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Treated Like Trash

A death. A cover-up. An immigrant meets a terrible end in the Bronx.

The intersection of Gun Hill Road and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, where 21-year-old Mouctar Diallo died while working on a Sanitation Salvage garbage truck on Nov. 7, 2017. (Ryan Christopher Jones for ProPublica)

This story was co-published with Voice of America.

Update, Aug. 8, 2018: The New York City Business Integrity Commission announced this week that Sean Spence, a driver with a private sanitation company who was behind the wheel for two fatal accidents in a span of months, would no longer be allowed to work in the industry. Spence had lied to investigators after his first deadly crash killed a part-time worker with the Bronx company Spence drove for, Sanitation Salvage. The commission said Spence lacked the good character, honesty and integrity to work in the private trash business. Gary Rothman, a lawyer for Spence, said Spence was “upset from having been involved in two serious accidents,” and had “decided to withdraw from the garbage collection industry and move on with his life. He did not oppose the BIC’s actions.”  

The body of the young man lay in the middle of Jerome Avenue beneath the elevated train tracks, the scene lit by the neon blue sign above the shuttered El Caribe restaurant. A garbage truck sat mid-turn at the otherwise deserted intersection in the Bronx.  

Emergency medical personnel arrived, records show, and pronounced the young man dead at 5:08 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2017.  

The police came, too. Officers taped off the scene, and interviewed the truck driver and his assistant, according to records and interviews. The driver and helper, according to the police report, said the dead man was a stranger who had inexplicably jumped on the truck’s passenger side running board, lost his grip and was run over. The initial police report left blank the spot for the young man’s name.

Within hours, a Bronx News12 reporter said neighbors thought the victim was “a homeless man that they’ve seen in the area.” By afternoon, he was “a daredevil homeless man” in the Daily News.

The garbage truck belonged to Sanitation Salvage, among the largest commercial trash haulers in the city. A company supervisor eventually came to retrieve the truck and take it back to the company yard. Then, according to workers told about the night’s events, it was promptly sent back out without so much as a cleaning.

Two miles south of the accident, in a Bronx apartment off the Grand Concourse, a mother waited for her son. Hadiatou Barry, a Guinean immigrant, had come to the Bronx for a better life for her family. Her eldest son, Mouctar Diallo, 21, had a bed in the living room of their apartment. The young man often worked nights, and with the sun coming up should have been home asleep. But his bed remained empty.

Soon enough, Hadiatou Barry got the worst sort of news, a double-barreled blow of devastation and insult.

Mouctar Diallo’s nighttime job had been as an informal helper on garbage trucks owned by Sanitation Salvage, and the truck he’d been working on that night had killed him. Then, she learned, the truck’s driver and main helper — men who’d known him for more than a year and paid him off-the-books for his help hauling trash to the curb — had claimed not to know him. The rest of the city now knew her son only as a homeless person.

“He is my son, and I want the truth for him,” Hadiatou Barry said in a recent interview. “In order for it to not happen to somebody else.”

The truth of Mouctar Diallo’s death is that the authorities investigating the accident did not learn that he was a worker on the truck for at least two months, and that when they did, they took no action against the driver and helper who had lied to police. The Business Integrity Commission, the New York City agency charged with oversight of the commercial garbage industry, allowed both the driver and main helper to keep working. The police and Bronx prosecutors closed their investigation with no criminal charges.

Last Friday, Sean Spence, the Sanitation Salvage driver who authorities say ran over Diallo and lied about it, struck and killed another man, 72–year-old Leo Clarke. Clarke, walking with a cane, was crossing in the middle of a Bronx block Friday evening when he was crushed by the 40-ton truck. A police investigation is underway, and Spence now has been suspended from driving for Sanitation Salvage.

“Oh my God,” Hadiatou Barry said when told of Spence’s involvement in the second fatality.

On April 27, 2018, Sanitation Salvage driver Sean Spence killed a second person, a 72-year-old man crossing the street, at 152nd Street and Jackson Avenue in the Bronx. (Ryan Christopher Jones for ProPublica)

The New York Police Department said lying to the police was not a crime. The department maintains it did a thorough investigation, collecting witness statements, 911 calls and videotape from the scene. The police, a spokesman said, had no authority to investigate the operations of a private sanitation company.

A spokeswoman for the Bronx district attorney said the Business Integrity Commission had made no criminal referral to prosecutors about the conduct of Sanitation Salvage’s employees and thus prosecutors had no cause to investigate further.

The Business Integrity Commission’s spokesperson said the commission was alerted to the possibility that the November death involved a worker in early January, during a meeting with labor advocates about conditions at Sanitation Salvage. The fact that it was Diallo who had been killed had been an open secret among the workers for months. Commission officials said they then confronted Spence and his chief helper, Chris Bourke, and that the two men confessed to having invented the tale of an unknown pedestrian jumping on the truck.

Mouctar Diallo (Courtesy of Midjao Diallo)

The commission spokesperson said the agency lacked the power to suspend the driver on its own. It said Spence was suspended after the second death because the commission asked the company to do so, and Sanitation Salvage complied.

Asked why the commission did not make that kind of request immediately after finding that a driver in a fatal accident had lied to police, a spokesperson declined to comment.

Several attempts to contact Spence were not successful.

Sanitation Salvage did not respond to multiple requests for comment over several weeks.

In an interview, Bourke, the main helper on the truck that killed Diallo, claimed not to know where the tale of the daredevil homeless man had come from. He said he only talked briefly to police, and couldn’t remember what he told them. Diallo, he said, “popped out of nowhere.”

To this day, Hadiatou Barry and former colleagues of Mouctar at Sanitation Salvage say they are not confident they know the truth about how Mouctar died. Helpers are not supposed to ride on the front running boards, workers say. They walk the street, haul trash to the curb and ride the back of the truck.

Every night in New York, an army of private garbage trucks from more than 250 sanitation companies sets out across the five boroughs picking up the trash from all manner of businesses. Racing to complete long and often circuitous routes, the trucks crisscross the city at breakneck speeds. The human toll is substantial: Since 2010, there have been 33 deaths attributed to private garbage trucks across the city.

Sanitation Salvage trucks, now involved in two deaths in six months, have failed federal safety inspections at a rate that’s four times the national average. A Department of Labor investigation found that the company had failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages and that workers pulled 18-hour days. Drivers are so overtaxed that they hire additional helpers — often young men off the street — to try and complete their routes on time.

Mouctar Diallo was one of those, known at Sanitation Salvage as “third men.” It is unclear when Diallo arrived in the Bronx — the borough has one of greatest concentrations of Guinean immigrants in America — but he’d begun working for Sanitation Salvage in the late spring of 2016, according to interviews with co-workers. He first worked with a driver named Timothy Belgrave, and later with Vernando Smith. Diallo, nicknamed “Gotto,” was beloved for his intrepidness — he wasn’t afraid of rats — and the way he made everyone laugh. He’d been working with Spence and Bourke for over a year.

“Almost everybody there would know Gotto,” Smith, the former driver, said of workers and management at Sanitation Salvage. “They would see him on the truck. Maybe they didn’t know his name but they knew his face. He was the only African who worked for the company."

Such third men, according to interviews with 15 current and former workers, often got paid off the books, either directly by the company or out of the pockets of drivers and main helpers. The drivers and main helpers were then sometimes reimbursed by the company, according to current and former workers. Such informal payments were a testament to how impossibly long the routes were. A typical route at another company in the Bronx would be around 200 stops. At Sanitation Salvage, many routes had close to 1,000 stops, if not more. 

Third men could make anywhere from $30 to $80 a night, for shifts as long as 18 or 20 hours, according to workers.

In 2015, after an investigation, the Department of Labor concluded that Sanitation Salvage owed workers $385,000 in unpaid overtime over the past three years. Sanitation Salvage refused to pay, claiming the workers were seeking to be paid for time actually spent hanging out with friends. When the department chose not to take the company to court, the issue ended.

Bourke, the helper who first recruited Diallo off the street, said of the long hours and demanding routes, “If you do the math, accidents will happen.” Waste and recycling work is the fifth-most fatal job in America.

“It’s not just about Gotto’s death,” Bourke said. “To work like this is unhuman. They’ll make you work like a slave. You can do 18 hours one day and, say, go home and get four hours of sleep and come back and do 12 hours.”

Voice of America and ProPublica sent Sanitation Salvage and its lawyers a detailed set of questions weeks ago — about Diallo’s death, the false account given by the driver and helper, the working conditions at the company, and its trouble with the Department of Labor. The company did not respond.

This week, the Business Integrity Commission said the second death and the accounts of dangerous working conditions had prompted an investigation that could result in halting the company’s operations or installing a monitor.

However, a coalition of labor, safe streets and Bronx community organizations are calling for an immediate suspension of Sanitation Salvage’s license.

“We take these workers’ allegations very seriously,” the commission said. “If the results of the investigation merit these actions or any others, they will be taken immediately.”

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