A California Taco Bell manager is on the defensive after a teenager reported overhearing him tell employees to lock a homeless man in a dumpster.
The teenager, Jacob Cook, said he was buying food for himself and his five-year-old sister when he heard manager Darrin Hailey instruct an employee to lock the man in the dumpster for more than an hour. The story was first carried by the Redding, California-based Record Searchlight.
According to police logs, Cook reported seeing “an employee of Taco Bell who closed and locked [the] dumpster enclosure gate, trapping [a] male inside and then threw a bag of trash over the enclosure on top of [him].” He said he could hear the man banging from inside.
“I was honestly shocked, because…I’ve never seen someone lock another gentleman in a trash can, homeless or not,” Cook said. “I was actually really scared. If I was locked in a dark box for that period of time…it’s just such a scary thing.”
“He didn’t even open the dumpster, talk to the guy or anything, he just closed this bar, latched the gate and then walked back inside,” he told the local ABC News affiliate KRCR.
Manager Darrin Hailey called the police after Cook’s complaint, saying the teenager shouldn’t have told him how to do his job. Interviewed later by the Searchlight, he said what Cook claimed couldn’t have happened, arguing the man could have easily escaped.
“It is extremely false,” Hailey told Searchlight reporter Alayna Shulman. “The gentleman was sleeping in the dumpster. We simply closed the dumpster gates…per city ordinance. The dumpster itself was unlocked at all times… The lid has to remain closed or the city fines us.”
“The gates can be opened from in or outside,” he added. “There is no locking mechanism to it…I tried to tell [Cook] he’s not locked in.”
Hailey admitted there was a bar that sealed the dumpster from outside, but said the mechanism that kept the dumpster closed couldn’t have locked in anyone.
“If you have the strength of a 16-year-old, you can lift it,” he was quoted as saying. “All you have to do is push and it pops open. There is no physical way to lock that dumpster… I assure you, I’m not the devil and I’m not locking people in my dumpsters.”
On Monday, when Cook returned to the restaurant with a reporter from ABC’s KRCR, Hailey threatened to call police, saying he was instructed to do so if Cook was seen on the property again.
Cook said he found the manager’s explanation appalling.
“Over the time that this was happening the guy actually banged on the trash can a couple times so I knew that he was in there,” he told KRCR. “To say that this is not true is just appalling to me and actually pretty sad.”
“For this guy to be in this small space here it’s frightening, it’s terrifying,” he added.
Taco Bell’s corporate office also denied the report. “We are an organization that puts people first, from our team members, to franchisees, to customers and the people in the communities in which we serve,” a press release said. “These rumors are completely untrue and are not a reflection of our values.”
According to a 2013 report to Congress issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness has decreased four percent year over year, though this number doesn’t take into account those not sleeping in shelters or with family members and friends. The Obama Administration has made tackling homelessness a priority, particularly among veterans; in January, the New York Times reported that a program in Salt Lake City to place chronically homeless veterans had purportedly found housing for all those seeking permanent homes.
The liberal blog ThinkProgress put out a graphic tracking the rise and decline of homeless across the U.S. in January, comparing reported homelessness in 2008 versus 2013. California has seen a 10 percent decline, according to HUD’s reporting over the period. The map follows below.
This story has been updated from its original version to reflect the correct name of the newspaper, The Record Searchlight and to incorporate additional reporting.