Thursday, July 7, 2011

On the Treasure of Trash

Your Trash Ain’t Nothin’ But Stash
By Colleen Collins & Shaun Kaufman
We changed a couple of words from the old Steve Miller song “Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash” for this blog title because it sounded catchier than “How Private Investigators Rummage Through People’s Trash for Evidence, Such as Drugs.
In our combined 14 years as private investigators, we’ve successfully solved a number of cases by getting down and dirty in other people’s trash. It’s amazing how many people blithely toss their most secret information, such as receipts, phone numbers, credit card statements, personal letters…and drugs. They might be more careful with their garbage if they knew incriminating items from it could end up in a court of law.
Some of our clients are domestic relations lawyers who sometimes need evidence in child custody cases. In one case, a father of two small children suspected his ex-wife’s erratic behavior and excessive weight loss (60 pounds in 4 months) was due to her using meth. When his attorney hired us to find evidence, we knew what to do: Conduct a trash hit on the ex-wife’s garbage.

Case Preparation: When, Where, What
We always prepare ahead of time for a trash hit. Trust us, it’s enough of a mess rummaging through a stranger’s garbage without making the activity a spontaneous event.
For this particular case, we:

Checked what day of the week the ex-wife’s trash was picked up (the husband had an idea which day, which we confirmed by checking the municipal website).
Surveyed the ex-wife’s home the week before and learned she set out the trash the night before trash collection pick-up.
Prepared our equipment (for example, checked that cameras had batteries, purchased bulky gloves as we didn’t know if there’d be needles in the trash).
Getting Dirty
After dragging ourselves out of bed at 4 a.m. on “trash hit” day, we:
Dressed in dark colors (yeah, sounds James Bondish, but wearing that neon-yellow Led Zeppelin T-shirt means being easily identified).
Packed our equipment (cameras, gloves, bags) into the vehicle.
On the drive over, reviewed who was doing what (last thing a PI team wants is to look like the Keystone Cops – it’s supposed to be a trash hit, not a trash comedy of errors).
Turned off dome light so the vehicle would stay dark inside while opening doors (wearing dark clothes doesn’t matter if you put yourself in the spotlight!)
Parked next to the trash and quickly did our dirty work.

Often after trash hits, we take the refuse to a public area (such as a public park) and do a first pass through the trash, tossing unnecessary items in a public dumpster. This way we’re not driving a trash-packed, foul-smelling vehicle for miles and miles back to our office. Although this could be a funny scene in a story.
For this particular case we knew we’d be carefully sifting through trash for possibly miniscule amounts of meth, so we rolled down the windows and drove our trash-packed, foul-smelling vehicle back to the office while watching the sun come up. Ah, nothing like the smell of detritus in the morning.
Back at the office, we laid out the trash. Wearing latex gloves, we documented suspicious evidence (see photos below):

Photo 1: Baggie with specks of white powder

Photo 2: Pen and arrows point to suspected meth

We also retrieved a dismantled writing pen, whose cylinder appeared
to be filled with a fine coating of white powder.

We mailed the baggie and pen cylinder to a DEA-approved private forensic lab. Their tests confirmed the traces of white substances were methamphetamine.
When the case went to court, the father won custody of the kids based on the photographs, lab report and our investigative testimony. This case occurred several years ago, but just the other day the attorney told us that the mother has yet to call her kids. That she’s still in that house with her meth, disconnected to the real world. Sad but true, she’s become a line in that Steve Miller tune… baby you’re crawling way past your speed.
If you’re writing a sleuth character or story, think about incorporating a trash hit to find evidence for a wide variety of cases, from child custody to missing persons to homicides.
Thank you, Jan Brogan and Jungle Red Writers, for hosting us as your blog guests today.

Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman are private investigators and writers. Their non-fiction ebook How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths will be available on Kindle and Nook in July 2011.

The authors are gifting one Kindle ebook of How to Write a Dick: A Guide to Writing Fictional Sleuths from a Couple of Real-Life Sleuths to one person, chosen at random, who comments on today's blog. If you don't have a Kindle device, Kindle apps for PCs and Macs are free and easily downloadable from Amazon. Add your email address to your comments so if your name is picked, the authors will know how to contact you! The winner's name will be picked by midnight, July 7.


  1. Do they make Kevlar gloves? Digging trash is scary! That's probably why I am a reader and not a doer or a writer.

  2. Oh, I did this for a story once, for another reason! How companies and hospitals dispose of people's personal was amazing and terrifying.

    Here's what's SO interesting. I wore thin thin latex gloves, with big ywellow dishwashing gloves over them.

    Without the latex glove underneath, the big kitchen gloves would not stay on. They were SO HUGE, they slid right off.

    BUT! When I put on those skin tight latex gloves and THEN tried to put on the huge yellow gloves over them, I could not even get the yellows on.

    And I instantly thought--OJ SImpson.

  3. Great post. You have such interesting stories. Love the details.

  4. Being auto-delivered wirelessly as we speak. Love the interview. Love the comments.

  5. Waving hello to Colleen and Shaun from Colorado. Another must read to add to my shelves. Gasping because I just put out my trash .

    Colleen and Shaun, how interesting that your pull trash into your own vehicle and then examine it near another dumpster. I know you must wear protective clothing, but what do you do to protect your car? Do you have a vehicle you use for such events? I'm thinking meth, in particular, has such scary bi-products. Do you expand on this in the book?

    Best wishes on your book tour.

  6. Good morning (or afternoon)! We're proud to be an honorary Jungle Red Writer today.

    As Jan mentioned in her write-up, we'll be picking a name from all who leave comments to be gifted a Kindle version of HOW TO WRITE A DICK. Don't need to own a Kindle device as there are free, downloadable Kindle apps for PCs and Macs. Name will be picked by midnight...

    Now, onto questions...

    First, to Gram: Yes, there are Kevlar gloves. A lot are used for factory manufacturing purposes, but they'd be great for trash hits, too, because the palms are frequently made with leather. We hadn't thought about it until you brought it up, so thanks for the tip!

    Colleen & Shaun

  7. Hi Hank Phillippi Ryan,

    Interesting story about companies & hospitals disposing of people's personal records. Many hospitals are extraordinarily vigilant about shredding and protecting people's personal records because the HIPAA act provides for civil penalties for health care providers who fail to comply with patient health care privacy. Unfortunately, as you found found out, there are providers who are less careful in handling patient records.

    There are also businesses that are lax about tossing confidentiality records.

    Something we discuss in our book, and we find all the time in our trash hits, is evidence that is not paper (not shred-able), such as prescription bottles, liquor bottles, chemical containers.

    Interesting about the gloves!

  8. Hi Donnell!

    Yes, we expand on trash hits (including how we protect our vehicle) in the book. For example, we have a large, well-used sleeping bag that we lay out over the back of the vehicle...this protects the inside of the car or van from trash.

    Re: our post today about meth, that particular individual had no meth production equipment in her trash (and we knew ahead of time she wasn't manufacturing meth).

    If, however, we saw indicators of meth manufacturing in someone's trash (such as the combination of iodine bottles, stripped lithium batteries and ephedrine bubble packs), we'd end the trash hit immediately and call the police. In such a scenario, it's possible we (the PIs) would be quarantined, subjected to a field shower, our clothes destroyed, and we'd be sent to an emergency room. Definitely fodder for your stories! This is why we carefully research any potential trash hits, especially when we've been informed drugs are an issue.

    We'll be out of the office for the next few hours, but we'll check in after that for any other questions.

  9. Love the glamor of it all! Thanks for a fascinating post.

  10. I can't wait to read the book and to include details like the ones you discuss in my WIP. I remember reading a local story where the police asked a trash company to delay emptying a dumpster so they could search it.

    Edith Maxwell

  11. Colleen and Shaun, hi back atcha! Yes, those showers aren't the spa treatment by the way. I've seen the Haz-mat crews perform .... B-r-r-r-. I am thankful they treat the children with infinite more care. Looking forward to getting my hands on this book. Excellent!

  12. California v. Greenwood, which established there is no expectation of privacy in the trash you leave out on the curb, was my law school mock trail case! Rummaging through garbage has remained near and dear to me ever since.

    It's amazing to think what people will dispose of, blithely assuming that once it's in the can, it's gone. Not until someone develops a Jetsons-style home trash incinerator.

  13. Absolutely fascinating!!! Already downloaded the book and can't wait to read it.

    And of course I'm thinking seriously about what I put in MY trash . . . I suspect I should use the shredder more often.

    Thanks for being with us today, Colleen and Shaun. Great post!

  14. Oh, I remember those days! Within the police department, either the detectives brought the bags to the lab or we tech investigators (CSI) went out and scrounged. There's not enough Lysol in the world to fumigate after some of those runs! FYI, Kevlar gloves rock! Well worth the cost.

    I really need to write one of those scenes in my next suspense. *dashes off to scribble notes*

    Thanks for dropping by today, Colleen and Shaun. You gave my Muse a swift kick in the butt!

  15. Can't wait to read your book. Very interesting post.

    Actually, Gram, they do make Kevlar gloves. I have a pair. Use them in the kitchen to slice and dice. Also go for playing with kitty who doesn't like her nails cut.

    Hubby is so paranoid, we shread EVERYTHING! before we put it in the recycle container. I will admit to putting half my ripped up charge statement in two different places in the trash--half in recycling and half in messy kitchen trash. Can you imagine what we'd do if we had something to hide?

    Me, I'm an amature chef so I feel for the people who want to go thru my wet, messy trash. Especailly when I clean out the fridge.

  16. Just so you know, today's not a good day to sort the trash at my house...I cleaned the litterbox. :)

  17. Life would be far more pleasant for PIs if all their suspects composted and recycled. No spaghetti or kitty litter mixed with incriminating documents.

  18. We're checking in again, enjoying everyone's comments. We recently posted an article Colleen wrote for PI Magazine about conducting trash hits -- read for more details than you probably ever wanted to know :)

  19. It never occurred to me that trash could mean useful evidence in a child custody case! I'm looking forward to reading your book.

    Cathy Akers-Jordan

  20. very cute title for your upcoming book1

  21. Uhm...*hangs head* I forgot to leave my email address just in case I win. I...uhm...never did follow orders well... *looks shifty eyed* Here it is, just in case, changing the [] too @ of course. silverjames[at]

  22. You know, you've just given me some terrific food for thought (ugh). No, really! Coming up with good mystery plots is pretty hard work. I appreciate the additional angle here!

  23. Speaking of Digging,,,,I thought I would see what you have been up to!
    Amazing, writing a book, blogging =, getting famous.