Few symbols of waste carry more impact than the sight and odor of thousands of piles of donated clothing moldering away in a shuttered industrial warehouse in Gary.
Strewn in piles eight feet high and rotting in drippy moisture, the clothes are stacked in boxes, bags and open piles across an area larger than a football field and inside a factory that once produced screws and bolts.
The infamous Gary Urban Enterprise Association played a central role in bringing the clothes from a donor in the Chicago suburbs to this wasteland in the Steel City.
Recently filed court records, internal GUEA documents and interviews with sources familiar with the situation reveal a chain of events that led a South Side Chicago church to store the donated clothing in Gary instead of sending the garments to the intended destinations in Third World countries.
Along the way, a Gary business managed to secure a lucrative contract for storage space for the clothing, even though the GUEA owned hundreds of unused buildings in Gary and an apartment building in Chicago.
"The rag storage served no legitimate purpose for GUEA and was clearly part of a common scheme to steal from GUEA," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Bell wrote in court records this month.
The GUEA voted to dissolve itself in 2007, more than two years after The Times exposed questionable spending practices by executive director Jojuana Meeks.
Meeks and eight other people eventually were indicted by federal grand juries on charges of embezzling more than $1 million from the publicly supported not-for-profit organization following a wide-ranging investigation that uncovered numerous avenues of fraud. Meeks and three others pleaded guilty; five others are awaiting trial.
Although Meeks still claims innocence in at least some aspects of the case, even her former pastor, Bishop Reese Price Jr., has lost his faith in Meeks.
"For her to do what she did was uncalled for, unthinkable," Price said. "I had known her since she was a little kid. I trusted her wholeheartedly. ...I didn't have the slightest idea that she would pull a hood over my eyes."
Price is the founder and leader of Victory Apostolic Faith Church at 8053 May St. in Chicago, where Meeks once served as the "civil liaison and coordinator," according to the church's Web site.
Price also is a self-described "mission person." That's why he forged a decades-long relationship with Cleveland-based Cintas, Inc,, which donates clothing to Price through its suburban Chicago offices.
Loads of the "rags" have gone to Uganda and Liberia, and plans were in the works for India and the Dominican Republic to receive clothing as well.
When the church ran out of storage room in 2000, Meeks agreed to store the garments and had the clothing shipped to Volk Storage at 6801 Melton Rd. near Miller, according to Price and court records.
Between October 2000 and August 2002, the GUEA paid Volk $43,423 to store the clothing until the church could raise enough money to send the items to India and the Dominican Republic, GUEA records state.
Price said it would cost about $7,400 per load to ship the clothes.
At some point, the Volk deal ended, and GUEA shipped the huge collection of clothing to an abandoned factory it had purchased, the former Gary Screw and Bolt Co. at 901 Alabama. The clothing remains there today, subjected to years of rain, snow and moss that grows on the floor.
"When everything got out of hand, all out of whack...we just decided to leave it alone. Not even try to retrieve what was there," Price said. "I hope it's still there, and I hope one day I might be able to retrieve it."