Investigation: Thieves tear apart Packard Plant for scrap metal in broad daylight; neighbors at risk

Second part of a daily series on the Packard Plant.

The thieves paid no attention to the police or neighbors who drove by every afternoon.

It was just another lawless day at the sprawling ruins of the Packard Plant in Detroit, where scrappers have become alarmingly more daring and audacious as police have virtually ignored an organized scrapping operation that has sprung up. Scrappers are beginning to tear down large commercial buildings with backhoes, cutting steel beams with loud, high-powered saws and hauling heaps of recyclable metal in overflowing pickup trucks to nearby scrapyards.

The Motor City Muckraker spent the past four months monitoring and interviewing the illegal operation as scrappers demolished parts of the asbestos-laden plant on the east side. We watched as police drove by daily and even stopped to talk with scrappers, never issuing a ticket. Inside the concrete labyrinth, we spied scrappers – long suspected to be the source of many Packard fires – stacking combustible objects like wooden pallets and sofas along beams supporting the metal-studded ceilings, waiting to be torched.

On a recent afternoon, Robert Walker, a former Detroit cop, casually packed his pickup truck with scrap metals that had fallen to the ground after a brazen backhoe operator razed the midsection of an industrial building a day earlier.

“Today we are in an economic crisis, and people are resorting to scrapping,” Walker told me. “I’m sure the police are getting some direct orders not to bother us. We’re just regular citizens trying to get by.

Neighbors don’t see it the same way. The fires, dust and noise are driving Diane Henderson nuts. A few weeks ago, she feared the worst when parts of a building collapsed.

“I thought a plane crashed. My house literally shook,” she said, walking past the plant on her way to the store. “It’s been like this for months. They (scrappers) do whatever they want.”

Controversial Packard owner Dominic Cristini said he’s tired of the city looking the other way as people destroy the plant. He said police have ignored his complaints about arsons and scrapping.

“What’s the sense of having laws if you don’t enforce them?” asked Cristini, who owes about $750,00o in delinquent taxes. “Police do nothing. I’m sick of it.”

The top brass at the Detroit Police Department said they were unaware of the scrapping until contacted by the Motor City Muckraker on Monday. Within a half hour of the call, a Detroit cop arrived at the Packard and ticketed a pair of scrappers.

“When it’s brought to our attention, we will address it,” Sgt. Eren Stephens said. “We are doing the best with what we have, and we have a task force that is acting diligently” to crack down on scrapping.

Within a few hours of the tickets, a lone man in a white pickup stopped at the Packard and fished metal scraps from the bottom of a recently leveled building to trade his findings for cash at a nearby scrapyard.

The news of illegal scrapping alarmed state authorities, who said the Packard buildings contain serious environmental hazards that pose life-threatening dangers to hundreds, if not thousands, of people who live nearby.

“Before demolition, you have to mitigate asbestos because you don’t want that stuff going airborne,” said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality. “Most people understand these days that asbestos dust can have a serious long-term health impact.”

Long before the Packard became a haven for scrappers and adventurers, workers churned out luxury cars in one of the world’s largest manufacturing plants from 1903 to 1956. Famed architect Albert Kahn designed the concrete complex, which would eventually include dozens of buildings and 3.5-million square feet of industrial space.

Smaller shops replaced the Packard in the 1950s, but tenants slowly disappeared, leaving the plant virtually empty and open to trespass.

The irony of scavenging for scrap metal in a city that put cars on the road is not lost on Carl Barnes, an unemployed factory worker who says he scraps part-time to pay the bills.

“I thought I had it all, working for GM,” Barnes, 56, said. “Had a nice house, a cabin up north. Then it all came crashing down. Now I’m picking up scraps in a damn factory.”

Scrappers have removed most of the easy-to-find metals. They’re essentially left with two options – demolish a building or start fires to reach metal embedded in the ceilings and floors.

Interestingly, since the backhoe arrived two months ago, the Packard has not been on fire. But between July and August, the Packard was on fire 24 different days – all suspected arsons. Soon after flames loosened and broke up the concrete, scrappers removed metal from the rubble.

The fires were so frequent this summer that the fire department let the blazes burn unattended.

“This is an eerie place to live,” Dave Murray, 42, said, smoking a joint with a friend underneath the Packard’s iconic bridge that once served as an assembly line. “It’s like a warzone but no one cares.”

The yellow backhoe appeared in September and began knocking down a block-long industrial building. Day after day, the operator of the backhoe plowed through the concrete building, knocking down valuable steel beams and other metals.

At night, the backhoe was left at the plant or parked across the street in an abandoned lot in plain sight. A homeless man kept watch for a few bucks a day.

While authorities seemed indifferent to the demolition, dozens of scrappers took turns filling up trucks with scraps. To cut up larger chunks of metal, some scrappers used powerful saws.

While the scavengers loaded up the smaller pieces, the backhoe moved freely through the plant in search of a new wall or building to raze. At night, the backhoe rests in a nearby vacant lot.

When told about the operation, Mayor Dave Bing’s administration said it investigated Monday and found nothing.

“After hearing reports that demolition was taking place at the Packard Plant, we investigated, but concluded that no demolition activities are occurring,” Raymond Scott, Deputy Director of the City’s Buildings, Safety Engineering & Environmental Department. “However, there appears to be cause for concern over scrapping. We will address this matter upon completion of additional investigation.”

Coming tomorrow: Find out where scrappers take their illegal metal treasures.

Click on the first photo to see the gallery.

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.