by Tim Gilmore, 8/2/2019
1. Go-Go Boots and Guns
What strange and circuitous travels these teetering towers of toilets have made to perch in the sales alley outside Shep’s Discount and Salvage, no one can say. And in what legal standing these thousands of faded plastic flowers and sorrowful smiley-face balloons exist, one can’t be sure. For these wares reflect the paradoxes of the man whose empire of scrap and rummage offers them for sale.
There can be no more quintessential Jacksonville character than Shep Ellison, lieutenant firefighter and convicted arsonist, solicitor of murder and seller of stolen goods, cargo racketeer and kingpin of junk. Attorney and former Circuit Court Judge John Merrett considers his prosecution of Ellison 30 years ago—“He bragged that he was untouchable!”— one of the most significant operations of his career.
Meanwhile, thousands of customers shop regularly for secondhand tools, expired food, and used furniture at Shep’s Discount and Salvage on Normandy Boulevard and Shep’s Chicken House Auctions on West Beaver Street. (The Beaver Street location does not auction chicken coops, as its name might suggest; it’s housed in the former Tyson Foods chicken processing plant, a complex of 13 structures built from the 1940s through the early 2000s.) Customers say they know about Ellison’s shady dealings, but don’t know where to find better deals on toothbrushes, bathroom faucets and soffit panels.
In March 2017, The Miami Herald reported the arrests of Shep Ellison, Pedro Fernandez Hernandez and Lewis Dominguez, while police still sought Juan Carlos Castaneda Quintana. The Herald reported the four men ran a shadow operation that regularly stole semi trucks and “trailers full of beer, energy drinks, refrigerators and power tools.” Garrett Pelican of The Florida Times-Union wrote that Shep’s empire of salvage “provided a clearinghouse for at least $1 million in stolen merchandise,” and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen called it a “massive cargo theft ring operating in multiple states.” In jail in Orlando, Ellison, arrested on RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) charges, awaited bail of $1.5 million, pending a Nebbia hearing to ascertain the legality of his bond sources.
It was the second year in a row FDLE had raided Shep Ellison’s businesses. In January 2016, state agents seized drugs and illegal guns from Shep’s two business locations, including bags of hydrocodone, ammunition, a 12 gauge shotgun and several handguns, including a semi-automatic. He was charged with trafficking and with possession of a firearm by a felon.
The felonies date to 1989 when Ellison was sentenced to 15 years for arson, solicitation to commit first degree murder, and of course, dealing in stolen goods. Since Ellison was an officer with the Jacksonville Fire Department, Miami Herald and Florida Times-Union headlines maximized the ironies: “Firefighter Charged with Arson.” Other newspapers reported Ellison sold stolen goods received from “a network of thieves.” The murder-for-hire charge attested he’d contracted a henchman for a paltry $3,000 to kill the snitch.
Be all that as it may, in the summer of 2019, you can buy a pair of white pleather go-go boots at Shep’s for $2.99, and two hose clamps for a dollar.
2. Cash versus Value
In the full onslaught of Florida summer rain, the tall sign for Shep’s Discount and Salvage wavers in my vision. Regions far better known for rain than this corner of the Sunshine State rarely receive the voluminous downpours that batter Jacksonville daily.
In 15 minutes, however, the rain subsides on the alley beside Shep’s on Normandy Boulevard. I enter the side passage through a tall chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and step across a rug announcing, “Combat Systems Training Group Atlantic Fleet Detachment Mayport.”
I walk the alley with a wondrous little book by that transcendentalist Southern poet A.R. Ammons, his 121-page 1993 poem called “Garbage.” In stream-of-consciousness anti-couplets, sprawlingly enjambed, Archie Ammons says things like: “nothing one can pay cash for seems / very valuable.”
Ah yes, but I could pay five bucks for a used toilet here, or buy a set of rusted golf clubs, a lamp with a horse doll for a base, or fuel tanks on wheels.
3. Immunity and Entanglement
“I was informed early on that Ellison that had been figuratively getting away with murder for years,” John Merrett says. “It’s important for prosecutors to administer justice to people who think they are, and who are thought to be, untouchable. People can’t be immune or think they’re immune. Every person engaged in ongoing criminality should never sleep, but should always be thinking, ‘I’m next.’”
With his trim beard, bowtie and kind intelligent eyes, attorney John Merrett is himself a bit of a Jax character. As circuit court judge, Merrett once pulled a gun in court. A victim’s father had attacked the defendant. As Claire Goforth reported in Folio Weekly, the father was charged with a felony, but Merrett released him “on his own recognizance,” saying he couldn’t blame him.
Merrett considers prosecuting Shep Ellison in 1989 one of his most important successes in the state attorney’s office, though it’s what Merrett says about Shep’s henchman-turned-informant that says most about him. He refers to him as the giant. Life is complicated. Good people get entangled in thorny and poisonous vines they hadn’t realized they’d stepped into. Merrett found the henchman good-hearted and gentle. More about the giant in a minute.
The state was investigating Ellison for burglary. At the time he operated from an old warehouse on Florida Avenue, which wasn’t yet renamed A. Philip Randolph Boulevard. Investigators noted thieves who fenced with Ellison and thieves who “stole to order.” Shortly after an associate of Ellison’s turned state’s evidence, they discovered the murder contract and the state hid their witness. Then things got strange.
4. Googly-eye Cat Hats and the Errors of Our Illusionary Ways
Inside this former K-Mart department store built in 1961, on the endcaps of the plumbing aisle, I find boxes of Golden Puffs (two bags for a dollar), an American flag, rafts of plastic bottles of Snapple lemon tea, mops, rubber gloves, and toy cars.
Elsewhere, mountains of canned LaCroix Sparkling Water jumble apricot, mango, coconut and grapefruit (pamplemousse!) beneath a hand-written sign (“SODA’s 5 FOR $1.oo”) appended to an upright yardstick.
I consult Ammons, who tells me, “the it is the indifference of all the / differences, the nothingness of all the poised / somethings, the finest issue of energy in which / boulders and dead stars float.” I consider asking an employee on what aisle I’d find boulders and dead stars.
I try one more time, because what’s better than bibliomancy with your favorite poets and writers?
So I step past racks of “Danger! No Smoking” and “Collie Xing” signs, boxes of powdered milk and something called “Smoked Blend 4 for $1.oo,” shelves of lamp figurines of scantily clad women in polka dot dresses with hips thrust out and tigers collared and chained, and I thumb through Ammons, who wonders, “is there a world / with no bitter aftertaste or post coital triste,” and then asserts that “garbage has to be the poem of our time because / garbage is spiritual, believable enough / to get our attention, getting in the way, piling / up, stinking, turning brooks brownish and / creamy white: what else deflects us from the / errors of our illusionary ways.”
5. Gentle Giant
“So one day,” Merrett explains, “this carload of detectives is headed to lunch down by the fairgrounds and they see this giant standing there. He’s 6’6” or 6’7” and weighs 350 or 400 pounds. It’s like seeing a door walking down the street. And he seems to be holding a rifle in front of Shep’s shop, right downtown. 425 Florida Avenue. So they brake. They chase the guy, he can’t run far and he can’t run fast, and they bring him in.”
Merrett pauses, considering how he wants to tell what happens next. He’s one of those people you can see and hear think as he talks.
So Merrett and Jim Suber, lead burglary detective, interrogated Ellison’s giant. He did odd jobs, never for much money, took care of things Ellison wanted done. He talked about the contract to murder the state’s witness. Ellison was paying him just $3,000 to do the deed.
“Sometimes when you’re interrogating people,” Merrett says, “you just take a shot in the dark.” So Merrett told the giant that what he really wanted to know was what buildings he’d burned. And the giant fainted.
Not only was Ellison a lieutenant firefighter for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, but he’d worked fire prevention since 1976. He’d dressed up as Sparky the Fire Dog to talk to kids about safety. Nevertheless, mysterious fires had consumed some of Ellison’s rival businesses and the giant, as Ellison’s personal henchman, knew all about them. Now he agreed to work for the state.
The giant wore a wire. As far as Ellison knew, the hatchet job was still on. Detectives kept the intended victim hidden. The giant told Ellison, “That motor you wanted fixed is fixed, I took care of it,” or some such cipher from a Humphrey Bogart movie, a Dashiell Hammett novel. Ellison seemed satisfied. Until he was arrested for the third time since Merrett began working the case.
6. Garbology and Space Probes
There’s a subfield of archaeology called garbology, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. Archaeologist William Rathje pioneered the discipline at the University of Arizona in 1973. Garbologists have studied the unconscious habits of consumers, the possible reuse of garbage as fuel, and the sociology of value by sorting through collections of curbside trash disposal and digging into the deep forbidden goo of Fresh Kills Landfill in New York, the world’s largest landfill and, as archaeologist Martin Jones points out, one of “the largest man-made structures in the history of the world.”
We might like to think art and science the greatest productions of human intelligence and imagination, but it could be that garbology is the truest archaeology, that junk is the principle creation of humanity.
When NASA engineers sent Voyager I and II into space in 1977, they packed phonographs with sounds and images that would tell extraterrestrial life something about the species and planet that launched the space probes. It was like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it into the ocean. The Voyager Golden Records included nude diagrams of a man and woman, a printed message from the president and a recording of Glenn Gould playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Putting aside the question of how or whether extraterrestrials would be able to play the records, if NASA sends another probe to the ends of our solar system and hopes to offer space aliens an exemplification of human life and expression, perhaps it should send samples from Shep’s. Glenn Gould’s piano interpretations might represent the apex of human brilliance, but Shep’s Discount and Salvage is the compost tea down to which millions of lives over hundreds of years reduces.
7. Better than the Worst
Shortly after Ellison’s sentencing to 15 years, Merrett returned to his office and looked out his window to see a column of smoke. Soon he was on the phone with a detective telling him Shep’s Florida Avenue warehouse was fully engulfed in flames. Merrett figures Ellison had just enough time to go from the courthouse to the jail to make a phone call before the fire broke out.
Ellison served only a couple of years. He’s not in jail now because the last case, the 2017 arrest on racketeering charges, was nol-prossed. Store managers say he’s in Australia and they don’t know when he’ll be back.
Shep’s clientele is vast and loyal; the legends are legion. “I heard he’s a mull-tie-million-aire!” an elderly white man named Clarence tells me. He came in to buy some casters for a chair. An elderly black man named Gerry says he knows all about Ellison’s “brushes with the law,” but doesn’t blame him. “Look, you come into the world, you learn how you’re situated and how to play the game,” he says. “He was well-suited for it.” Gerry’s here to get some “side groceries” and “maybe some wiring.”
Merrett speculates on the reasons for Ellison’s sense of entitlement. “He’s a big strong decent looking man who’s clever and confident, and people tend to defer to somebody like that.” He doesn’t call it white male privilege. Nor does he mention Ellison was state all-star defensive-end for Robert E. Lee High School’s football team, the Generals, in 1963 and ’64. The portrait of the man rounds out.
Merrett’s feelings about the case reflect both his understanding of the mission of state’s prosecutor and his personal love and respect for the fire department. His father was a firefighter. Not only did his father risk his life repeatedly for the job, and for the people it was his calling to serve, but he died of respiratory failure from years of smoke inhalation.
“Ellison tarnished an institution entitled to respect,” Merrett says. “He was working fire prevention. He was coaching kids. He was masquerading as a solid citizen. It’s one thing for a guy to be a mobster. It’s another thing for the mobster to join the priesthood.”
Merrett feels differently about the giant, who’s now deceased but steered clear of trouble the rest of his life. He thinks of him as a “gentle, kind, loving person who got mixed up in things he shouldn’t have.” He says, “Everybody is better than the worst thing he ever did.”
8. Final Distillations
To walk through Shep’s is to explore the psychogeography of all the world’s detritus.
It’s the bargain basement at the end of the world, where the old Norse gods of Ragnarök have assembled the apocalypse into aisles and shelves and endcaps.
At cut-rate prices, you can walk out of the end of the world with faded plastic roses, rusted metal storage racks, doll’s heads and expired cans of peaches.
If people make jokes about getting tetanus shots before you visit, they won’t laugh about assault weapons in back offices.
You might wonder why anyone would think cargo theft necessary, since as the earth orbits the sun, all things the city leaves behind seem to settle at Shep’s.
Certainly the city’s writers and artists and musicians express the identity and narrative of place. Certainly politicians believe they stand in for the people. But the cluttered aisles of Shep’s may hold the purest representation of Jacksonville, Florida.
Shake up the city, distill it, extract the last essence: here it is.