If You're Missing Milk Crates, Mike Massey Will Crack the Case

updated 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

On a corner in downtown L.A., Mike Massey is about to do his bit for truth, justice and the American dairy industry. Driving down the street, laughing and swearing nonstop, the 43-year-old ex-cop spots a guy selling oranges out of a milk crate. Massey, who looks like Ned Beatty on a bad day, pulls up to the curb, gets out of his car and heads straight for the bewildered vendor. He grabs the plastic case, dumps the fruit on the pavement, then hands the peddler a card bearing the chilling words, "Unauthorized use or possession of milk crates is against the law." Massey tosses the crate in his car and drives off. "Sometimes I have to make a citizen's arrest," he says. "When I get resistance, that draws me like a magnet. That's what I'm looking for. I want to make examples."

Suffice it to say that as a sleuth, Massey has a most offbeat beat. He's the Eliot Ness of what some in the dairy industry call "milk case abuse"—a crime that costs California dairies an estimated $9 million a year. While unlawful crate possession is punishable by fines and jail terms in many states, the California Coalition for Milk Case Recovery has actually hired someone to do something about it.

Before retiring from the San Bernardino police force in 1983 because of a back injury, Massey, a 19-year veteran, was a forensic investigator. Working for the coalition since 1985, he has driven an average of 200 miles a day, following up leads on missing cases. His big targets are the industrial recyclers who buy stolen crates in volume, pulverize the high-density plastic containers and sell them as scrap. But Massey also pursues small-time abusers, the most common of whom—according to a list compiled by the coalition—include, "chicken owners, pig farmers, the motion picture industry, churches, drug dealers and military personnel."

Though it's hard to believe, most people don't take Massey's gung ho efforts seriously. "They don't even care when they see someone taking cases," he growls. "That shocks me as an American citizen. I thought we were all in this together. I've got to change that attitude."

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