An Urban Explorer Gone

For some, the lure of the old Gates factory is undeniable. And it was deadly for one.

But Williams doesn't believe the three friends had nefarious intentions.

"In my heart at the time, I don't think they were in there to get copper," he says. "They were college students and they had heard through the grapevine that it's kind of neat to explore. That was their story, and I believe it."

It was a different situation in April 2006, when Williams and other officers took on an organized gang of as many as twenty copper thieves looking to strip anything they could out of the buildings to sell to the scrap yards. Usually they'd use the money they got to feed a meth habit, Williams says. Seven people were arrested immediately, but because the remaining suspects were spread out over multiple levels, officers called in the K-9 unit.

The former Gates factory.
The former Gates factory.
Johnny Polzin cultivated friends and flowers. His family can't understand how he met his fate in a dark place where nothing grows.
Mark Manger
Johnny Polzin cultivated friends and flowers. His family can't understand how he met his fate in a dark place where nothing grows.

"When you get into the sub-basements, it's pitch black," he explains. "It's an old factory. It's a dangerous environment."

So dangerous that one of the police dogs was overcome by chemical fumes. Another crawled beneath a machine and fell into a pit filled with debris and fluid. "His handler crawled under the machine and tried to grab the dog. I held the handler's legs so he wouldn't fall in," Williams remembers. "And we pulled the dog out finally."

The dogs were taken to a veterinarian for treatment and are now back in service. One of the men arrested in that sweep, 48-year-old Robert Bordas, was later sentenced to four years in prison.

Ferd Belz, president of Cherokee Denver, says that break-ins have been a huge problem for the company. "We have a constant program where somebody breaks a fence, we come back in and rechain it," he explains. "In some places, we literally welded doors shut, and then people come in and break through welded doors. So it's just a constant, ongoing effort."

The sheer size of the site, coupled with the archaic design of some of the buildings, offers any number of permeable spots where trespassers can find entry. During the day, Belz says, the company relies on asbestos-removal workers and other employees to keep an eye on the property. At night it contracts with a security company to do patrols and "close things back up," he adds. "We've done everything that the police and insurance companies have advised us as far as posting it and making sure that things are sealed up."

Louis Adams would disagree.

For months, Adams waged a one-man campaign to warn the contractors and property owners of a dangerous, open shaft at Gates. The fifty-year-old Adams has no connection with Gates or the Polzin family. In a videotaped statement that Adams gave police, he said he first became aware of the "hazardous" shaft in March, when he decided to take an impromptu tour around the exterior of the site with his eight-year-old daughter, who's always had a thing for what she calls the "rubber band" factory.

Adams parked in a lot at the corner of South Broadway and West Mississippi, where a gate in the chain-link fence was wide open. It led to the alley that separates the huge Unit 10 from the smaller Unit 41, a four-story red-brick building originally constructed in 1971 as the administrative headquarters but shifted to engineering and product development in the '80s. Lifting his daughter so that she could peek in the windows, Adams saw a single-frame metal door to Unit 41 that was wide open. Telling his daughter to stay outside, he went through the door and nearly fell into the shaft himself.

Because the door led to a corridor that ended in a bank of windows on the far end, in low light the space looked like a long, continuous hallway. There was no visual suggestion that the walkway contained a pit — a large pit, since the shaft had been designed for a freight lift that was significantly bigger than a regular passenger elevator, with both a front and rear door. Alarmed by what he'd found, Adams took his daughter home and returned, alone, with a high-powered flashlight. He aimed it at the pit, and realized that a fall into that hole could be deadly.

Adams told police that he called any number he could find for contractors who might be responsible for the site, among them Alpine Demolition, which was in the process of tearing down adjacent buildings, including a 400,000-square-foot four-story warehouse south of Mississippi known as the Creamery Building.

Over the next few months, Adams returned to the site twice more. Each time, the gate was still unlocked, the door still open and the shaft still unsecured. After each visit, he left messages at Alpine, and after his third trip, he also called the DPD.

Adams went back to Gates again on September 2, and was furious when he saw that the shaft still wasn't secured. He called Alpine again, but no one answered over Labor Day weekend. The DPD did answer his call, though, and Officer Michael Samuels responded. After he surveyed the scene, Samuels was able to reach Alpine's owner, Jim Gochis, who then called Adams on his cell phone.

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