Officer Salvadore Rodriguez had nothing against baby turtles. He just didn’t want vendors selling tiny live ones on the street—and potentially poisoning kids.
Rodriguez (pictured), who works the Hill neighborhood, does what other patrol cops do. He responds to calls of break-ins or gunshots. He recently caught a bank robber.
Lately he has added a specialty to his repertoire: chasing vendors on Ella Grasso Boulevard and Long Wharf who peddle bootleg DVDs and CDs or live four-inch turtles shipped to New Haven from New York or North Carolina.
Last weekend Rodriguez finally caught up with one serial turtle peddler and possible street supplier. It was the culmination of months of persistence.
You might not know that four-inch turtles are a public health menace. Rodriguez didn’t know that. Then, this spring, a city animal control officer flagged him down by the weekend flea market on the Boulevard. She told him about finding a baby-turtle peddler. She told him the man was breaking federal law.
In his cruiser, Rodriguez Googled “illegal” and “turtles.” He learned that the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1975 banned the sale of turtles four inches or smaller. Vendors like to sell them because kids find the tiny turtles cute and bug their parents to buy them. But kids are also more likely to pop a turtle that small into their mouths. As a result, as many as hundreds of thousands of kids were believed to contract salmonella poisoning, which can be fatal.
Officer Rodriguez got on the case.
“They’re Stealing Money”
Rodriguez, who’s 48 and grew up in Fair Haven, didn’t always chase turtle peddlers or other menaces to society for a living. He began his working career popping pies in the oven at Grand Apizza. Then he donned a security uniform to supervise the second shift at Gateway Community College. Eighteen years ago he joined New Haven’s police force, following in the footsteps of his brother Ricardo (who’s now a sergeant in charge of public school-stationed cops).
Patrolling the Hill South district, he came to learn how problems sometimes arise among merchandise vendors by the food trucks at Long Wharf or just outside the Boulevard flea market. Two years ago, for instance, he and another officer found themselves responding to a turf dispute between two vendors on Long Wharf. It began over shish kebabs. A knife and a gun eventually entered into it. (Read about that here and here.)
Then around four months ago vendors started looming larger on Rodriguez’s radar.
For many years authorities, acting in concert with visiting officials from the movie and music industries, have arrested vendors inside the flea market for hawking illegal versions of films and music albums.
Rodriguez started seeing some of that activity this spring taking place on sidewalks and in the parking lot right outside the flea market, as well as on Long Wharf. Hawkers were selling pirated DVDs for $5 apiece out of car trunks. It got so hawkers would abruptly close down while setting up as they saw Rodriguez drive by; so he started changing his routine to catch them unaware.
In the process, he helped get the district’s cops more involved.
“He took [the problem] on himself. He called me and brought it to my attention,” said Lt. Holly Wasilewski, who until this month was Rodriguez’s supervisor in Hill South.
“They’re stealing money. They’re basically ripping off the movie industry” as well as consumers, Rodriguez argued.
Soon Rodriguez founding himself checking out videos everywhere he went, in convenience stores, for instance, to see if fuzzy lettering on the package might indicate pirated content. His 14-year-old daughter recently rented them the most recent X-Men movie to watch together at home; Rodriguez trusts his daughter, but checked the label nonetheless, in case the renter trafficked in contraband. (He didn’t.)
One recent Saturday he drove by the food vendors on Long Wharf and noticed a green looseleaf binder open on the opened driver’s-door window of a red minivan. It had 25-30 plastic sheets with names of movies for sale. The back of the minivan was up—until the owner saw Rodriguez.
“He closes the back of the minivan. But he forgets to take the notebook down,” Rodriguez recalled.
He asked to see the man’s permits; vendors need one to sell in the city, and they need a special one for Long Wharf. He didn’t have them.
Rodriguez had the back opened to reveal over 6,000 DVDs. Many of the DVDs have improved in quality in the past two years, he said; fewer of them have bobbing camera work inside a theater, with patrons walking by and blocking the action.
Rodriguez confiscated the pirated material. (The CDs went to the police property room. Eventually police destroy bootleg CDs and movies if they don’t have evidentiary value, according to police spokesman Officer David Hartman.) Rodriguez gave the man a warning—his customary response to a first encounter with a hawker, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he might not have known the law. Inevitably, he encounters the hawkers at it again, in which case he arrests them for trespassing on public property or other offenses.
Hare Catches Turtle
The same proved true on the turtle hunt, which began that day this spring when a staffer from the city’s Animal Control Office waved Rodriguez down and alerted him to the hawker and the salmonella problem.
Rodriguez confronted the hawker, who’d been outside the flea market on the Boulevard. He appeared to be homeless. A driver had dropped off a batch of under-four-inch turtles to sell for $10 a piece. The suppliers pay $1 apiece for them.
Rodriguez confiscated the turtles and gave the hawker, who appeared to be homeless, a warning. He wanted to catch the supplier. For months he kept an eye out.
To date Rodriguez has turned over close to 100 mini-turtles, said city Animal Control Officer Stephani Johnson. She said the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection came to pick them up.
Two months later he encountered a man with braided hair stationed outside the C-Town on Greenwich Avenue in Kimberly Square. He had a stash of mini-turtles for sale. He “claimed he didn’t know they were illegal.” Again, Rodriguez confiscated the contraband and warned that next time he’d charge the man with trespassing and vending without a permit. But he also had a hunch that he’d encountered the supplier. At the very least, he didn’t believe the man would disappear.
His hunch was confirmed this past Saturday. Driving on the Boulevard, he spotted a similar-looking man with braids standing outside the APT Foundation near the flea market entrance. Rodriguez did a u-turn; by the time he entered the lot, the man had fled.
Rodriguez left word with colleagues about the man. Then he checked out for the day. On his way home to Fair Haven Heights, he received a call from Officer Frank Lett: Lett had stopped the man.
“Ask him if I stopped him before,” Rodriguez instructed.
“Absolutely not,” the man responded.
“Hold him there,” Rodriguez asked Lett. “If he’s the same guy, I’ll lock him up.”
Despite being off duty, Rodriguez circled back to the Boulevard. Rodriguez took the turtles but let the man go, after the man insisted Rodriguez had never arrested him before. Rodriguez wasn’t 100 percent sure he had the same guy.
The next day Rodriguez obtained the report from his previous encounter with the braided man. Turns out it was the same guy. He plans to stop him again, hopefully this weekend, and charge him, he said.
He was asked if publicizing that fact might jeopardize the arrest.
“It’s a win-win,” he responded. “I’ll grab him and lock him up. Or he’ll read this and get scared, and kids won’t get salmonella poisoning.”
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Craig Alston & Billy White Jr.
• James Baker
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Sheree Biros
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
• Bertram Etienne
• Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• John Kaczor & Alex Morgillo
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Ron Perry
• Joe Pettola
• Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• David Rivera
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski