Metropolis: Wednesday, August 15, 2002
Curiouser and Curiouser

Five Star fingers its chief accuser — and he winds up in jail.


The Riverside businessman who has complained loudest and longest about the stench from a neighborhood meat processing plant was arrested last week on a charge that he says smells worse than the business itself.

Fort Worth police jailed Bill E. Cole on Aug. 6 for “illegal use of equipment’’ based largely on the word of an employee of the company about which Cole has complained for years — Five Star Custom Foods Inc. at 3709 E. 1st St. The employee, according to records, told police he saw Cole and another man attempting to steal anhydrous ammonia from the company.

No actual theft took place — Cole is merely accused of tampering with the ammonia lines at the facility, records show. But Cole says he was at home sleeping when the police allege he was crawling on the Five Star roof — and his story is backed by his wife and older son.

Cole, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the American flag, appeared stunned as he was released from jail on Aug. 7, but he was adamant about his innocence. His first words: “I can’t believe this is happening in the United States. I thought this only happened in Third-World countries.’’

Anhydrous ammonia is a highly caustic chemical with legitimate uses that range from commercial refrigeration to potato fertilizer. But it also is used to cook methamphetamines. Responding to ammonia thefts statewide, Texas lawmakers last year made tampering with anhydrous ammonia equipment a third-degree felony.

Cole was jailed overnight before being released on $30,000 bond — a sum his attorney says is more appropriate for a violent criminal. A week after his arrest, prosecutors were still reviewing the case; they had not accepted a criminal charge against him by Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

The case against Cole is so unusual that Cole’s defense attorney initially was unfamiliar with it.

“I’ve been practicing law for 25 years and I’ve never heard of it,’’ said Abe Factor, one of the county’s most experienced trial litigators. “As far as I can tell, he hasn’t done anything wrong.’’

Cole would be an unusual candidate to wind up as a defendant in a drug case. He’s a father of three, a teetotaler and small-business owner who also has complained about other neighborhood nuisances — a drug house that was recently busted and a convenience store that he claims sells alcohol and cigarettes to children.

Five Star, located next to Cole’s auto repair shop, is the latest in a succession of businesses to operate the East First Street facility. The property on which the plant is located belongs to Bobby Cox Companies Inc., a West Texas conglomerate that owns a number of chain restaurants, including Rosa’s Café in Fort Worth. Records show that the plant can process tens of thousands of pounds of meat per day.

Ownership of the plant has changed hands several times during the last two decades. The city’s 228-page file on the facility show that it has been repeatedly cited for violating municipal ordinances governing the discharge of oil and grease into the sewer system.

Five Star has received at least two citations this year, and inspectors returned to the plant this summer on a new complaint. The city subsequently referred the problem to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which is investigating.

City water department spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza said Five Star isn’t responsible for violations by previous owners. The company, she said, “does not have a poor performance history,’’ and its management “has been very cooperative and demonstrated its desire to prevent the problems from reoccurring.

“The company is working toward a long-term solution to address the grease build-up issue that caused the violation earlier this year,’’ she said.

Five Star has reported several ammonia thefts or attempted thefts to police during the summer. Just before 2 a.m. on July 22, a Five Star official told police that he observed Cole and another man on a security camera that monitors the company’s rooftop ammonia lines. The two men appeared to be siphoning off some of the ammonia, he said.

The worker said he identified Cole in part from a photograph that accompanied a June 27 Fort Worth Weekly article detailing neighborhood complaints about Five Star.

Cole says he’s twice complained to Five Star officials in person about the stench from the plant. The second time, Cole said, a company official threatened to call police if he didn’t leave.

When police arrived on July 22, they arrested one man who was running from the Five Star plant and found Cole at his home and place of business. A police report on the incident said Cole appeared “unusually nervous.’’

Cole said his business, Bill’s Auto Repair, gets work from a wrecker service that tows disabled vehicles to the shop in the middle of the night. The property is protected by three large and menacing dogs. The front of the building has been remodeled to include several bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a small den. Cole and his family often spend the night at the business, as they did on July 22.

Cole’s wife, Sonia, and their oldest son, Bill Jr., said they are certain that Cole was home during the time when police say he was prowling on the Five Star roof.

“That’s bullshit,’’ Sonia said while her husband was still in jail. “He was at home in bed with me.’’

Bill Jr. said he woke up his parents after their dogs “went off’’ — barking at police searching for the ammonia thieves.

“He was in his room sleeping,’’ Cole’s son said. “It took a good 15 to 20 seconds to wake him up.’’

Cole says any nervousness he displayed to police that night was the result of nothing more than being awakened in the middle of the night to find his property overrun by cops, with lights shining and a helicopter whumping overhead.

Five Star’s Steve Phillips previously told the Weekly that the company is in compliance with city ordinances and dismissed complaints about odor, saying “some people don’t like the smell of Italian sausage cooking.’’ Phillips is identified in records as the person who told police he saw Cole on the surveillance monitor. He was not available for comment for this story.

Despite their Ozzie and Harriet demographics — mom and dad, three kids, three dogs, a family business where everyone pitches in — the Coles struggle to make ends meet. Sonia said she raided her piggy bank and asked a relative for a loan to cover the $3,000 it took to make her husband’s bond. The day her husband was to be released, Sonia sought a ride with a Weekly reporter to Mansfield where Cole was jailed because the family car wasn’t up to the trip.

After his release, Cole said he believes the charge against him was trumped up because of his high-profile complaints about the foul smell that sometimes wafts from Five Star.

“I think they set all this up to shut me up and put me out of business,’’ he said.

The neighborhood around Five Star, like the Cole family, is struggling economically. Many of the residents are old. Cole said some of his neighbors are afraid to speak out; others were reluctant to have their photographs taken. But Cole’s arrest has done little to silence him.

“What they’re doing, dumping stuff in the sewer system, is wrong. Not just [to] me — everybody in a one-mile radius has to put up with it,’’ he said. “I look over my shoulder every morning wondering what the hell is next, because I’m not going to quit. The only thing they can do is put me in the sausage grinder.’’

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