By JASON ECK
Foothill thrift store officials fed up with people dumping junk after hours outside their shops are fighting back and winning.
Several stores in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties have installed or considered putting in camera systems to help identify the people, or better yet, catch a glimpse of suspects' license plates.
Store operators say installing cameras along with signs warning people that the businesses are under video surveillance is keeping potential dumpers away.
Some say they won't hesitate to seek prosecution when they have strong cases, although others say they can't afford the cost of going after violators. Illegal dumping is a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.
Two men driving a blue Jeep Cherokee were the first offenders caught on tape by a new security system at Tuolumne County's Interfaith Community Social Services, a nonprofit agency owned and operated by 13 Tuolumne County churches.
"We got a picture of the guy, his truck and trailer, but we didn't get his license plate," said Phil Sandoval, treasurer and member of the agency's board of directors.
Although the Jeep was at the wrong angle for the camera to capture a license plate, the camera did give agency officials a good look at the suspects: a gray-bearded driver and his red-vested companion leaving a dilapidated clothes washer.
Sandoval said this case of dumping is the only one officials have seen since they installed the security system early this month. Interfaith officials did not seek prosecution in the case, Sandoval said, because it didn't cost the agency anything to get rid of the washer somebody took it home to fix it.
Interfaith's board of directors spent $4,715 to install four cameras outside the agency's building on Tuolumne Road near Standard. The agency considered the idea for six months, and finally paid for it with extra money in its building fund.
Interfaith has paid as much as $200 a month to have illegally dumped items hauled away. The agency's single Dumpster was often filled to overflowing, especially following weekends, when most dumping takes place. Adding to Interfaith's and other thrift stores' frustration is having to pay to get rid of dumped electrical equipment.