he became a cop.
“The camaraderie, the brotherhood, being in a job that benefits people. I know it sounds hokey, but that’s why I got into it—to try to make the world a better place,” says Heaukulani, 52.
For 12 years, he worked as a cop in Tigard. For his last 10 years, he investigated crimes against children—mostly sex abuse by family members. That assignment chews through most cops in a matter of a few years.
"He gained a reputation all across the region as one of the very best at working those kinds of cases," says Tigard Police Lt. Erick Boothby, one of Heaukulani's former partners. "He's the guy that will always do the right thing."
Four years ago, Huk burned out.
"For a long time I didn't take a vacation. When there's children being hurt, you don't feel like you can take that time off," says Heaukulani, who lives in Tigard with his wife and two sons.
"I didn't care about anything else but working my cases," he says. "I thought, I'm holding on too tight here."
So, three years ago, he switched beats. Now, instead of fulfilling his childhood dream busting murderers, he's probably the only detective in America who works full-time investigating illegal garbage dumping.
Discarded futons, worn-out tires, construction debris and bags of household trash—that's the medium Huk has worked with for the past three years. When they're dumped on public property in the Portland metro area, his mission is to track down the perpetrators and hit them with fines.
A sense of humor is de rigueur for a cop, whether he's busting child abusers or finding serial litterers.
"I've heard people say, 'You worked with garbage before, and you're working with garbage now,'" Huk quips.
The dumps Heaukulani investigates range from the alarming to the seemingly innocuous—from hazardous materials like paint and oil dumped into stream beds and other environmentally sensitive areas, to old furniture abandoned on neighborhood curbsides.
One extreme case came on the night of April 29, 2009, when someone dumped more than 200 tires along Northeast Marine Drive, all the way from 148th Avenue to Blue Lake Park in Gresham. Metro officials say the tires were spaced every 10 to 15 feet along the roadside, as if they had been pushed out of a moving vehicle. The case remains unsolved.
On the milder side of the spectrum lies Barak Hen.
In early June, Hen, a 34-year-old locksmith, made a costly mistake. After filling a dumpster with unwanted items from a house he had recently purchased in Southeast Portland, he put two couches and a plush chair that wouldn't fit in the dumpster in a vacant lot next door.
Hen's attitude: The furniture was still in good condition. Eventually someone might take it.
His thoughtless trash toss brought an orange-vested inmate work crew to clean up the mess. Eventually, it led to a two-week investigation and a $404 citation from Heaukulani.
When Heaukulani caught up with Hen on a recent Monday afternoon outside the house on Southeast Ramona Street, Hen admitted dumping the furniture but was furious about the fine.
”I didn’t do anything wrong,”he insisted.
One month earlier, Amy Stewart was equally outraged when Heaukulani questioned her about using yard debris to fill a pothole on the unpaved city street outside her house in Northeast Portland.
"The city won't fill these potholes, and when we do, the police come? Unbelievable," Stewart says.
In a moment of mercy, Huk let her off without a fine.
Bespectacled and walking with a slight hunch, Steve Kraten has the soft voice, shy demeanor and tendency to slip into bureaucratic speak that mark him as a 22-year employee of the Metro regional government.
As the agency's longtime solid-waste enforcement coordinator, Kraten remembers how Metro became the only agency in the country that actively investigates trash dumpers.
Among other duties, Metro is in charge of disposing of the region's garbage. It regulates transfer stations and recycling centers, and collects fees to help pay for it all. In 1993, revenue from those fees was dropping.
Officials figured more people were dodging Metro's trash-disposal system—mainly contractors. So they started a program aimed at increasing Metro's so-called flow control over the trash stream, though they were smart enough not to call it that.
"Flow control is kind of an esoteric thing," Kraten says. "Illegal dumping is something that people can understand."
Today it's called RID Patrol, which stands for Regional Illegal Dumping. Metro officials say it's the only program of its kind in America. Other places have tried to reduce illegal dumping, but Metro officials believe no other government agency has detectives like Heaukulani working to investigate dumps and track down the culprits.
The program cleans up more than 2,000 illegal dumps a year and costs taxpayers about $500,000 a year. That money goes to pay for Metro administrative salaries, disposal fees, maintaining two cleanup trucks, and paying the salaries of three detectives and two jail deputies who supervise the inmate work crews that clean up the dumps.
Two other detectives police construction sites and other large-scale waste producers. Relying on snitches and evidence collected by jail crew members—some of it highly personal—Heaukulani tracks down about 60 illegal small-time dumpers each year, hitting them with fines of up to $500, plus the cost of the cleanup and disposal. The latter can amount to hundreds of dollars, or more in extreme cases.
Since Heaukulani starting working the trash beat in 2008, he has written around 200 citations for a total of more than $72,000. But less than half of that actually gets collected by Metro. The rest goes to a collections agency.
Kraten says the program wasn't intended to be a money-maker in itself. Its purpose is to enhance Metro's income from legitimate garbage disposal.
It's hard to imagine a more Portlandesque program than this: Police are used to track down environmental ne'er-do-wells—all in an effort to boost the government's ability to collect money.
But besides bolstering Portland's nanny-state tendencies, the RID patrol also exemplifies some of our best qualities—few places take garbage and its environmental impacts as seriously as we do.
Although the Legislature this year whiffed on passing what would have been America's first statewide ban on plastic grocery bags, Portland consistently ranks No. 1 in the nation among green cities—partly for our robust recycling program and consistently high recycling rate.
The RID program sparks controversy among those who are caught in its web. But rest assured: If you dump trash, Heaukulani and his team will be out to nail you. And their tactics may raise some eyebrows.
Metro's fleet includes two heavy-duty pickups with trash-hauling trailers hitched to the back. Each transports a two-man inmate work crew and a jail deputy. They show up at reported trash sites or, lacking those, cruise around to the region's repeat dumping grounds.
If a dump's on public land, they throw the trash into the trailer and haul it to a transfer station. (They don't clean dumps on private land using taxpayer dollars.) The deputies record GPS coordinates for each dump, as well as the size and the time it takes to clean up. Those factor into the fine.
Inmates search the trash for any evidence to identify the owner. That often includes unopened mail, unpaid bills, catalogs with a street address or prescription pill bottles. More unusual examples have included computer hard drives.
"My favorite: fully completed job applications. We've gotten a few of those," says Tiffany Gates, assistant solid waste planner at Metro.
To date, there has been no testing for fingerprints on old tires or DNA from mattresses. "Give us a grant and we'll do it," Gates says.
The evidence goes to Heaukulani, who builds a case and tracks down the owners of the trash. They often blame a third party they say either stole their garbage or was paid to haul it to a landfill.
If those haulers can be found, they sometimes get cited. But they often never even exist. And regardless of excuse, the citations usually go to the trash's original owners. They get three weeks to make a payment plan or schedule an administrative hearing.
Metro has learned some lessons in the 18 years it's run the program.
Some are curiosities. January and June are the worst months for illegal dumping. People get rid of their unwanted stuff after the holidays and during the first warm weekends of spring.
Others are more sinister. Thieves have stolen every surveillance camera Metro has set up in popular dump sites to catch polluters.
Metro has two tips for residents who don't want to be slapped with a fine for dumping. Don't pay anyone to haul your trash unless you know who they are, and they agree to provide a receipt from the landfill. And don't dump your old couch on the curb.
People leaving their furniture on the street is a common problem. When they're busted, violators accuse Heaukulani of opposing sustainable re-use. Indeed, many Portlanders tend to regard the practice of putting freebies on the curb as a quirky part of the recycling culture. But Metro says it's dumping, plain and simple.
"I love re-use, but we ask that you keep it on your porch and put it on Craigslist," Gates says. "It rains a lot in Portland, in case you haven't noticed. As soon as a sofa or mattress gets wet, believe me, nobody wants it."
On a chilly Tuesday afternoon in mid-June, Byron Brown and Yordan Araujo-Coppinger ride through town in a rig marked RID Patrol, cleaning up illegal dumps for $1 a day.
Both men reside at Inverness Jail. Brown is serving six months for driving under the influence—his third DUII conviction. Araujo-Coppinger is doing 60 days for violating a restraining order.
In a grassy field near Portland International Airport, the two locate a dump reported the day before by City of Portland workers: a discarded beige sofa, an empty plastic suitcase, five car tires and a rust-stained mattress.
While Araujo-Coppinger rolls the tires out of the waist-high grass, Brown uses a curved-blade utility knife to attack the sofa, cutting it into pieces that will fit in the truck. He also searches inside the sofa for evidence of who left it.
Brown finds nothing but a 1977 Mexican one-peso coin—"lunch money," he says, slipping it into the pocket of his khaki coveralls. The inmates who comb Portland's illegal dump sites for clues sometimes make juicier finds.
What about those bank receipts, personal letters and hard drives? Metro downplays any danger that inmates will misuse the information. The inmates on trash detail are considered low-risk and receive time off their sentences if they perform well.
Deputies say no inmate has attempted to escape from garbage detail. But they have balked at some tasks, such as cleaning up human waste, used needles, vomit and feces at homeless camps.
"I always tell my guys, 'I'll never have you do anything I wouldn't do,'" says Deputy Gordon Glasser. "But, unfortunately, I am in charge."
Heaukulani starts most days in Metro headquarters on Northeast Grand Avenue, where he picks out a handful of the roughly 40 cases he has open at a given time. A file on his computer is labeled âHukâs Hit Listââfive cold cases he still hopes to crack.
He starts by working on the freshest reports, because people often dump trash as they're about to leave town. Combing law-enforcement databases, using Internet searches and working the phones, he tries to connect clues from dumps to the people behind them. He needs to build a case that will hold up at a hearing.
"Mail is the best. It's hard to explain how your mail got into somebody else's garbage," Heaukulani says. "Tires are the hardest. They're almost impossible to trace back."
Two unsolved dumps still gnaw at Heaukulani. Both are from 2008. In the first, a man dumped a junky motorboat on Northeast Ainsworth Street. He chained it to a stop sign and drove away in his rig, causing the boat to fall off the trailer onto the road.
In the second, a man left behind a used boat full of tires. Heaukulani had secured a promise from the man to clean up the mess. Then he disappeared.
"In 2008, I was still thinking it was OK to give people warnings," Heaukulani says.
Heaukulani carries a 9-mm Glock 26 handgun. He has never been attacked investigating dumps. But he says several suspects have become angry. Violence is always a possibility.
"If I wasn't such a big guy, I have no doubt some of those encounters would have turned out differently," he says.
On a recent Monday morning, he followed up on a report of a box spring dumped from a nearby house. The neighbor described the dumpers as "skater kids" and said he feared retaliation.
Heaukulani arrived at 2906 NE 63rd Ave. at 9:50 am. After repeated knocking, 22-year-old Ian Shuler got off the couch and came to the door with a blanket wrapped around him and sleep in his eyes.
"It's unprecedented for anyone to visit before noon," said Shuler, adding he had just moved to Portland because "South Carolina is terrible."
Heaukulani showed him a picture of the box spring. Shuler took a long pause, then admitted he might recognize it. He went inside to consult two roommates.
"You see that little delay?" Heaukulani asked while Shuler was away. "That's a basically honest person who is now panicking."
Shuler returned and said he'd take responsibility, because his roommates were playing dumb. Heaukulani wrote him a $150 ticket—the least amount possible, but still considerable given Shuler's job as an usher at Regal Lloyd Center Cinema.
"I'm gonna guess one night, someone was drunk and just dumped it," Shuler said while Heaukulani wrote the ticket.
Later that day, Heaukulani cited Barak Hen for the furniture dump near his Southeast Portland home. Two tickets was a big win.
"There are days when I just beat the pavement and don't get anything but leads," Heaukulani says.
In 3 1/2 years on the Metro garbage beat, Heaukulani has found time off he never felt he had working child crimes. He spends it with his wife and sons. He's active at St. Anthony's Catholic Church and coaches football, basketball and baseball.
But Heaukulani hopes to return to working child-abuse cases when he goes back to regular duty with Tigard Police in January.
"That's where I feel like I can make the biggest impact," he says.
No offense to Metro's RID Patrol.
The Dump Files
What sort of person would dump their trash? Consider these three RID Patrol cases from this year—and the reactions when WW tracked down the folks who were fined.
1. On May 25, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reported an illegal dump of old paint cans on Southeast Evergreen Street. An inmate work crew found an address written on one of the cans: 7030 SE 76th Ave.
Heaukulani arrived at that address on June 3 and saw a man on a pink bicycle leaving. Heaukulani found the resident, Mark Freimark. Freimark recognized photos of the paint cans and said he'd hired a man to dispose of the cans. Heaukulani had heard that story many times before and often doubted it. But Freimark told Heaukulani the man he'd hired was the guy on the pink bike.
Heaukulani cruised the neighborhood and found David Hallstead, age 55—the man on the pink bike. Hallstead told Heaukulani that Freimark had paid him $20 to get rid of the cans. Heaukulani fined him $300.
When WW caught up with Hallstead, he was sitting on his porch in a red flannel shirt, soiled jeans and a baseball cap. He said he makes a modest living doing yard work for neighbors, adding he's had to work harder to pay off the fine.
As he stared at the ground and kicked a plastic swan lying in his yard, Hallstead insisted it was the first time he'd dumped illegally.
"It was a bad thing, and I learned my lesson," Hallstead said. "That's all I really have to say."
2. On Feb. 4, an employee at Vernon Elementary School in Northeast Portland emailed Metro to report someone had been placing garbage in the school's dumpster for three months. The school locks the dumpster at night, but the person was prying up the lid. A custodian had found a catalog addressed to 5216 NE 19th Ave.
Heaukulani called Waste Management and learned that address has no garbage service. Heaukulani arrived at the house and spoke with Walter Hudson, age 53. Hudson admitted to dumping the trash and said he can't afford garbage service, according to Heaukulani's report. Heaukulani fined Hudson $150.
When WW knocked at Hudson's house on a recent Sunday afternoon, he stepped outside onto the porch. A social gathering was going on inside, and the smell of marijuana smoke was in the air.
"I ain't got no comment," Hudson said.
3. On March 31, a Metro employee at the St. Johns Landfill reported two separate dumps just off the Columbia Slough boat ramp. The largest included garbage, tires, blue painted wood and mail addressed to 7330 SE 113th Ave.
Nobody was home at that address when Heaukulani arrived on April 7, but the wood garage was the same color as the dumped wood and had new siding on the front. "It was obvious," Heaukulani wrote in his report, "that the dumped wood came from this location."
On April 19, Heaukulani returned and showed homeowner Benjamin Capps pictures of the dump. Capps agreed it was his trash and told Heaukulani that he had sold a truck for scrap metal on the condition that the buyer take the load of trash that was in the truck. Heaukulani fined him $400.
WW caught up with Capps, a retired parking-meter repairman for the City of Portland. Capps said that at the time, he didn't have garbage service because of a bill dispute with Waste Management. After the dumping fine, he resumed paying for trash service.
Capps admitted he had doubts about where the truck buyers would take the trash.
“I was like, oh man, I hope they don’t illegally dump that stuff,” Capps says.