Exposing a Chop Shop

I take a customer with a camera for a ride to gather evidence for the police.

The call came on Tuesday from a friend.”Are you available to do some aerial photography work? There’s a guy burying garbage in the river bed and we want to get him busted.”

I scheduled the flight for Friday morning, when I was assured that the culprits would still be asleep. The passenger arrived with her camera 30 minutes early. She went with me while I pulled the helicopter out of its hangar and onto the ramp. I did a good preflight, gave her the safety speech, and convinced her to put all loose items (including plastic film canisters) under her seat. A few moments later, the blades were spinning up and we were ready to go.

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My helicopter in its hangar. The stagecoach is a long story.

It was a beautiful autumn morning. For Arizona, that means temperatures in the 70s and perfectly clear skies. The air was smooth as we took off and headed east, toward the Hassayampa River. At first, my passenger was extremely quiet. She used hand signals to ask whether her voice would be heard over the radio if she spoke. I assured her that it wouldn’t and she began giving me flying directions and the background information about the culprits.

It seems that there were a few bad guys in town who made a living stealing equipment and vehicles, salvaging parts, and selling off what they could. They buried the evidence of their misdeeds in the riverbed, which was sandy and mostly dry for the entire year. My passenger was interested in shooting photographs of the suspects’ properties, with the idea that the police could blow up the photos and get license plates and other information from the vehicles, as well as spot stolen equipment. She was also interested in tracking down a large front-end loader that had been stolen and was probably being used to dig very big holes in the sand.

She warned me that if the suspects were out and about and didn’t like me circling, they might shoot. She told me she’d keep an eye out for anyone and let me know if I should make a quick departure.

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An aerial view of the Hassayampa River Bridge in Wickenburg, from the South.

We circled two residences along the riverbed while she snapped photos. Both places looked like junkyards from the air — vehicles, equipment, building parts, and all kinds of stuff was scattered all over. Then we headed farther upriver to a third residence that looked quite respectable from the air. We didn’t find the big tire tracks she was looking for, but she seemed satisfied.

A roll and a half of film and 30 minutes later, we touched down at the airport. She paid what I asked and went away happy — probably to the local one-hour photo place.

What do you think?