HAMILTON, Ohio -- Law enforcement can be messy work, but Deputy Caroline Kotlas' job is dirtier than most. Hamilton County's first-ever environmental crimes investigator spends her shifts kneeling amid discarded takeout containers, bottles and other illegally dumped garbage in search of clues about the person who left it behind.
"You know, I'm just so interested in trying to find a clue that the fact that it's gross and I'm out here in the heat digging through it really doesn't even occur to me," she said.
Instead, she focuses on finding pieces of identifying information amid the garbage. Objects that contain names or addresses, such as receipts and discarded envelopes, can help her trace the trash back to the person who left it behind.
Once, she learned a suspect had used Facebook to brag about leaving his mess behind on another person's property.
"That's great for me," she said, laughing. "Sometimes, you don't catch the brightest ones."
Thousands of Hamilton County homeowners have found large piles of others' garbage in their yards over the years, she added. They're not just unsightly and expensive to clean up -- depending on the things a dumper decides to offload, they can also spread toxic waste and disease. Tires, especially, pose multiple hazards, including becoming nesting grounds for disease-spreading pests such as mosquitoes and harming the surrounding environment.
For many of those years, Kotlas said, offenders grew increasingly "bold and brash" because Hamilton County didn't strictly enforce its laws about illegal dumping. She's working to change that by bringing charges against people who leave their garbage lying around.
"I will use every resource in my power to make sure that this ceases," she said.
Hamilton County is throwing its efforts behind her, too. The sheriff's office and Hamilton County Environmental Services will partner for the next three years to place special focus on people who dispose of their trash illegally.
Kotlas' three months on the job are already helping, Hamilton County Environmental Services director Holly Christmann said.
"People are starting to understand now there's someone to call and there's someone who will come out and enforce," she said. "That's what has really been lacking over the past several years here."