The toughest summer assignment for Detroit police is about an hour from the city, off a dusty rural road where officers wearing protective suits, goggles and respirators try to close a crime in the most unlikely place: a vast landfill teeming with rotting trash from Michigan and Canada.
For more than two months, police have been searching for the remains of Zion Foster, a 17-year-old who was killed in January. Investigators are certain her body was placed in a dumpster, which was emptied into a garbage truck for a journey to a landfill in Macomb County.
Police believe they're in the right area at Pine Tree Acres landfill, based on GPS readings from the truck and other evidence. But confidence about the location has been tempered by the grim task of combing through tons of trash for even the smallest sign of human remains from seven months earlier.
So far, nothing. It's a mission that not all police departments would be willing to tackle — and it might not last much longer.
"Everybody wants to have that right to say goodbye to their loved one," said Detroit police Sgt. Shannon Jones.
Officer Jessica Townsville, who has been on the search team for weeks, said her daughter is only a few years younger than Zion.
"Everybody is so emotionally invested in this," Townsville said during a lunch break. "They want it just as much as the person next to them."
Zion was a high school senior when she disappeared in January. No one has been charged yet with her death, though a cousin who is accused of knowing what happened to her is in prison for lying to police. Zion lived in Eastpointe, a suburb, but Detroit police took charge because the death occurred in the city.
Each day during the search, at least a dozen officers meet under a tent for instructions from Jones. They gather near a handmade poster, titled "Operation Zion," with photos of the teen and then step into a van to go across the road to the landfill.
Trash is scooped up by heavy equipment and dropped into dump trucks. Roughly 40 loads a day are released at a staging area for inspection with sharp rakes.
Jones believes they're in the right section, because they discovered mail with certain Detroit addresses and dates.
Another clue: Recalled hams that were dumped in the trash around the time of Zion's disappearance.
"Every load, it's: 'Maybe this is the one, right?'" Jones said, explaining her mindset.
There aren't many playbooks for searching a landfill, though Detroit police say advice from the FBI before the operation was helpful.
The search has cost more than $150,000. The Detroit Public Safety Foundation has assisted by lining up cash donations as well as meals, protective gear and heavy equipment from businesses.
Now, after nine weeks, police officials say they'll soon have to make a call on how long the hunt for Zion's remains will last.
As for those who have been toiling in protective suits on 90-degree days, combing through discarded needles, nails and the like, they want to keep going.
"I'm not leaving until she's found," Townsville said.
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