Christina Harbison had been watching the rusty warehouse at 2850 Poplar St. in West Oakland for nearly two months. On Jan. 30, 2018, Harbison, who is an inspector with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, was once again parked outside. She saw a red tractor truck pull out of the rolled doors with a large tarped metal container, so she snapped a picture. Inside the warehouse, she’d seen piles of trash, dirt, and debris. It was apparently hauled in from all over the Bay Area, broken down and sorted illegally, and then trucked back out.
She decided to follow the truck as it went from West Oakland nearly 30 miles to a rural area of San Ramon. The truck driver stopped and waited outside a locked gate between two curves on Bollinger Canyon Road. The driver of a red pickup let him in, and the tractor truck disappeared into a wooded area for about 10 minutes. When it returned, its dark blue metal bin no longer had a tarp. It appeared to be empty.
Later that afternoon, she returned a call from a representative of the warehouse named Jim, who had left her several messages. On the phone that day, Jim said his name was Jim Wolf and that he’d been working there for about six months assisting with business operations. The company was a construction company, not a recycling company, he said, though occasionally they would bring material back from jobs to see if it could be reused.
Wolf invited Harbison to visit the warehouse the next day, where he gave her a tour. She noted piles of debris inside the warehouse. Because of neighbor complaints, Wolf said he had been working on finding a new location for the business, possibly on Davis Street in San Leandro. Before she left, Harbison asked Wolf to spell his name again and he said, “W-O-L-F,” according to a sworn declaration by Harbison, filed as part of a city of Oakland lawsuit against the warehouse owner.
But the man she met wasn’t named Jim Wolf. Harbison recognized him as James Phillip Lucero, who had been convicted twice of trash and dumping-related felonies in the last five years in the Bay Area. Public records also show that Lucero, 62, has apparently benefitted handsomely from his illegal dumping operations and from polluting the air and local waterways. At one point, he owned a multimillion-dollar home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a Bentley, and a Spanish show horse.
On Jan. 23, Lucero is scheduled to be sentenced for illegally dumping construction debris on protected federal wetlands next to harbor seal breeding grounds in Newark. He could face more than three years in prison.
After meeting Lucero on Jan. 30, Harbison went to Richmond to meet with Lucero’s business associate, Moacir Gomes Dos Santos, a 37-year-old Antioch resident. Originally from Brazil, Santos stands over 6 feet tall and is heavy, muscular, and intimidating. Santos explained that his construction business also rents out trash bins, but that he always properly disposes of the material as quickly as possible. Sometimes, though, landfills close early and he has to store some of the debris overnight, he told her. But he said he was looking for a property to set up a recycling center, possibly a 5-acre spot in San Leandro.
The city of Oakland had sued Santos 12 days earlier, on Jan. 18. The suit alleged that when Santos started doing business out of the Poplar Street warehouse in summer 2017, he intentionally blew toxic dust into the air and the surrounding neighborhood.
Santos, through his company, Santos Engineering, offers debris box and trash removal services to 100 cities in the Bay Area, according to his website. The business picks up debris and trash from construction sites, home renovations, or people cleaning out their garages. While Santos has argued in court documents that he just uses the Oakland warehouse to store machinery and containers, neighbors and the city attorney’s office allege that he has illegally been sorting out what can be recycled, breaking down the rest, and dumping it in various places.
The dust from breaking down construction debris — including drywall, fiberglass, and old steel — could contain asbestos and lead, the city attorney’s office argues. Santos cut a hole in the roof and installed a large fan to blow dust into the neighborhood, coating streets, homes, and cars, according to the suit. Neighbors complained of respiratory problems, itchiness, and said they had to keep their doors and windows closed. Residents there have long contended with some of the worst air quality in the country, but, they say, after Santos moved in, it became worse than anything they’d ever experienced.
Santos has repeatedly denied the allegations, saying that his company operates a construction company, not a trash hauling company, despite the fact that his website, SantosDumpster.com, advertises trash pickup service. His denials are often vague, contradictory, or demonstrably false. In an interview with KPIX reporter Christin Ayers shortly after the city sued him, Santos would not even say when he started operating in Oakland or whether he applied for a permit before he started doing business. “I feel like you’re being evasive,” Ayers said.
In an interview with the Express, Santos reiterated his assertion that he runs a construction company, not a hauling company. He said he has never operated a transfer station but sometimes moves trash and dirt around as part of that business. If he excavates a swimming pool, he might bring the dirt to a different site for a grading project, which is why he claims the truck Harbison followed went from his warehouse to San Ramon. He wasn’t storing the dirt in the warehouse either, he said; rather, the truck had only come back to the warehouse to be serviced on its way from one site to another.
But it’s not just Oakland saying that Santos is clearly operating a transfer station. Months before he moved to Oakland, Santos was evicted by his landlord in Richmond under pressure from city and county officials, who said he was illegally storing, sorting, and breaking down trash, according to court filings. Santos operated in Richmond for a decade, fending off repeated notices of code violations.
“In my decade as a Code Enforcement Officer for the City of Richmond, Moacir Santos stands out,” code enforcement officer David Rogowski wrote in a declaration in Oakland’s suit. “It was clear that he was not running a small-time operation. Santos owned large equipment and multiple debris boxes — all of which are expensive. Based on my experience and interactions with him, I have come to the conclusion that he has no intention of stopping his hauling and illegal transfer station operations.”
The city of Oakland has sought to end Santos’ operations in Oakland. A settlement reached in October required Santos to vacate the Poplar Street warehouse by Jan. 1 and not have a business address in Oakland for the next 10 years. But he has yet to leave.
David Rogowski said he was shocked by what he saw when he visited Santos’s yard in Richmond for the first time on May 23, 2007. “I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a mountain of trash behind the perimeter fence,” he wrote in a sworn declaration. The lot at 2775 Giant Road was not zoned for a transfer station. In fact, it’s located near homes and upwind of Lake Elementary School.
Usually, Rogowski would issue a citation and return in a month to make sure the violations had been corrected. But in Santos’ case, the violations were so severe, he decided to come back twice in the next week. He returned for a closer look at Santos’ trash mountain two days later. “It was a mixture of everything — construction debris, concrete, tires, paper, wood, plastic, paint buckets,” he wrote.
Rogowski kept returning over the next few months. On Aug. 3 of that year, he saw Santos’ truck dropping soil on the lot and asked employees if they had certificates for the soil indicating where it came from. “I never received a certificate,” he wrote. “Instead the employees often would say that they did not think it was contaminated and that it came from a construction site.”
He returned again on Oct. 18 and saw a pile of household debris, including a mattress, furniture, and trash on the lot. But shortly after that, Rogowski was reassigned to another area of Richmond.
The city didn’t follow up on his observations until Rogowski returned in 2016. In fact, the city granted Santos a permit in 2015, according to documents obtained through a public records request. City officials did not respond to questions about why Santos was allowed to continue his operation for so long.
“I might die in there,” said Richard Andrade, a 61-year-old Waste Management scale operator who worked at Kirby Canyon landfill in San Jose. Andrade was apparently referring to dying in jail for accepting bribes from Jim Lucero. “The whole thing is, Jose, I knew when I jumped in what I was jumping into. You know what I mean? I don’t tell nobody’s business. Nobody’s business came out of my lips, and when we get there all we’re going to say is, ‘not guilty.’”
Andrade was standing outside a Chevron station in Morgan Hill on July 1, 2008, talking to Jose Salvatier, another employee half of Andrade’s age. They were waiting for Lucero. They had used the gas station before as a meeting point with Lucero to receive discrete payments for letting Lucero bring truckloads of debris into the dump without paying the required fees.
Police had discovered the illegal scheme had been going on for years, so Andrade, Salvatier, and Andrade’s wife were waiting outside the gas station to talk to Lucero about what to do next. They didn’t realize that police were recording the conversation.
Andrade assumed he’d get some jail time for his role. Investigators had told him they had evidence that Lucero had paid him $2,000 to $3,000 per week over the last four years, sometimes for letting as many as 60 trucks a day through.
According to a transcript of the police recording, he told Salvatier that he’d been a “thug” his whole life, since he was a child. But his hair had gone gray, and he hoped his declining health, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, would keep him from serving much time. Still, he acknowledged he might not last long anyway.
“Sandy passed and I’m on my next leg out,” he said. “And that’s my way out of jail.”
Sandy Shockley, 66, another scale operator at the dump, had died two weeks earlier. The police report doesn’t specify her cause of death except for unknown medical reasons. Salvatier had told investigators that she’d helped recruit him into taking Lucero’s bribes and that he’d meet Lucero at the Chevron station, according to court records. Investigators served search warrants at Lucero’s home, his bookkeeper’s office, a storage unit, and a safe deposit box 11 days before Shockley died.
When Lucero, then 51 years old, pink-faced, and balding, arrived at the Chevron station, he wanted to blame Shockley.
“Sandy’s going to have to be the ‘fall girl,’” Lucero told them after he arrived, according to the police transcript. “Sandy’s not here with us. They can’t do anything to Sandy. They can’t question Sandy. Sandy’s not going to jail. Sandy’s already gone to her maker. And I think it’s already been put out there, who approached you to do things.”
Lucero told them it would be several months, maybe even years, before the police acted, because of the volume of documents they’d seized from him. “They got a mountain of documents that they have to sort through,” he said.
Lucero’s business had been lucrative: His ocean view home in Carmel sold for $2.2 million in 2010. The payments on his $217,000 Bentley were $4,100 a month, and his watch cost $25,000. He purchased his Andalusian show horse, Fugitivo, for $50,000. The horse has its own website, which says he “created a shockwave” when Lucero’s wife at the time, Shelly Lucero Rigisich, imported him from Spain. When their house was searched, a Ford pickup, license plate FUGTVO, was parked outside.
Lucero was arrested in December 2008. He complained it was only two days before Christmas.
Then-San Jose Police Chief Rob Davis called a news conference to announce the arrest. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office charged Lucero with conspiracy and six counts of bribery, alleging that he’d been bribing landfill employees for years so that trucks from his company, Resource Development Services, could dump for free or at reduced rates, even when dumping items that would’ve required high fees, such as tires, mattresses, or refrigerators.
Prosecutors estimated that the scheme cost Waste Management more than $13 million, and investigators indicated it had been going on for nearly a decade. Andrade, Salvatier, and three other Waste Management employees were charged with conspiracy and accepting bribes.
The case dragged on for years. Lucero pleaded guilty on March 28, 2014. While awaiting sentencing, he found someplace else to dump.
When Tim Steele arrived at a Sobrato Organization-owned lot in Newark on Sept. 8, 2014, he found that the gate’s lock had been cut. Steele, senior vice president of real estate development for the company, had been working for the last six years on developing the approximately 80-acre vacant parcel at the end of Stevenson Boulevard into homes and a golf course. The company received a tip from the environmental group Committee to Complete the Refuge that someone had been dumping on the property.
Several dump trucks filled with dirt were waiting to go through the vandalized gate. Steele found a young man coordinating the trucks who told Steele and his colleague Robert Tersini that they had been dumping 50 truckloads of dirt per day. A tractor was smoothing out the dirt where some of the trucks had already dumped their load.
Outraged, Steele told the young man that he was trespassing, and that they did not have permission to dump dirt. He called police, who questioned the young man, and identified himself as Austin Lucero, Jim Lucero’s son.
When Newark police questioned Jim Lucero, he told them that “Randy Sobrato” from “Fish and Game” had given him permission to dump on the property, according to court records.
The property includes wetlands near Mowry Slough, the primary breeding ground for harbor seals. It is part of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge and protected by the federal Clean Water Act. The wetlands Lucero was using to dump are home to endangered salt marsh harvest mice and burrowing owls.
Because of the protected status of the land, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened an investigation on Sept. 22, 2014. Following up on the Newark police interviews, EPA special agent Wendy Su contacted the Sobrato family, who told her that there was no such person as Randy Sobrato, and Lucero never had permission to dump on the property, according to an affidavit that Su filed in federal court.
Su determined that Lucero had started dumping at three locations near the Mowry Slough starting in June 2014. By the time Newark police responded in September, he had dumped 1,800 loads of dirt and construction debris on 55 separate dates, including from 10-wheeler trucks. Lucero would charge truckers between $50 and $80 to dump each load.
As the EPA continued its investigation, Lucero returned to court for sentencing in the San Jose landfill bribery case. On Dec. 22, 2014, nearly six years to the day after he was arrested, Lucero was sentenced to three years in prison and taken into custody. He was sent to San Quentin and then to Chino until he was paroled on Nov. 30, 2015.
On March 15, 2016, he was indicted for unpermitted filling of waters of the United States.
After a trial in federal court in Oakland, a jury convicted Lucero of three counts of violating the federal Clean Water Act on Feb. 21, 2018. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 23. Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of nearly four years in federal prison, writing in court filings that Lucero is now a “repeat environmental felon.” He could also have to pay the Sobrato Organization restitution of $6.7 million to clean up the site.
Public defenders representing Lucero have asked for a more lenient sentence of one year in prison, saying that he is remorseful for his actions and trying to move past his mistakes. The dirt and construction debris Lucero dumped on the wetlands was clean and not polluted, and plants have been able to grow on some of the fill left since he dumped it there in 2014, they argue.
“In the two months I worked for my father at the site, I never saw any garbage or constructional debris ever,” wrote Austin Lucero, who now works as a plumber, in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Haywood Gilliam, asking for leniency for his father. “It was clean, very dry dirt. The area surrounding the work site didn’t look like a wetlands.”
Numerous other family members wrote letters on Lucero’s behalf, including his 82-year-old mother, who recalled that Lucero had started out in the garbage business at 17 years old and worked his way up to assistant general manager. Lucero himself wrote that he has been struggling to rebuild his life but had been set back by being indicted as soon as he was released from state prison.
“We built a road, hired a water truck to help alleviate the dust and had a tractor on the property to incorporate the fill into the existing soil,” Lucero wrote. “I would not have done this out in the open in the daylight if I realized that we were encroaching on federally protected lands.”
But prosecutors have been unconvinced by his contrite admissions, saying that his repeat offenses have demonstrated that he “not easily deterred from engaging in repetitive environmental misconduct.”
And even while he was fighting the federal court charges, “Jim Wolf” Lucero had a new job running Moacir Santos’s warehouse in West Oakland.
Moacir Santos’ operation on Giant Road in Richmond continued for years while code enforcement officer David Rogowski had been reassigned. Rogowski returned to the lot on March 16, 2016, along with Contra Costa County environmental health services inspector Jose Avila, who had also warned Santos about operating an illegal solid waste facility.
They saw an excavator resting on a pile of lumber, paper, cardboard, a paint bucket, tires, fencing, and a flowerpot. Nearby, there was a debris box full of metal, rebar, a wheel, fence posts, and 2-inch square tubing. Elsewhere, there was a pile of tires, another of dirt, and a pile of broken concrete. In court filings, Rogowski described the violations he’d witnessed as “severe.”
In October, Rogowski issued a notice of violation to Santos for operating an unpermitted solid waste facility and ordered him to cease operations immediately. He also cited Santos for accumulating unsalvageable materials, including scrap metal, bottles and cans, wire, rebar, plastic 55-gallon drums, drain tiles, five-gallon paint buckets, electrical wire, old car transmission parts, and semi-truck fenders.
“Because of the scale and variety of debris at the site, there was no way to know for certain all the environmental hazards that could be present,” Rogowski later wrote. “The soil could have been contaminated with oil [and] asbestos and lead could have been present in the massive piles of waste, etc.”
Inspectors found that four other illegal solid waste facilities were also operating on the 6-acre lot: Rego Hauling, JS Company, JR Hauling, and Seven Gold Services. Two other companies, Giant Road Ranch and Johnson Racing Stables, were illegally operating stables on the site and housing 127 horses.
On Nov. 1, Rogowski and Avila returned for another inspection along with Richmond police officers. The owner of the lot, Diane Frizzie, served all her tenants with 30-day eviction notices, including Santos. The fire department locked out each tenant because of numerous fire safety violations discovered in June. According to Avila, Santos was irate that he was locked out and said he would contact his attorney.
Avila encountered Santos again weeks later outside while investigating a different facility nearby on Nov. 16. Avila was parked on Giant Road when he saw a driver offloading a debris box onto BNSF railroad property, where there were already seven other boxes. Avila called the sheriff’s office. While a deputy interviewed the driver, Santos showed up and said he was only dropping off the container because his truck was broken. Santos started recording the encounter and confronted Avila, saying, “What have I done to you, Jose?” and “Why are you following me, Jose?”
A few days later, a confidential informant told Avila that Santos was still operating his business on Giant Road, but was only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. because he didn’t want to be caught, according to court filings. The informant told Avila that Santos had been dumping debris boxes and soil mixed with gravel and concrete throughout West Contra Costa County.
When the inspectors returned on Dec. 6, all of the haulers had vacated the Giant Road lot except two: Rego Hauling and Santos. Santos still had 15 empty debris boxes, including several that matched the ones on the railroad property.
The city granted him a brief extension and weeks later, he was gone. A few months later, he’d turn up in West Oakland.
Barbara Johnson first noticed the dust in summer 2017. It covered the windows and her car. She had moved into the home on Union Street 12 years prior, but her family had been in the West Oakland neighborhood for generations. Her mother operated a restaurant, the Deluxe Inn, out of a house there from the 1940s to the 1970s. Now 71, Johnson lives with her son, his wife, and their two children, ages 8 and 10.
“The kids started wheezing,” Johnson told me. “The kids had sinus trouble all the time, so we sent them out of the neighborhood. They had to go live with their other grandmother.”
Johnson said she was having trouble with her eyes and waking up unable to breathe, so she went to the doctor. Her daughter-in-law’s allergies were so severe she missed work. While West Oakland has a history of air pollution — neighbors there have been working for years to move metal recycler CASS to the old Army Base because of its onsite smelting — Johnson said it never was as bad as when Mo Santos moved in to the Poplar Street warehouse. She stopped opening her doors and windows.
She met Santos and confronted him about the dust accumulation. He said, “Go get your car washed and bring me the bill,” Johnson recalled in an interview.
Outside of the warehouse, the cracks in the pavement spread like shattered glass. Recyclers and warehouses neighbor artist studios and Victorian homes. Trucks come and go frequently, thudding over the abandoned railroad tracks still embedded in the crumbling pavement.
Santos rented the property from Francis Rush III, who owns several other properties in West Oakland, including Adeline Lofts on West Grand Avenue. According to the city, Santos didn’t seek permits before starting work, and his business license was expired. Santos routed his trucks down residential streets where truck traffic is prohibited, tapped into a fire hydrant to clean the warehouse, and let the water run into storm drains that drain to the bay.
A city of Oakland inspector visited the warehouse on Sept. 7 and ordered Santos to cease recycling and waste-related-industrial activities. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District inspected the warehouse the next day and found that Santos was breaking down construction debris using an excavator and not using any water to control the dust. It was drifting out through several holes in the roof and a large exhaust fan. An Oakland fire inspector also visited the warehouse in September and found that it lacked fire extinguishers and had unsafe wiring. On Oct. 30, Santos applied for a permit.
A hazardous materials inspector, Sheryl Skillern, conducted a storm-water inspection in November, finding a high potential for pollutant discharge, particularly dust that could wash down a storm drain. Skillern also met with “Jim Wolf” while she was there, who signed the inspection form as a facility representative.
When Skillern conducted a life safety inspection in January 2018, she found even more violations. Compressed gas cylinders were stored unsecured and could become missiles if they tipped over and the valves broke off. Oxygen cylinders were stored within 20 feet of acetylene, which Skillern called “extremely dangerous” in court filings. She said fire extinguishers on site were too small for the scale of the operation.
Santos also started operating in another West Oakland property in the summer of 2017: the yard at the former Coast Sausage factory at 28th and Adeline streets. The sausage factory had been ordered closed in 1993 after its owner was found to be intentionally selling contaminated meat. Rush and Seth Jacobson bought the property in 2002, but did little to develop or maintain it, and its condition deteriorated. The city of Oakland issued 167 work orders starting in 2006 and finally sued Rush and Jacobson in 2015. Rush sold his interest to Jacobson in March 2017, shortly before a settlement with the city that required Jacobson to develop the property.
A neighbor of the sausage factory, Jon Sarriugarte, said he saw Santos filling the yard with containers and piles of dirt and debris starting in August 2017. When it rained that winter, the mud ran into the street.
By then, the district attorney’s office had started surveilling the Poplar Street warehouse. The city sued Santos on Jan. 18, 2018.
About two dozen of Santos’ neighbors staged a protest outside the Poplar Street warehouse on May 8, 2017. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman had issued a preliminary injunction on April 3 ordering Santos not to haul any demolition, construction, or waste material to the warehouse, and not to store, hold for transport, or break it down there. But the neighbors said Santos was ignoring the order and continuing his operation there anyway.
“We got a cease-and-desist and you have somebody who is blatantly breaking the law,” city Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney said at the protest. “It is a disgusting display of greed.”
Several of the protesters, including a 7-year-old boy, wore dust masks. Trucks were still coming and going from the warehouse.
At that point, Santos was also in violation of an eviction notice given to him at the old sausage factory lot. In February, developer oWow applied for a permit to build live-work units there. Like other oWow projects, it would create a series of dorm-style units, where roommates are matched through social media. Santos was given a 30-day notice to vacate on Feb. 26.
But, like in Richmond, Santos did not vacate in time. He was granted an extension until April 27 but was still there on May 2. It took until May 22 for him to finally leave the 28th and Adeline property altogether, according to a maintenance log of the property.
Santos reached a settlement with the city in October agreeing to vacate the Poplar Street warehouse by Jan. 1, 2019, and to not have a business address in Oakland for 10 years.
But Santos hasn’t left. “The lot to the north of the building is filled with more dumpsters than I can count plus a truck, a loaded trailer, and so forth,” wrote Sandy Walker, an artist with a studio on Union Street, in an email to Scott Hugo, an attorney with the city, on Jan. 2. “Their door on 28th street is open, and one can see they are active and fully in business. Their lot on the East side of the building is also filled with their dumpsters and trucks.”
As of Jan. 10, containers were still stacked in his yard, with at least one full of scrap metal, and workers busy moving them around. Trucks were coming and going through an open warehouse door, several stamped with “Santos Hauling.”
When I called Santos’ company on Jan. 7, he called back quickly, and answered a few questions but got off the phone eight minutes later, saying his wife had just gone to the hospital to have a baby. He called again about 10 minutes after that and discussed his business for over an hour.
Santos said that he expects to be out of the warehouse within the next few weeks, acknowledging he was in violation of the settlement with the city. Despite the settlement, Santos was adamant that he had done nothing wrong and had never operated a transfer station either in Oakland or Richmond. “People keep targeting me, they think I have a lot of crazy money,” he said. “I just settled with the city because it makes more sense for me.”
Instead, he said he believes he’s been the victim of discrimination. He said he moved from Brazil a decade ago to pursue professional bull riding and competed in the United States for a while before getting into the construction business. He said that for him and other Brazilians in the region, city officials make it difficult to do business, targeting them for unfounded enforcement actions. “Right now if you go to city of Richmond, if you’re Brazilian they won’t give you a permit for nothing,” Santos asserted.
The sworn declarations from code enforcement officers were false, he also alleged. The air district found that he wasn’t producing dust, he claimed — even though an inspection report filed with the city of Oakland’s lawsuit said he was polluting the neighborhood with dust. Whatever pollution his neighbors were complaining about, he didn’t cause it, he argued.
And he said that while he knew Jim Lucero had been convicted of bribing landfill scale operators in San Jose when he hired him, “That was a long time ago.” He said he wasn’t aware when he hired Lucero that he had been indicted for illegal dumping in Newark nor did he know that Lucero was introducing himself as “Jim Wolf” to city and county officials. Santos said Lucero no longer works for him, but didn’t say when his employment ended or why.
When I called a number Lucero had provided to the district attorney’s investigator, a man asked who I was. After I introduced myself, he said I had the wrong number and hung up.
Santos is due back in court on Jan. 22 to update the court on his compliance with the settlement. Asked where his customers will be able to find him once he leaves Oakland, Santos declined to provide a forwarding address.