ELMIRA, N.Y. — It was like something out of a television crime drama. As FBI agents executed a search warrant on a suspected child pornographer, he was flushing computer flash drives down the toilet to eliminate the evidence.
Whom do the authorities call for help?
As it turns out, the FBI called on a few ingenious CSEA members working for the Chemung County Sewer District, whom police recently honored for their vital assistance that helped lock up the suspect.
In July 2015, Eugene “Chip” Shumway and Chris Ripley got a late-afternoon call from co-worker Steve Cardamone, who said their help was needed.
Shumway and Ripley are maintenance workers on the sewer district’s road crew who operate a robotic camera that can peer into tight spaces. In this case, they were summoned to help recover evidence.
They soon found the flash drives in a lateral pipe beneath the suspect’s home, but their robotic camera wasn’t designed to retrieve items.
“We were thinking ‘Right there they are, but how are we going to get them out?’” Shumway said. “If we can snag them, we can bring them back.”
That’s when they channeled their inner “MacGyver,” in tribute to the television show in which the title character was known for his resourceful uses of common items to get out of jams with criminals.
Like MacGyver, Shumway and Ripley got creative with a little old-fashioned ingenuity, some duct tape and a coat hanger.
“That’s the only thing we could think of that was pliable,” said Ripley.
“I got out my trusty Leatherman and started cutting and bending,” Shumway said, referring to his multi-tool kit.
It took them about 20 minutes to fashion a tiny plow device to the camera, which allowed them to pull and push the drives through the smaller sewer pipes and into the larger sewer main under a manhole where they could be retrieved.
Less than three hours after the first call went out, they turned over the evidence to the FBI, which found videos connected to an international child pornography investigation. The offender was sentenced to seven years in prison, and our CSEA members earned front-page recognition in the local newspaper.
Recently, following the man’s conviction, the West Elmira Police and the Elmira Town Board honored Cardamone, Ripley and Shumway with certificates for their help recovering the critical evidence.
“It’s nice to have the recognition when you do a good job,” Shumway said. “But our jobs are helping the community, anyway.”
Ripley said the events that afternoon are certainly the most interesting they’ve encountered on the job.
“It was kind of surreal,” he said. “You see a lot of weird stuff down there (in the sewers), but that was a different scenario.”
Now, Shumway pointed out, coat hangers and duct tape are standard equipment on their truck. “If this was television, MacGyver would no doubt be proud.”