There’s an Army of Thieves Coming for Your Catalytic Converter

My latest for Popular Mechanics is now live!

I did a thorough dive into a phenomenon that has exploded in recent years and is pissing off drivers all over the world! The battle against this kind of crime has precedent in previous metal theft epidemics, providing lawmakers with some precedent in how to combat this crime but also giving unscrupulous individuals ideas on how they might be able to further obscure the buying and selling of stolen parts.

Read all about it here, from mining operations to wild police raids to the science of recycling autocats to harvest the valuable precious metals inside. (The article is paywalled, but speaking of unscrupulous individuals, a workaround can be found here.)

Taxi Drivers in Xalapa Are on the Job in One of the Most Dangerous Cars Ever Made

Known for their jaunty pink and green color scheme, thousands of taxis serve the Mexican city of Xalapa and it’s surrounding regions. The job is difficult for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because the Nissan Tsuru, the default taxi in Mexico, is considered one of the most dangerous cars ever made.

I just published an article via Atlas Obscura about Xalapa’s taxi drivers and the highs and lows of the profession – please check it out here!

The original version was like 3x longer, so if anyone wants even more info on taxi culture, riding around in these little whips, or the controversial Tsuru itself, please let me know and I’m happy to talk your ear off about it!

The True Crime “Podcast Junkie” turned Real Life Murder Suspect

Many true crime podcasters often wonder if the people responsible for a murder or disappearance they’ve covered on their programs listen to the show detailing these crimes. That scenario was seemingly confirmed in 2020, when a man named Steve Pankey became a person of interest in a disappearance that happened almost 40 years before. Before he was arrested for murder, Pankey turned to podcasts to tell his side of the story, an unadvisable move from a legal perspective but one that was nonetheless strangely logical given the influence and reach of true crime today.

Pankey went on trial in October 2021, and the presence of true crime podcasting was even more pronounced, as not only did a host testify at the trial but a different podcaster was in the front row recording the proceedings for an upcoming series. Meanwhile, though the victim’s family have been dealing with press since the early 1980s, they nevertheless found themselves confronted with a powerful new media format that can help and hinder police investigations and the many stages of the family’s healing process.

Did Pankey commit this crime, or is he just a strange guy angling for attention? If true crime is inherently voyeuristic, can the format be used for good as well as entertainment? I went to part of the trial and interviewed many people involved in this strange case to find out.

Read my eleventh piece for Narratively here.

I had the chance to be on one of my favorite podcasts!

I was recently on the thoughtful and fascinating podcast Criminal talking about the wild story of the Principality of Sealand alongside none other than Prince Michael Bates himself.

It’s always a treat to talk about this fascinating subject, and to be able to do so on a podcast I’ve loved for years was even better!

You can listen to/download the episode here (and also find it on any podcast app),and I highly recommend checking out every other episode of Criminal as well!

The Pungent History of America’s Garbage Mountains

My latest for Popular Mechanics – about a guy who tried to create his own territory in Lake Michigan by piling up garbage and the modern potential for building on landfills – is behind a paywall but can be found here. I love writing about landfill and garbage and the repugnant insides of decaying mountains of trash, and when that is coupled with offbeat true history about a rascally guy who led an irritating, larger-than-life existence, then even better!

Read on below!

The Pungent History of America’s Garbage Mountains

It took 50 shots for the Chicago Police Department to arrest George Wellington Streeter. The date was November 14, 1915, and “Cap” Streeter had been ruling over his proclaimed “District of Lake Michigan,” an ad-hoc settlement just off the shore of said lake, for 40 years. The raid marked the end of the decades-long Streeterville saga, a land dispute that saw Streeter—a former deckhand, miner, and Union soldier—attempt to literally build his own country on top of a trash pile about 150 yards off Chicago’s shoreline. The absurd notion of a nation built on trash carries the overtones of an ironic art installment, but in the annals of garbage-related engineering, the District of Lake Michigan was more prescient than not. Streeter was a trash king, and considering where American redevelopment efforts are going, he was ahead of his time.

As the story goes, Streeter was a ferryman on Lake Michigan when a storm beached his craft on an offshore sandbar in July 1886. Waves deposited sand around the boat, and Streeter surmised that he could live rent-free on his accidental island if enough material accrued.

A portrait of George Wellington Streeter in Chicago, circa 1903

It was common in the 19th century for people to throw their garbage in swamps, in the ocean, or in “dumps,” which were then little more than unregulated holes in the ground (Sanitary landfills wouldn’t appear until the 1970s and the introduction of federal and state guidelines for waste management.) The lack of oversight in Streeter’s day allowed him to pay waste companies to dump trash into Lake Michigan around his sandbar, swelling his plot. His domain grew to an astonishing 186 acres, and Streeter turned a tidy profit collecting rent and selling titles on his tract, which he dubbed “the District of Lake Michigan.” To protect his claim from the city of Chicago, he used outdated maps showing that the district was beyond city jurisdiction; he also employed ethically dubious surveyors to rule that he was within his legal rights to run his garbage empire independent of Chicago. “When I came here, there wasn’t a particle of land for me to squat on,” Streeter argued.

Streeter’s occupation sparked more than mere technical disputes, however. In 1899, authorities reportedly demolished Streeter’s original boat residence and everything else in the District of Lake Michigan. “One shingle was not allowed to rest upon another,” reads a contemporaneous account. But Streeter just relocated and rebuilt until he eventually died of pneumonia in 1921. His surviving family members sued the city for control of the District of Lake Michigan, but Chicago won in court in 1928, and the Streeter case was closed.

Exterior view of George W. Streeter’s shack and surrounding yard, Chicago, Illinois, circa 1905. The shack was erected in an area that later became the Streeterville neighborhood.

Chicago incorporated the District of Lake Michigan into the city’s growing Lake Shore Drive development, and by the 1920s the shoreline appeared much the way it is today. Landmarks such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Wrigley Building, the Chicago Tribune Tower, various Northwestern University buildings, and the Magnificent Mile were all built on Streeter’s turn-of-the-century garbage. Part of this area is still known as Streeterville in honor of its unique beginnings.

Why We Build On Trash

Today, landfills are canvases for city planners around the world. Transportation centers, stadiums, and even entire neighborhoods—such as Chicago’s Soldier Field, New York’s Battery Park City, and San Francisco’s Oracle Park—are built on landfills. Building atop garbage helps us manage waste, develop otherwise unusable land, and mitigate some of the environmental concerns that come with other forms of new development. Some developers are optimistic that reusing landfills could present a workable option for low-cost housing, or accommodate large-scale population movement due to climate change. Cap Streeter’s lake territory might have been controversial in its day and exaggerated by legend—there isn’t even a record of the storm that wrecked his boat—but Streeterville’s demonstrable value persists for the landfill developers of today.

“Landfill redevelopment projects tend to be real estate projects, and you know what matters in real estate: location, location, location,” says Mike McLaughlin of SCS Engineers in California, who specializes in brownfields and landfill redevelopment. “A landfill in an urban area might be the only piece of open land in that area. People go to extraordinary lengths to redevelop because the property is so valuable.”

Chicago’s Soldier Field is built on a former landfill.

In areas where land is at a premium, closed landfills offer abundant acreage for new development. Not only is the land likely cheaper because it’s complicated by the presence of the accumulated waste, but developers can often use grant funding to remediate and build on formerly contaminated sites, explains Sara Ramsden, an environmental engineer with Minneapolis-based Barr Engineering.But building on a landfill involves more than just plopping a building atop it like a seashell on a sandcastle. Ramsden explains that redevelopment should account for the unique challenges posed by the waste, including contamination, gas generation, and unfavorable geotechnical conditions. Some landfills are pockmarked with dormant sinkholes waiting to pull buildings into their subterranean filth. As such, most landfills since the 1980s are carefully engineered projects, designed to blend into their surroundings once they’re closed.

Anatomy of a Landfill

The modern sanitary landfill emerged in the 1970s, when states first devised legal guidelines for massive waste management. Prior to these regulations, America was dumping its waste just about wherever it wanted—even in Lake Michigan. But then the rise of plastics and industrial waste changed the composition of dumps, convincing regulators and engineers to institute more careful policies. Today’s landfill has become so sophisticated that it can be considered an engineering marvel even before it’s redeveloped, an often-overlooked mode of infrastructure designed to contain contaminants and “spatially liberate” neighboring communities.

The typical foundation of a modern landfill site begins with a few feet of low-permeable clay covered by a plastic liner, then a few feet of sand. Around and within the foundation, drainage systems collect and pump away leachate—the toxic slurry that accumulates as rainwater seeps through the trash—toward wells at the base of the landfill. The wells collect the leachate for treatment and disposal. Meanwhile, venting systems collect and expel gas produced by the decay of the garbage.

Atop the foundation is the waste, but only a small section of each landfill, called the working face, is open for dumping at a time. Heavy compactors outfitted with spiked treads crush and aerate the day’s waste to encourage decomposition, and then bulldozers and backhoes cover the open areas with dirt to control odor, animals, and dust.

A landfill in Southern California

When a landfill reaches capacity, it’s “capped” with another layer of low-permeability clay and another low-permeability plastic membrane. A layer of soil several feet thick goes on top of the liner, then topsoil, then grasses and other short-rooted vegetation. Landfill operators monitor and caretake the sites for 30 years or more after closure; any leakage or breach is remediated as needed.Settlement presents a significant risk and introduces an element of uncertainty. A typical landfill could settle 5 to 20 percent in the 30 years after it’s capped—between 6 and 24 inches a year. This sinkage can burst pipes, crack foundations, and destroy roads, so engineers study the composition of potential landfill development sites to assess future stability and to develop designs that can account for settlement. “Sinkage depends on the composition of the waste and how long it’s been there,” Ramsden says.

Given the 30-year waiting period, landfills that were closed in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s are now prime for redevelopment if their challenges and conditions are properly understood. At some sites, most settling and outgassing has already taken place; these sites are more manageable. To put any final touches on a landfill before redevelopment, crews might relocate waste to make stability more uniform, though this can be costly. They might also tamp down the landfill through “deep dynamic compaction,” a process in which large cranes drop weights of several tons over the site.

How to Build On a Landfill

Building atop a former landfill typically requires extra structural support. “The opening expectation is that any building, any parking ramp, any significant piped utility, is going to have to rely on a deep foundation,” says Barr Engineering’s Dan Fetter, an expert in environmental site assessments. To stabilize such a foundation, construction crews drive steel pilings through the garbage and into the underlying soil, topping these with a structural slab so that the buildings and structures are not relying on support from the settling landfill materials. The pilings have to penetrate deep enough into suitable soil or bedrock to provide an ample foundation. McLaughlin says some landfill redevelopment projects near Atlanta have pilings of 65 feet, while similar projects in San Francisco have 130-foot pilings.

Differential sinkage is a constant concern for developers. This is when some parts of a project sink while others don’t, due to differences in underlying support. In this scenario, developers might use what McLaughlin describes as “grade beam transitions” to solve the problem.

Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, which closed in 2001
Today, the Fresh Kills site is being redeveloped into a park.

These transitions feature a “hinge slab” between the stable parts of the project and the sinking parts. Say a building, secure on its pilings, sits adjacent to a sinking parking lot. The hinge slab pivots on the building side so that as the refuse settles, the grade beam sinks too, though without causing structural damage. When the beam settles too far—typically just over 2 degrees, McLaughlin says—crews excavate the parking lot and jack the hinge slab back up to the proper slope.Redevelopment at landfills can also be, quite literally, explosive. As the organic material in a landfill decays and bacteria break down the trash, methane gas can build up, creating an extreme explosion hazard if the gas were to migrate into buildings. To help collect and safely vent the gas away from buildings, subsurface gas conveyance piping is embedded in layers of sand and gravel beneath and above the waste, while monitoring points across the landfill site help keep an eye on methane levels. Sub-slab venting and sub-slab depressurization systems installed at the redevelopment buildings can also help contain and remove harmful vapors, Ramsden says.Landfill gas is the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA, equivalent to the output from 21.6 million cars on the road for a year. Some landfills have onsite infrastructure to harness this gas and turn it into a usable energy source. The EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program and Landfill Gas Energy Project Database lists more than 500 landfill energy sites across the country, with applications such as “generating electricity, firing kilns, upgrading [landfill gas] into pipeline-quality gas, heating greenhouses and buildings and providing steam for industrial processes.”

Rumpke Waste and Recycling Services, headquartered in Ohio, currently has four onsite landfill-gas-to-energyfacilities at its landfills in Ohio and Kentucky, which convert methane to liquefied natural gas. These systems collect gas through a series of collection wells buried within each landfill. As the gas is pulled from the decomposing trash, it’s directed to the recovery plants for further processing to be converted into pipeline-quality energy. According to Rumpke, the company’s flagship site outside Cincinnati produces enough BTUs of gas to power 30,000 homes and businesses annually, while their smaller sites produce natural gas or electricity for roughly 2,500 or more homes each year.

One of about 300 landfill gas wellheads at the Rumpke Sanitary Landfill, which recover the landfill gas.

“We were among the first back in 1986 when we started doing it here at our Cincinnati landfill,” says Amanda Pratt, Rumpke’s communications director. “But today, [recovering landfill gas] is becoming a more common practice. It’s a great way to make a renewable energy source from the garbage, and it helps with conditions and odors at landfills.”

The Future of American Trash

Developments built on landfills are not fail-safe—erosion often exposes layers of buried garbage in areas that were built before today’s environmental regulations—but when done correctly, building on landfills is more desirable environmentally than developing an otherwise untouched greenfield.

“Most landfills have good access roads and other infrastructure nearby,” McLaughlin says, unlike new land that requires extending infrastructure to meet it. “As suburban and urban land uses have moved away from city centers, landfills are often the only remaining large land parcels suitable for development. Instead of sprawling into new areas, these land uses can be developed atop landfills—the sort of ‘infill’ development that most consider smart growth.” That’s development that takes advantage of existing infrastructure, such as highways, to construct new land uses near population centers.

The New Brighton Exchange project in New Brighton, MN. Barr Engineering worked with the city to clean up and develop the area, which had included two former dumps, two Superfund sites, and several petroleum-release sites. Most of the area is now redeveloped and includes office buildings, apartments, and parks.

There are also redevelopment opportunities in cities like Detroit or Cleveland, which may have thousands of vacant residential and industrial properties. Cleaning up these sites can be a complicated process for developers, given the potential presence of hazardous building materials used in old sites or residues from industrial processes that may have leached into the ground. But if the properties are in “opportunity corridors,” cleanups might be worth it. This is the term used by Terry Schwarz, director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, for sections of a city that are located between thriving business or residential areas. In these neighborhoods, remediating larger parcels of land can link rejuvenated sections of the city back together, creating new residential and professional hubs.“The question of what to do with land reclamation is central to the redevelopment of older industrial cities,” says Schwarz. That’s especially relevant for cities like Cleveland that have been steadily losing population.

Landfill development science will continue to evolve. McLaughlin points out that lightweight geofoam is now being used as a substitute for soil when covering landfills, which creates a lighter load on top that will minimize settlement. Building techniques such as controlled modulus columns, which are cement columns set in a grid pattern to reinforce soft ground, and spread footings, which have wider feet to distribute the weight of the structure more evenly, will maximize the stability of structures built on landfills even further.

“It is likely that engineers of the future will have more options to address settlement and stability—[such as] automatic leveling devices powered by alternative energy sources that maintain the structure to close tolerances,” McLaughlin says. “We are limited only by our imagination and the laws of physics.”

However, as with any kind of development, there are non-engineering considerations that come with building on landfills. Redeveloping landfills as shopping centers, office parks, and golf courses can lead to gentrification, says Ignacio Dayrit, director of programs with the nonprofit Center for Creative Land Recycling. This might displace people who put up with the hazards of living near a landfill in the first place. While it is rare for housing to be built on landfills, there are some subsidies for developing housing on sites that have other environmental concerns, Dayrit says. Subsidies are typically limited for retail spaces or other businesses, he adds, limiting reuse benefits to residents living adjacent to landfills.

And while remediating former waste sites might limit development in natural areas, more development always means more consumption and more waste that ends up in a landfill somewhere else. At 27 million tons, plastics accounted for just under 19 percent of new landfill waste in 2018, according to the EPA. Some companies are working to divert plastic from landfills and put it to better use, such as an additive for mortar and asphalt. JD Composites in Nova Scotia builds homes with panels made from laminated polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic foam. The panels are lightweight, weather-resistant 6-inch walls with no thermal bridging, and they use approximately 192 plastic bottles per square foot. That means the average house recycles more than a half million bottles, says JD Composites president David Saulnier.

“Building a home is a 30-second solution,” Saulnier says, referencing 2016 research by Euromonitor noting that the world consumes 1 million bottles per minute, with 93 percent ending up in landfills or the environment. But he hopes the reuse of plastic waste in construction will pave the way for a broader culture of industrial recycling and reuse.

Building with old plastics and terraforming mountains of garbage may seem like somewhat of a backward solution, but the best alternative—developing solutions that create less waste in the first place—would involve reworking countless industry practices and changing human consumption habits en masse. So for the short term, former landfills could house less wasteful commercial development, incorporate more reconstituted waste, and take advantage of the natural gases generated by the underground decomposition. These initiatives would dwarf Streeterville, but maybe Cap was onto something.

The Weird, Wacky, and Wild Ride of Captain Cartoon, Father of Bat Boy

My tenth (!) piece for Narratively just went live and chronicles the life and times of Dick Kulpa, cartoonist, one-time owner of Cracked magazine, and father of Bat Boy, the mutated mascot of the Weekly World News. The guy pursued what he loved through the difficulties and joys of life and left an offbeat legacy from his humble beginnings in Illinois.

Writing a biographical piece was a somewhat new experience to me, but I still have Cracked magazines and posters from when I was a kid and was happy to dive a bit deeper into the world of humor magazines that meant so much to me!

Read on about Mr. Kulpa’s life here!

The Oak Island Money Pit – legend, hoax, or reality?

I recently wrote about the legend of the Oak Island Money Pit for Popular Mechanics (in the May/June issue) and the lore that has sustained the search for treasure for more than 200 years. (The complete article can be found here if you are having paywall issues.)

I didn’t intend to write a debunking article (and have no beef with the popular TV series) and I was not surprised to find out that the Money Pit is a pretty sensitive topic among believers. I’ve definitely had some spirited encounters with people from various Oak Island camps but have personally come to the conclusion that misinterpreted history and the area’s sinkhole-heavy geology means that there is almost certainly no buried treasure 😔.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a ton of interesting history on the island (and numerous historians have written some really compelling accounts of who has inhabited the island and why), and maybe some day we’ll see an announcement that billions in gold, proof Bacon was Shakespeare, or the Holy Grail has been pulled from the depths?

I was also invited to be on the Diggin’ Oak Island podcast to discuss this article and the broader Oak Island lore and treasure hunt. Admittedly I was expecting to be taken to task on the podcast but was somewhat relieved to have a much more low-key (though no less entertaining/educational) discussion on the topic.

The Mexican Mountain Town Feeding the International Crystal Market

Many people in Piedra Parada mine amethysts for sale to visitors and dealers.
In Piedra Parada, amethysts are everywhere.

My latest for Atlas Obscura explores the crystal trade going on in Piedra Parada, a tiny mountain town in Veracruz, Mexico. The local men have been mining amethyst from the surrounding mountains, a beautiful gem that is known around the world for its purple hues. The men face dangerous conditions and the occasional rip-off from unscrupulous international brokers but are proud of the economy they’ve created to help their family and communities. I was fortunate enough to visit this town and its mines a few times and learn about this process and the history of the region, as well as the various metaphysical uses of Veracruz amethyst.

Three articles for New Noise Magazine

Long time no update!

One of my longtime loves is extremely noisy and fast death metal and grindcore, and I semi-recently had the opportunity to write about some obscure but really interesting aspects of the extreme punk and metal underground for New Noise Magazine, as well as an article about an incredibly weird but deeply talented 80s new-wave group.

“An Homage to Dbeats in Goregrind: A History of what is Easily the Sickest Musick Imaginable” – An overview of why using a distinct punk beat in grindcore elevates the style to new heights of fun and brutality

“’I hope you enjoy my noise life’ – The Fast Times of James F. Tarr, international gorenoise, and Elephant Man Behind the Sun” – an account of the life of a troubled Canadian musician (RIP) and his deranged musical output

“Dog Police Unleashed: Revisiting an Obscure but Catchy New Wave Classic” – what happens when three jazz musicians start a novelty band called Dog Police? An insane music video and eventually a hilariously awful TV pilot starring a young Adam Sandler!


Outrageous story about a legendary private eye with hooks for hands and the hunt for an American killer in Thailand

Armes and Mannequins

I’m very pleased to see my latest story for Narratively go live, and that’s because it is definitely a wild ride. Living in El Paso, I befriended a legendary private eye named Jay J. Armes, who recently turned 88 years old. He lost both of his hands in a childhood accident but used the metal prostheses that replaced them to his advantage as a world-famous private eye and head of The Investigators, his detective agency.

Armes has now been in the business for more than 60 years, and his career has been nothing but astonishing adventures. He has investigated all over the world, tracking down criminals, rescuing hostages, and retrieving jewels. The story for Narratively chronicles how he and his son tracked down an alleged American murderer in Thailand and how they convinced him to come back to the US. But it also takes a look at the life and times of Jay J. Armes and his son’s experience photographing bodies and infiltrating institutions when he was just a kid.

This story is adapted from my updated book about Armes and barely scratches the surface of just how incredible his life has been. Armes not only has an action figure in his honor but also has a storied career as an El Paso politician, where he put his uncompromising drive to work for his fellow El Pasoans.

At any rate, read on! If this is of interest, my should be forthcoming at some point. And if you need a private eye, definitely reach out to the Investigators. They aren’t cheap, but they are legendary.