By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Now a small town is fighting back. At the Dallas Crown horse-slaughtering plant, located alongside a poor but friendly black neighborhood in nearby Kaufman, the specter of death spreads far past the guarded boundaries of the industrial facility. Horse hides flop off a rickety conveyor belt and lie for hours in an uncovered trailer, unleashing a vicious, far-reaching odor that swarms up and down the narrow residential streets. Discarded bones lie in an adjacent backyard, perhaps thrown over by Crown employees or licked dry and left by stray dogs that gnawed off the meat when no one was looking. Then there are the horses. You can hear them rustle and neigh nervously as they await a trip to a sterile pen to face the lethal bolt that will pound them in the skull.
Slaughtering around 300 horses a week, Dallas Crown has enraged animal lovers and local residents alike. The plant ships horsemeat overseas for human consumption and processes leftover parts for scraps. But the grim and unusual task of its business is only half the story. For at least five years, the plant 30 miles east of Dallas has frequently clogged the local sewer system with blood, grease, hay and manure and has failed to pay nearly 30 fines levied for alleged violations of city ordinances. Now, after years of apathy, angry city officials have taken steps to close the plant, belatedly fulfilling the dreams of the long-ignored African-American residents of the tiny Boggy Bottoms neighborhood, which takes its name after the mud that once gathered on top of their unpaved streets.
"I can't describe the smell. It's that bad," says Stella Jones, an elderly woman who has lived in Boggy Bottoms for 15 years. "That smell keeps me sick all the time. Every day you can smell it. I wish the owners of the plant and the people who work there can come here and wake up to it."
That's unlikely, but two weeks ago the Kaufman City Council made a strong statement nonetheless when it unanimously recommended that the city's Zoning Board of Adjustments decide whether the plant has violated the city's nuisance laws. The vote followed stinging reports from the Kaufman city manager, public works director and police chief, who chronicled in individual reports how Dallas Crown allegedly breaks the law and mocks the surrounding neighbors' modest expectations of a life without horse stench.
"I'm not sure the only solution isn't for them to pack up and move," says Police Chief James Smith, who doubles as a preacher. "To be on the safe side, there is no other solution--not one that's going to stem this growing resentment."
With second-term Mayor Paula Bacon calling for the facility to be shut down, many residents expect the zoning board to vote to rescind the plant's non-conforming use designation that allows it to operate against current zoning laws. Also, next fall the U.S. Senate is expected to take up legislation already passed in the House that could force horse-slaughtering plants like Dallas Crown out of business. For now, though, the company's lawyer vows a fight.
"There is an ongoing attempt by the mayor to manipulate the city to interfere with their business," says attorney Mark Calabria, who donated money to a political action committee that funded one of the mayor's recent opponents. "She's been quite open and notorious about it."
A tall, blond woman in her mid-50s with a healthy streak of righteous indignation, Mayor Paula Bacon has, in fact, been a lively critic of Dallas Crown and the first local leader to take the pleas of Kaufman's tiny Boggy Bottoms neighborhood seriously. Two weeks ago, Boggy Bottoms resident Robert Eldridge gave a tour of the outside perimeter of Dallas Crown to the mayor. Under a mid-afternoon sun, walking amongst weeds, brush and discarded horse bones, she snapped digital pictures of an uncovered trailer on the grounds storing horse hides, a practice that has beckoned rats and dogs and is yet another potential violation of a city ordinance by Dallas Crown. Later, when a stern Dallas Crown employee stood outside the plant's front gate and warned this reporter that he was dangerously close to trespassing, she firmly informed the employee that the city owned the land approaching the fence and that anyone can come right up to it and take a look inside--which she then proceeded to do. When the man dismissed her, she told him she was the mayor. Nervously, he grabbed his cell phone and was heard explaining what had just happened to someone who sounded like his supervisor.
"They are a nuisance by their very nature situated next to a residential neighborhood," she says of Dallas Crown. "And while they're capable of complying with our regulations and ordinances, they disregard them. They're a stigma to our town and a hindrance to development."
Dallas Crown has at least 29 unpaid summonses at $2,000 each, most of which are for too much blood and grease in the plant's wastewater. Clinically referred to as biochemical oxygen demand, Dallas Crown's nasty blend of discharge can strain the local wastewater treatment plant. Last year, the company threw out the city's outside inspector, who had repeatedly cited it for violations, and enlisted its own lab to perform the testing. Now Calabria says that Dallas Crown, which according to court records has grossed in the neighborhood of $10 million annually, won't pay the $58,000 in fines without a fight.
"We took the position that the citations that were issued were not justified," he says. "We'd be more than happy to litigate that in a court of law, and if it's determined we have to pay them, we will."
Calabria, who lives in a nice section of Kaufman out of sight of his client's business, is not afraid to play hardball, suggesting that the neighbors' concerns about Dallas Crown are overblown.
"It's been a horse-processing plant for 15 years," he says. "And it just seems unusual to me that all these people find these living conditions to be hell."
Eldridge, a middle-aged black man who has lived in Boggy Bottoms his whole life, says that for years no one listened to the pleas of a traditionally black neighborhood. In any case, he says, if Calabria doubts the noxious odor that spews from the plant, he can check it out for himself.
"If Mr. Calabria wants to bring his family and live here, we have a place for him," Eldridge says, only partly in jest. Eldridge offers the same Southern hospitality to the plant's owner, who lives in Belgium.
While Eldridge enjoys taunting Dallas Crown through the press, the presence of a horse-slaughtering plant in his beloved neighborhood is no joke. A respiratory therapist who formed a small real-estate holding company with his wife of 22 years, Eldridge has bought several parcels of land, most of them in his immediate neighborhood, at tax sales. Across the street from his well-kept home, he owns a 3.5-acre lot that he'd like to develop into a small apartment complex for the elderly. He says he wants to help the poor neighborhood become a better place to live, and the first step is to kick Dallas Crown out.
"I know these people are going to fight," says Eldridge. "They've got a lot to lose, but so do I."
Calabria says that Eldridge's opposition to Dallas Crown is financially motivated, although the lifelong resident is hardly the only person to cite the plant's deleterious effect on the neighborhood's quality of life. Tonya Runnels wakes up early in the morning to commute to her job at an auto parts store. Sometimes, she can hear employees of Dallas Crown yelling at the horses as they are walking them to the killing pen just across the street from her home.
"The odor and the rumbling," she says, are what most bother her about living so close to Dallas Crown. "You can hear the horses beating up against the stall."
James Smith, the police chief and the preacher, corroborated the residents' gripes about the plant after his officers monitored Dallas Crown for a month. He reported that the plant regularly left waste material uncovered in trailers and that he and his officers detected "significant foul odors."
In addition to the nuisance it presents to its immediate neighbors, Crown and other businesses like it have also drawn fire for their treatment of the horses. While company officials and even veterinary groups say that the plant provides a humane end for many old and disabled horses, animal lovers claim that the horses agonize in their last moments. Jerry Finch, founder of the equine rescue group Habitat for Horses, says that horses are executed for slaughter the same way that cows are: with a bolt driven into their foreheads.
"The problem is that, unlike cows, horses move their heads a lot," he says. "We have film that shows horses trying to escape that shot. The law says that they're supposed to be rendered unconscious by one shot, but we have film that shows the horses are hit three to five times."
Without delving into the details of his client's work, Calabria says plainly that Dallas Crown operates in a strictly controlled, very regulated business. A USDA inspector is also on the premises during working hours. Still, he refused to allow the Dallas Observer to tour the facility.
Although sympathetic to the plight of the horses that graze around them, Dallas Crown's immediate neighbors just want to have a chance at living an ordinary residential life. They want their kids to be able to play outside. They don't want to fend off rats and snakes drawn to the plant. They don't want to smell decaying horse hides left uncovered under a blazing summer sun.
"I was born here and I'll probably die here," Eldridge says. "A man's home is his castle, and you have to fight for it." --Matt Pulle
On August 18, an employee at Professional Bank in Lakewood heard "we just got robbed!" and ran into the lobby. A teller explained a man had given her a note and showed a gun. Someone pointed and said, "He's right there." The employee saw a man strolling down the sidewalk past Legal Grounds "calm, cool and collected," and watched him get into a green pickup truck with dark tinted windows. The employee ran to his own car and, as he pulled out to follow the bandit's truck, dialed 911.
His quick thinking reeled in an alleged serial bank robber dubbed "The Fishing Hat Bandit."
The employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, had been at other banks during four previous robberies. "They are very quiet," he says. "Their escape is pretty quick." He'd never been involved in nabbing a thief, but this time he had an extra incentive. Forty-seven families founded the Professional Bank; his was one of them.
Banks have insurance that covers loss through robbery but typically with high deductibles. "So you have to take the loss," he says. "I have ownership in this bank."
The employee tailed his quarry a car length back, talking to police as the robber drove north on Abrams Road. "He didn't speed," the employee says. "It was like he was going to get a cup of coffee." As they neared Northwest Highway, an unmarked car whizzed by the employee's car. In seconds, four or five Dallas police cars had surrounded the robber's truck and officers wielding huge guns had the guy on the ground. "They were smooth and swift," the employee says. "They did a phenomenal job."
A week later, Rodney Robertson, 40, of Terrell, was indicted on one charge of bank robbery, says Lori Bailey of the FBI, adding that Robertson is suspected in seven other bank robberies in the area since the beginning of the year. Surveillance photos of the suspected robber wearing a fishing hat have appeared in the media on Crimestoppers. He apparently tried a new tack this time, trading the lucky fishing hat for a jinxed ball cap.
The employee still doesn't know how much the robber made off with. But he hopes the FBI gives back the evidence soon. --Glenna Whitley