‘Roach Men’ Left Toxic Trail
They came when called. They honored their guarantees. The roach men promised no bug on Earth could skitter away alive from their stuff. They were sloppy, but always thorough. Even when their spray ran wild, leaving fetid yellow trails on coats, walls and carpets, the poison killed.
It was the secret of their success. And it explained how the handiwork of a few unlicensed exterminators, unknown to each other and invisible to government regulators, grew into an environmental disaster that spread as relentlessly as vermin crawling inside masonry crevices, popping up in Mississippi Gulf Coast trailer parks, then in New Orleans shanties, then in crumbling two-flats in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.
Down here, retired shipyard worker Paul Walls Sr. sprayed hundreds of homes and businesses, leaving cards with drawings of belly-up roaches: “Call on Paul. He’ll kill them all.” On Chicago’s West Side, where roach armies invade bedrooms and roost in cookware, Reuben Brown was welcomed for his “Mississippi stuff.” Only Southern emigres recognized his spray’s familiar stench as the malodorous fog that rolls in from cotton fields deloused of boll weevils. Some were so excited to find “cotton poison” up north they hoarded it in milk jugs and spray bottles.
For years, perhaps decades, hauling their noxious syrup along the Delta highways that poor black sharecroppers and bluesmen once took to make new lives, roach men sprayed thousands of Southern and Midwestern homes and businesses. But not until environmental authorities discovered last fall that 500 mobile homes, churches and day-care centers in this coastal town had been laced with methyl parathion--a lethal farm pesticide and chemical cousin of the deadly nerve gas sarin--did they suspect they faced a sprawling toxic menace on the scale of Times Beach and Love Canal.
Over the last year, the Environmental Protection Agency has spent $69 million to decontaminate more than 700 homes and businesses, stripping their innards or replacing them entirely. More than $100 million likely will be spent--the highest single-year expenditure of federal dollars on a toxic cleanup. Six roach men, Walls and Brown among them, have been prosecuted for hazardous and unlicensed spraying. Despite his age, Walls, 62, was sentenced to 6 1/2 years, the highest prison term ever meted by a federal judge for environmental crimes. Brown has pleaded guilty to two similar counts and faces a November sentencing.
They were functionally illiterate, the roach men claimed in their trials, unable to read the detailed warnings that came with the poison they bought. They rarely wore masks or took precautions against poisoning themselves. Even the macabre skulls and crossbones drawn on every methyl parathion canister, one defense lawyer said, meant little to men who “could walk into a hardware store and fill up a shopping cart with household poisons.”
But the roach men were well aware they were not spraying common pesticides, environmental officials countered. The sprayers lied in obtaining licenses to buy farm pesticides. And they ranged all over the Deep South, rarely buying cotton poison from the same dealer in order not to raise suspicion. “This stuff was designed to kill and they knew it,” said Jeremy Korzenick, a Justice Department attorney who specializes in pesticide-related prosecutions.
Still, after testing pesticide levels in nearly 6,000 homes in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Texas, officials are awed by how much they do not know. They wonder how many thousands more victims were sprayed with methyl parathion, how the roach men--mostly a small band of black retirees--jeopardized so many lives for so long without stirring up notice. And they can only guess the extent of long-term perils faced by families exposed to cotton poison.
“When you have so many unknowns, you can’t just sit and wait for the studies to come in,” said Dave Starr, an EPA specialist in Chicago. “We were dealing with an incredibly powerful organophosphate here. Once people are out of harm’s way, you can spend all the time you want getting answers.”
Many Displaced Appear Healthy
For everything officials do know, it seems, there is an accompanying mystery: More than 2,000 people have relocated to temporary dwellings while EPA Superfund crews in moon suits and respirator masks swarmed into their homes. Yet despite complaints of flu-like symptoms, many of the displaced appear healthy.
No deaths or serious injuries have been linked officially to cotton poison. There are not enough credible studies to offer cause for alarm, but doctors fear that repeated high doses may pose lasting neurological consequences to children. And in private, health officials acknowledge that as many as a half-dozen fatalities have been investigated for possible connections to methyl parathion spraying.
“When you see how random the spraying was, it’s hard to imagine there weren’t deaths,” said Dr. Robert Cox, a Jackson, Miss., toxicologist who is studying methyl parathion’s long-term effects. “These people sprayed closets, they sprayed dishes.” But the pesticide breaks down so quickly in the body, Cox said, it is hard to trace “without knowing what you’re looking for. An autopsy doesn’t give us real solid leads.”
As detoxification crews scrambled to repair polluted homes and investigators worked like epidemiologists to follow the trail of cotton poison’s carriers, the sweep of the pesticide’s underground use became numbingly evident. The roach men had sprayed for as long as a decade, undetected by the EPA’s monitoring and public education efforts--an early warning system designed to stem illegal pesticide use on farms, but not focused on dangers inside homes.
The search for flaws in the EPA’s radar has started. But the subterranean nature of the spraying--and its rampant spread through poor communities, where displaced pesticide victims often sided with the obliging roach men over officials investigating them--pose even more fundamental questions about how far government agencies should go to anticipate the unexpected and protect people who shun their protection.
Unable to Identify Ailments
“There was enough of a history of this type of activity in the past to suspect that something like this might be going on,” said Milton Clark, a senior science advisor in the EPA’s Chicago regional office. “But how could anyone have known it would be this particular pesticide applied at this magnitude?”
Because few cotton poison victims imagined their headaches, breathing disorders and skin rashes might be the result of a neurotoxin sprayed in their homes, the doctors examining them were at a loss to identify their ailments. Most were treated for the flu until their symptoms receded.
It was not until a month ago, when an EPA sampling team wearing yellow protective suits showed up at her front door, that Chicago nurse Zorana Perkins connected the breathing ailments suffered two years ago by her grandmother, uncle and 1-year-old son, Darius, to cotton poison. All three were home that winter day in 1996 when pesticide man Reuben Brown doused their living quarters with methyl parathion.
As the shrouded government men traced Brown’s tracks, kneeling under the kitchen sink or extracting swabs of amber stains from frayed carpet edges, Perkins, 24, recalled how her son started vomiting blood two days after her two-story row home was sprayed.
“We didn’t know what it could be,” she said, stroking the boy’s hair. “We figured it was a bad flu.”
Darius was released from University of Illinois hospital after improving over three days. But by then, 61-year-old Gloria Oliver, Perkins’ grandmother, was failing. She was rushed to Cook County General Hospital, her body quivering with convulsions, her lungs paralyzed. She lapsed into a coma, lingering nearly two months on a respirator before dying on March 31, 1996.
Doctors ruled the cause of death as “multiple organ failure.” They told Perkins they were stumped how an outwardly healthy woman’s internal organs could shut down like a frozen engine. Dr. Anne Krantz, a Cook County health official who is monitoring cotton poison victims, is cautious about concluding the pesticide is to blame in Oliver’s death. But her symptoms were among those “you might see in an acute reaction.”
“My grandmother was the one who hired Mr. Brown,” Perkins said. Indeed, the EPA team came to her home in September after finding Oliver’s name among 1,000 listed on a handwritten work log in Brown’s suburban Chicago home.
“She never worried about the smell,” Perkins said sadly. “Long as it was cheap and it did the job. Most of the time after he sprayed, we never saw no live roaches. Just dead ones.”
Roach men like Brown, 61, always made good on their promises. If insects reappeared, they often boosted the already-potent dosage of methyl parathion and returned for a free spraying.
Said one investigator: “These guys weren’t rocket scientists. This stuff was deadly enough when you mixed it at the recommended ratio: 99 parts water to one part poison. But they were spraying at concentrations of four-fifths water to one-fifth poison. It’s amazing people weren’t dropping like flies.”
The roach men prosecuted so far have been mostly retirees looking to supplement Social Security checks or make extra spending money. Brown was a former butcher. Walls left shipyard work. His partner, Dock Eatmon Jr., was a preacher. One of the few women investigated, Daisy Butler, sold farm pesticides out of her New Orleans home.
They all stumbled onto the realization that there was money to be made in satisfying poor people’s desperation for a way to stave off roaches. One by one, they learned what those in cotton country had known for decades--farm pesticides are cheap, easily obtained and fatally effective.
“It’s like folk medicine,” said Robert McCarty, who oversees pesticide safety for Mississippi’s Agriculture Department. “These people came off the farm and remembered using cotton poison to control pests.”
“The smell didn’t bother me none,” said Alice Fentry, 58, a Delta native who hired Brown and his now-dead partner, J.D. McKinley, to spray her house in west Chicago. “That’s when you know it’s workin’.”
As DDT and other long-lasting, cancer-causing pesticides were banned in the early 1970s, a new generation of farm poisons took their place. Methyl parathion, invented and conceived as a nerve agent in Germany during World War II, won an increasingly large share of the farm market, especially in the South, where cotton growers craved a new pesticide to subdue boll weevils.
“The assumption in government and industry was that methyl parathion broke down faster in the soil so it had to be safer,” said John Wargo, a Yale University associate professor of environmental studies who specializes in the history of pesticides. “It was never studied properly because agriculture was so desperate to get an inexpensive, ostensibly safe replacement for DDT.”
Manufactured by a Danish chemical firm, methyl parathion has competition from a host of newer and equally powerful neurotoxins. But it is still a popular choice among Southern farmers because of its low cost and swift biodegradability in cotton fields. Its potency--a spoonful of concentrated pesticide can kill within minutes--restricts methyl parathion to rural use.
But as state and federal environmental officials learned to their amazement, the roach men bought thousands of gallons of cotton poison from farm chemical retailers, shipped it in the trunks of cars and pickup trucks, stored it in sheds and basements and sprayed it indiscriminately for years--rarely alerting authorities.
Walls searched for methyl parathion for more than a decade without knowing its name. He discovered it in the early 1980s while living in New Orleans. According to his lawyer, Jim Davis Hull--a municipal judge in Moss Point, a town north of Pascagoula--Walls bought a bottle of a foul-smelling brown liquid after seeing it kill dozens of roaches in a friend’s home.
Deadly Brown Liquid Readily Available
New Orleans has long been an underground bazaar for pesticides, where stolen and illegally purchased poisons are sold at flea markets and by vendors loitering in vacant lots. “We’ve found it in whiskey bottles and Coke bottles,” said Larry Michaud, a Louisiana agriculture official. In the past year, authorities found pesticide traces in 105 New Orleans residences. So far, 88 have been evacuated.
Moving to Moss Point, Walls went into unlicensed exterminating work. But he was frustrated with common commercial poisons and kept searching for the no-name pesticide he remembered from New Orleans. He drove all over southern Mississippi, burned time and again, Hull said, by con men selling “all kinds of fakes,” until Eatmon turned up excitedly with good news in November 1995.
Eatmon had found the brown liquid in a Grand Bay, Ala., feed store. The two men returned there, and when Walls sniffed the syrup, “he knew it was the stuff,” Hull said. In the following months, Walls and his wife made repeated trips to buy the chemical from the store’s salesmen.
“Nobody there squawked,” Hull said, a failure he insists echoed official culpability beyond Walls’ own mistakes. “These chemical dealers were happy to sell, and they never asked questions. And if this stuff is so deadly, how is it that a retiree like Mr. Walls can go in and get a license to spray agricultural pesticides without the state calling him on it?”
The massive cleanup in Pascagoula and similar episodes uncovered recently in the Delta have led Mississippi authorities to tighten their pesticide licensing procedures. But officials like McCarty suspect that Walls may have sprayed methyl parathion far longer than two years.
McCarty contends Walls sprayed illegally even after he was cited in 1996 and was hauled before a county judge for failing to heed warnings--one of the few times authorities confronted a roach man before last year. “I told him to his face outside the courthouse that what he was doing was dangerous and he needed to quit. I told him he could wind up killing somebody.”
Former Customers Complain of Ailments
Walls, who now works as a security guard at a highway rest stop outside of Moss Point while Hull appeals his prison sentence, angrily waved off an attempt to interview him. But around Pascagoula, a shipbuilding town of 26,000, scores of bitter former clients dream of facing him one-on-one to get their own answers.
A mile from the highway, sitting in the new trailer home bought for her by the federal government, Denise Wainwright displayed the only item she saved from a house that once seeped with hazardous traces of cotton poison--a framed landscape streaked yellow.
Wainwright and her husband, Albert, went to local doctors repeatedly for strange ailments after hiring Walls in 1991 to spray their home. But until last fall, they never made the connection.
“Once you use my stuff,” she says Walls told her, “you won’t use nobody else.”
He came cheap, spraying twice a year for $45, far below the hundreds charged by commercial exterminators. At first, Wainwright was pleased to see her trailer swept clean of roaches, but she ran a perpetual flu. The worst symptoms came after Walls sprayed her dentures, left in a glass by her bed. EPA testers found such high levels of pesticide on the teeth that they confiscated them for a year. But when she complained about her mouth sores to her doctors back in 1996, they told her “I was allergic to my dentures.”
It was Wainwright who ended Walls’ chemical reign of terror, setting off the federal response that turned up evidence that illegal methyl parathion spraying had gone on unchecked throughout Mississippi into Memphis, New Orleans and Chicago.
Hearing rumors last fall that parishioners of a church sprayed by Walls had been sickened, Wainwright complained to a Pascagoula newspaper reporter, then to Mississippi authorities. When state agriculture investigators found dangerous levels of methyl parathion in her home and the residences of other alarmed clients, they turned to the EPA for help.
Growing Fears of Illegal Use
Pascagoula was not the first community where the EPA had to contend with widespread farm pesticide contamination. But it was the place where agency officials confirmed growing fears that illegal use of farm poisons was not an isolated phenomenon but a regional problem carried to other states like some virulent Deep South epidemic.
The EPA’s first warning had come in 1995, when startled Ohio health officials summoned federal crews to the industrial town of Lorain. State analysts had found high levels of an unknown pesticide in scores of homes. EPA specialists identified the toxin as methyl parathion. Over the next 14 months, the agency cleaned up 233 homes and relocated nearly 900 residents.
A handyman named Lutellis Kilgore was blamed for the disaster. He had traveled south to Louisiana, returning with gallons of the pesticide. Kilgore poured the methyl parathion down heating vents and left behind fruit jars of the poison in scores of homes. Prosecuted by federal authorities, he was sentenced in September to a three-year prison term.
As the Ohio cleanup wound down, EPA officials divided over what the Lorain episode meant. Some concluded it was an isolated occurrence. Others, like the Chicago region’s Clark, worried about the Southern connection, convinced other roach men might be heading south to illegally buy cotton poison.
In Chicago, the EPA sent out undercover investigators to the Maxwell Street Market, a sprawling open-air swap meet where vendors hawk wares ranging from used engine blocks to dried chilies. Agents came back with vague leads but no lethal pesticide.
“We looked for weeks, but we just couldn’t penetrate that world,” Clark said.
Even that attempt was a rarity. “There’s been a lot of denial, both on the state level and ours,” said Carlton Layne, an EPA specialist in Atlanta who investigated the Pascagoula episode. “Over and over we’ve heard officials say it can’t be happening without us knowing about it. Well, it did.”
In Washington, the EPA has set up a working group to identify where policy and officials may have failed. “We’re not at the point yet where we’re discussing whether we need to make changes,” said John Cunningham, a director in the EPA’s Office of Emergency and Remedial Response, which oversees toxic cleanups. “We’re still assessing, but we have to finish the cleanup first.”
In Pascagoula, most homes have been repaired. But federal crews are still going door-to-door in Chicago, trying to persuade Brown’s reluctant clients to allow them into their homes to test for cotton poison. It is much the same in Memphis and the northern Mississippi Delta, where authorities are surveying houses contaminated by the Kellys, a family of roach men.
EPA officials are alarmed by the high concentrations of methyl parathion found in Chicago. In Pascagoula, sprayed houses were well-ventilated and poorly insulated, allowing the muggy Gulf climate to break down the pesticide inside. But in Chicago, where homes are protected from the elements, the pesticide tends to endure longer, a worrisome hazard for children who play on floors still stained by the chemical.
Brown added to Chicago’s high concentrations, said the EPA’s Starr, by spraying indiscriminately--dousing closets filled with clothes, cupboards filled with dishes, even children’s toys.
Sprayer ‘Feels Badly’ About His Actions
His lawyer, Richard Dickinson, says Brown “feels badly about what happened.” Dickinson insists that Brown, whom he describes as “a functional illiterate,” simply failed to grasp that the heavy drums of pesticide he and an accomplice ferried north from Mississippi were so virulently toxic to humans.
It was an excuse offered, too, by Walls and Eatmon--and scoffed at by investigators. “All you had to do was look at the giant skull and crossbones,” said David McCloud, an EPA criminal investigator in Atlanta. “That should’ve told them all they needed to know.”
When Eatmon testified in his trial earlier this year that he could not comprehend the warnings found on drums of methyl parathion, federal prosecutors summoned some of the preacher’s parishioners to the witness stand. Eatmon, they told a jury, read and commented on passages from his King James Bible like an academic theologian. Like Walls, he was also convicted.
Brown pleaded guilty to two counts of hazardous spraying. Even if he is jailed, warns Dickinson, other underground entrepreneurs in Chicago have sprayed--and may still be spraying--the same deadly pesticide Brown imported from Mississippi.
Brown was only following the lead, Dickinson said, of McKinley, who had made repeated trips down South for years to fetch his fabled “Mississippi stuff.”
Catching the roach men, acknowledge EPA officials, may take years--if they can be found at all. Even as top agency officials talk of winding down their massive cleanup sometime next year, front-line investigators are swapping reports and rumors of new cotton poison outbreaks in Philadelphia, in St. Louis, in Indiana.
“Anywhere in this country where you find folks who left Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana, you’ve got potential customers,” said McCarty. “You’ve got a lot of ‘em in L.A., now don’t you?”
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