Back when I was a city reporter in San Francisco, one of my jobs was to take the daily crime report and type it up in a friendly, engaging way. The crime report was pretty par for any major metropolitan area: mugged, burgled, occasionally shot, or stabbed. But based on the tips we got from readers, things happened in the neighborhood, all the time, that never made it into the official police document that arrived on our desk.
Sometimes the reason for the omission was clear: something so unpleasant had just happened the police didn’t want to deal with any publicity from it. Sometimes whatever had happened involved people who weren’t into filling out police reports. And sometimes, I suspect, whoever was typing up the crime report just thought the crime was boring.
For that reason, I am a fan of the reporting that David Hasemyer has been doing for Inside Climate News — because he’s been covering the kind of crime that a reporter has to go out and look for. Earlier this month, Hasemyer profiled Deputy Sheriff Hector Zertuche of Alice, Texas. Zertuche is a 70-year-old long-timer who was assigned to the “environmental crimes” unit in 2006 — basically, tracking down people who dumped broken-down sofas on back roads. While patrolling the mattress-in-a-ditch beat, Zertuche noticed that people were dumping something else: something black and slippery and awful-smelling. That something turned out to be benzene-laced fracking waste.
Zertuche tracked down the culprits, and sent samples and detailed reports to the relevant state agency, but the most the agency ever did was issue a letter of reprimand. So, after a little research, Zertuche figured out how to make offenders pay, using state laws that were laid out during Texas’s first oil boom, over a hundred years ago.
In a better world of news, crimes like the ones Zertuche investigates would get the same kind of attention and level of reporting as — say — bank robberies. But it’s great to see an article like this one — and to also find out, as Hasemyer reported yesterday, that another Texas sheriff, Dwayne Villanueva of Karnes County, is seeking criminal charges against another dumper. Here’s hoping this inspires a few spaghetti westerns — or, at bare minimum, a Miami Vice-style television show.