While they are all volunteers for the Federal Way Police Department, Frank Gabreluk, Mari Ikeda-Gomes and John McMahon fill an important service to the Federal Way community as a whole and a good number of businesses as members of the Cart Recovery Team.
Starting originally with six members in 2010, the CRT trio faces a daunting task in the city: collecting shopping carts people have taken from businesses and later abandoned and returning them to where they belong.
“This kind of became an ad hoc operation from the police department,” Gabreluk said. “John and I are the muscle behind the operation, and Mari is the brains.”
Ikeda-Gomes said, in reality, Gabreluk and McMahon do all the hard work, collecting and returning shopping carts and, afterward, they tally the number of carts collected, including the number of damaged or scrap, and where they came from and give that information to her, which she enters into a computer spreadsheet program and submits to FPD staff.
According to Ikeda-Gomes data, the CRT collected 2,684 shopping carts, including damaged or scrap, from 47 stores in 2017. The crew has collected 25,270 through 2017. The number of stores varies from year to year, based on openings or closures, Ikeda-Gomes said.
Still, the CRT members agree it often seems they are fighting a losing battle.
“It’s crazy,” Ikeda-Gomes said.
“It doesn’t get any better,” McMahon agreed.
Gabreluk and Ikeda-Gomes are holdouts from the original six CRT members, while McMahon joined in 2013. With Ikeda-Gomes keeping track of the numbers, and Gabreluk and McMahon out in the field, the three are responsible for cart retrieval in the entire city.
“Our numbers have gone way down because it is hard work,” Ikeda-Gomes said.
As a result, McMahon and Gabreluk have had to prioritize their cart retrieval, as well as cut back from a couple of shopping cart runs to just one, four-hour shift. When the pair retrieve shopping carts, they load them into a trailer hitched to a police department volunteer vehicle. Each trailer can hold 20 carts, and, in one shift they pick up, on average, 70 abandoned carts.
“Now we are actually losing ground because there are way more carts out there than we can possible pick up,” McMahon said.
They have also been forced to cut back on the places they pick up from, namely apartment complexes. And while they used to enter the woods in pursuit of shopping carts left in homeless encampments, they stopped doing that because it became too dangerous.
They also don’t clean up any of the debris in the shopping carts and avoid carts that are obvious hazards, with needles inside.
“You can’t believe the amount of stuff that’s in there,” McMahon said.
“Some are a rubber-glove job,” Gabreluk agreed.
In addition to taking them into some occasional odd places, McMahon and Gabreluk they have found some disgusting things left in the carts they return, from dead rats to condoms to all sorts of bodily fluids to dirty diapers.
“And that’s on a good day,” Gabreluk said.
Once collected, they return the carts as-is to the rear of the stores from which they came. They don’t know how the stores handle them once they are returned.
McMahon said, simply, it is their job to return stolen property to their owners, and, in doing so, clean up the city as best they can.
“It’s a growing problem with a shrinking group of people to work on the problem,”McMahon said.
Gabreluk said he and McMahon try to focus their attention on keeping the city’s downtown core clean, but they also frequently respond to messages left by businesses or residents on the city’s hotline.
“You will find carts all over, I’m telling you, all over,” Gabreluk said.
Once, the two found two electric carts dumped in a retention pond, he said.
McMahon said one of the most frequent comments he has heard from residents is that the city is obligated to clean up abandoned shopping carts littering the sidewalks or dumped in the bushes and wonder why more isn’t done.
“I don’t think they appreciate the fact that we’re volunteers,” he said.
Despite the frustration, all three take pride in helping to keep the city clean and would like more people to join them.
“It’s a beautification program, and it sounds cliche, but if we don’t do it, then who is?” Gabreluk asked.
Abandoned carts can be reported at (253) 835-6774.
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