LITTLE ROCK -- Tweety Bird and Big Bird didn't know it, but they were under surveillance by the FBI as they delivered loads of demolition debris to the Mississippi County landfill in 2018 without first stopping to be weighed, a special FBI agent testified Monday.
Officer Bobby Ephlin of the Blytheville Police Department, who is also part of an FBI task force, told to a federal jury in Little Rock that Tweety Bird is the nickname a landfill employee gave to a big yellow truck that regularly rolled into the landfill from a "back door" and dumped a roll-off bin containing tons of debris at the public facility without first stopping to be weighed. Ephlin said Big Bird was the employee's nickname for a larger truck, a tractor-trailer with a white cab from the same company, that dropped larger bright yellow bins of waste at the landfill after driving around the scale house, thereby avoiding being billed.
The employee, acting as a confidential informant, regularly photographed Tweety Bird and Big Bird and sent those photos, along with messages about what they were doing, to Ephlin.
Ephlin, who shared those photographs and messages on courtroom computer screens, was the first witness in the trial of James David Ross, owner of the Ross Farms Trucking company in Kennett, Mo., about 40 miles from the landfill near Luxora, between Blytheville and Osceola.
Ross is facing two counts each of aiding and abetting honest services mail fraud. The charges allege Ross paid $100 cash to the landfill supervisor, Wil Allen, in return for each load Allen allowed Ross' drivers to dump without the company being billed, thus depriving the county of Allen's honest services and it, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the state of their portion of the dumping fees.
Ross' attorney, Bill Stanley of Jonesboro, suggested to jurors Ross merely went along with the scheme Allen concocted because he was scared of Allen, a big man who "threatened people, carried guns and claimed to have been in prison, to make drivers do what he wanted them to do."
Allen, who pleaded guilty last month, is expected to testify at Ross' trial this week. Joe Harlan Hamlett, who regularly drove Tweety Bird, is scheduled for a separate trial beginning Nov. 2.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin O'Leary told jurors in her opening statements that Ross, who owns several demolition and excavating companies in Missouri, helped concoct the scheme through which he delivered loads of debris to the landfill 225 times but was only charged for 31 loads.
Tweety Bird, also known as Truck No. 7, was also surreptitiously photographed by the FBI on numerous occasions, Ephlin testified, showing jurors several of those photos. One showed the truck stopped en route to the landfill by a state trooper acting at the behest of the FBI, allowing driver Hamlett to be photographed while being questioned by the trooper. Another photo depicted Tweety Bird entering the landfill. Another showed Big Bird, being driven by Ross' son, Mark Ross, carrying a yellow bin.
Jurors also saw surveillance photos taken at Ross Trucking work sites where construction debris was loaded onto Tweety Bird and Big Bird. The sites included a funeral home in Kennett that was being demolished, and the demolition of a school. The FBI followed the trucks away from the work sites, and then used a "game camera on steroids" to watch the drivers' actions once they arrived at the landfill, he said.
Stanley maintained truck drivers from many companies had the same arrangement with Allen, and quizzed Ephlin about other drivers who he acknowledged the FBI also had under surveillance for a while. Ephlin also acknowledged the informant at the dump was a felon.
The trial is set to resume at 9 a.m. today in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker.