The Inspector


Backyard secrets brought to light


By Ragan Sutterfield



Illustration by Felix Sockwell

When I was ten I called the EPA on my neighbor. I had just moved to a suburban neighborhood after years spent in the piney woods of north Texas. Moving to “civilization” was a harsh transition out of a world that had been full of creatures. My only refuge was a small, undeveloped tract of woods behind my house.

The woods were mostly hardwoods with a mixture of loblolly pines. Two creeks, fed by the neighborhood’s storm drains, ran downhill through the area. This was habitat enough for a ten-year-old, and I quickly set out to discover all of the animals that lived there. It was on one of my usual hikes in the woods that I became involved with law enforcement and the investigation of a crime.

I had hiked down to the creek to see if I could catch any frogs, but when I got to the pool of water around the culvert I saw carnage. Nearly ten birds—blue jays, cardinals, sparrows, and chickadees—lay dead around the water. The bloated bodies of frogs bobbed in the pool, and the water was covered with an oil slick, as if a mini Exxon Valdez had crashed in the creek.

I stormed back to my house. My mom was at the kitchen table, reading. “Mom!” I said. “Someone has been dumping oil in the drains and it killed a bunch of birds and frogs!” My mother, used to a son who had seen one too many National Geographic documentaries, half-jokingly told me to call the EPA.

I grabbed the phone book and phone and went into the living room. A few moments later I came back in the kitchen. “Mom, the EPA wants to talk with you.” Surprised, my mother took the phone. She explained what I had told her and hung up. “What’d they say?” I asked. She told me they would send an inspector out on Wednesday.

This gave me time to get started with some detective work. My main suspect was a guy down the street named Mike, a bodybuilder who was always working on several souped-up trucks in his backyard.

I crept behind Mike’s tall, wooden fence with spikes along the top. Although his front lawn was well-manicured and immaculate, behind his house was a real mess. There was lots of trash, including empty bottles of motor oil, transmission fluid, and coolant. I picked up a few bottles as evidence.

On Wednesday, the inspector arrived in a little white station wagon marked EPA on the door. A middle-aged man in a drooping blue jacket listened carefully to my story. “Can you show me where you found the birds?” he asked. I took him down to the woods and showed him the stream where the birds still lay. He pulled out a little vial and took a water sample.

I told him about Mike and showed him the containers I had found. After writing in a notebook, he walked back to his car and turned to me and said, “Unless I can catch him in the act, I can’t fine him. But I will give him a warning.” I watched as he drove down the street to Mike’s house. After that there was no more oil in the creek.  

Last summer, sixteen years after my tattletale phone call, my father told me Mike had appeared in the local paper. He had helped his girlfriend kill her mother.

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Issue 25



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