A ‘daunting’ job: Detroit cops comb landfill for teen’s body
The toughest summer assignment for Detroit police is about an hour from the city, off a dusty rural road where officers wearing protective suits, goggles and respirators try to close a crime in the most unlikely place: a vast landfill teeming with rotting trash from Michigan and Canada.
For more than two months, police have been searching for the remains of Zion Foster, a 17-year-old who disappeared in January. Investigators say her body was placed in a dumpster, which was emptied into a garbage truck for a journey to a landfill in Macomb County.
Police believe they’re in the right area at Pine Tree Acres landfill, based on GPS readings from the truck and other evidence. But confidence about the location has been tempered by the task of combing through tons of trash for even the smallest sign of human remains from seven months earlier.
It’s a mission that not all police departments would be willing to tackle — and it might not last much longer.
“It’s incredibly daunting,” said Michael McGinnis, Detroit police major crimes commander.
“Some days have been over 90 degrees with high humidity,” he said. “An odor emanates from the search area. You’re out in the sun. Anything and everything that you have thrown away in your life is up there along with thousands of others.”
Officer Jessica Townsville, who has been on the search team for weeks, said her daughter is a few years younger than Zion.
“I just want to find her,” Townsville said during a lunch break. “I think to myself, ‘There’s some hair,’ something to give me a little glimmer of hope that maybe it’s her. A tennis shoe, anything. I’ll get it and it’s nothing. ... I’m not leaving until she’s found.”
Zion was a high school senior who was wearing a fast-food uniform when she was last seen in early January. No one has been charged in her death, though a cousin, Jaylin Brazier, said in court that he was present when she died. He is in prison for lying to investigators.
Zion lived in Eastpointe, a suburb, but Detroit police took charge because the death occurred in the city. McGinnis said he’s certain the body ended up in a dumpster, based on interviews with Brazier and other evidence.
Each day during the search, at least a dozen officers meet under a tent for instructions from Sgt. Shannon Jones. They gather near a handmade poster with photos of the teen, titled “Operation Zion,” and step into a van to go across the road to the landfill.
Trash is scooped up by heavy equipment and dropped into dump trucks. Roughly 40 loads a day are released at a staging area for inspection with sharp rakes.
“We’re at depths of 25 to 30 feet,” Jones said.
“We might hit a pocket that has a heavy ammonia smell,” she said. “You’ve got trip hazards up there. Nothing is level. Everything is bumpy. Discarded needles, nails, wood.”
Jones believes they’re in the right section because they discovered mail with certain Detroit addresses and dates. Another clue: recalled hams that were dumped in the trash around the time of Zion’s disappearance.
“Every load — maybe this is the one, right?” Jones said, explaining her mindset. ”We’re up there, we’re working. If I’m finding things that didn’t make sense, then we would have wrapped this up weeks ago.”
There aren’t many playbooks for searching a landfill, though McGinnis said advice from the FBI before the operation was very helpful.
In Illinois, a scholar was killed, dismembered and placed in a dumpster in 2017, but a landfill look in the high-profile case was ruled out as expensive and extremely difficult.
The Michigan search has cost more than $150,000. The Detroit Public Safety Foundation has assisted by lining up cash donations as well as meals, protective gear and heavy equipment from businesses.
Now, after nine weeks, Chief James White said he’ll soon determine how long the hunt for Zion’s remains will last, a “decision I dread.”
“Our dedicated men and women have volunteered to dig out a dump site for a child. I couldn’t be prouder,” White said Monday. “I’ve got to make a decision based on what we’re seeing and the likelihood of a real recovery and the risks to the officers.”
Zion’s mother, Ciera Milton, said 2022 should have been a year for graduation pictures, prom and a driver’s license.
“As heart-wrenching as this is, the turmoil you feel on the inside, to know that my baby has to be recovered from trash — I’m grateful for those who have fought to get to this point,” Milton said in May. “I want to know what happened to my baby.”
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