Investigators believe the people responsible for dumping toxic and explosive wastes along Ortega Highway were turned away from a nearby county landfill on Jan. 6, the same day their foul-smelling rental van was spotted by motorists on the highway.
Lt. Mike Bair of the California Highway Patrol said a van matching the description provided by the motorists was ordered out of the Prima Deshecha Landfill on La Pata Avenue, two miles south of Ortega Highway, because the dump is not equipped or licensed to take liquid or hazardous wastes.
Road Closed Twice
A 14-mile section of the road connecting San Juan Capistrano with Lake Elsinore in Riverside County had to be closed twice last week following the discovery of containers of toxic, flammable, corrosive and explosive chemicals on the roadside. The first discovery was made Jan. 13. Some of the chemicals were too unstable to be moved and had to be blown up by technicians from the Sheriff's Department bomb squad.
Investigators said two motorists on the highway Jan. 6 reported seeing a white van with a green logo and said the vehicle emitted a strong odor. One of the motorists, a Sacramento woman visiting a friend at Lake Elsinore, said the van backed into a turnout along the south side of the road. Some of the discarded chemicals were found in a turnout on the south side of the road.
Bair said the woman, a male motorist who also saw the van, and two employees at the county landfill said there were two men inside the vehicle.
Investigators believe one of the two was Richard Duane Leavitt, 37, of South Laguna, who was released from jail on $20,000 bail Thursday following his arrest the previous day on suspicion of felony illegal dumping.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Diane S. Kadletz said Sheriff's Department investigators are looking into the possibility that Leavitt's brother was the other man in the truck, which was rented in Leavitt's name from Tice's Rentals in Laguna Beach. She said, however, that she did not know if the investigators were able to locate the brother.
Leavitt's attorney, Wayne Willette, said his client acknowledges renting the vehicle "to help a brother," whom Willette declined to identify. Leavitt denies dumping the chemicals, Willette said.
"He (the brother) has agreed to cooperate with authorities," Willette said Thursday. "He has made attempts to contact them. Whether (the attempts) were successful, I don't know."
Orange County sheriff's Lt. Dick Olson declined to comment on speculation that Leavitt's brother may have been involved in the dumping.
"We know there's other people involved," Olson said Thursday. "As far as I know, there are no additional arrests planned today."
County refuse inspector Tom Ellis said the landfill manager and a salvager saw the van enter the landfill the morning of Jan. 6.
"I'm surprised they got past the fee booth," Ellis said. "We're only allowed to take solid waste, none hazardous. The stuff must have been covered up."
The salvager saw that the two men were unloading liquid containers and notified the manager, Dave Koch, who told the men to leave, Ellis said.
Kadletz said investigators plan to conduct a "photographic lineup" for the two motorists and landfill employees in an attempt to identify the men in the truck. Several pictures, including one of the suspect, will be shown to the witnesses to see if they can identify any of the men.
She said Leavitt was "fairly cooperative" with sheriff's investigators who questioned him on Wednesday morning before his arrest.
"He was in the truck for at least part of the day," Kadletz said. "He claimed to have some knowledge of the matter, but no role in the actual dumping."
Kadletz said Leavitt drove investigators around the county on Wednesday attempting to locate where the chemicals were picked up. He was not successful, Kadletz said.
Willette said Leavitt's brother was once involved in the manufacture and sale of Vitamin C, which was among the items dumped along the highway. Other chemicals found along the highway included cyclohexane, hydrofluoric acid, sodium methylate and ammonium oxylate.
Hydrazine, a highly volatile propellant widely used in the U.S. space program, was also found at the site. But Bob Merryman, county director of environmental health, said hydrazine is also used in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals.
In fact, Merryman said all the chemicals could have come from the same pharmaceutical laboratory.
"It was as if somebody decided to clean out their lab," he said.
Labels from containers found at the dump sites enabled investigators to determine where they were manufactured but did not help in locating the purchaser, he said.
The dumping was not the biggest in the county's history as far as the amount of the waste, Merryman said.
"But as far as complete disregard for human safety, it certainly was the most serious," he said. "Some hiker or some kid could have come along and killed themselves."
Investigators said it would have cost several thousand dollars to legally dispose of the chemicals in a licensed landfill.