A sign hanging on the fence that surrounds this East Fort Worth property warns trespassers to keep out – it also promises “amazing things.” About 30 yards from the fence stands a monolithic brick-and-concrete structure whose chimneys stretch several stories high and are visible from a nearby road. But the size and scope of the long-dormant incinerator do not really hit you until you travel on the nearby gravel-and-dirt-covered ground near the gate and see the large facility up close.
Practically every inch of the building, inside and out, is covered in sedimentary layers of graffiti. Designed in the mid 1950s by noted Texas architect Wyatt C. Hedrick and built with red brick, the industrial furnace was operational for only a short time before new government guidelines rendered it obsolete in the early 1960s. Located about four miles from downtown, it’s been an open hub for homeless people, curious teenagers, and urban explorers ever since – despite the various owners’ occasionally lackadaisical efforts to keep them out.
When Erin and Sergio Razo first saw the incinerator and the surrounding acres more than a year ago, their minds swirled with possibilities, they told us. Over time, they envisioned an all-in-one art gallery, museum, pop-up market, urban farm, a lot for tiny homes, a skatepark, event space, and more. Inside the borders of the porous fence, the couple’s grand scheme would include ways to feed the hungry, house the homeless, give a voice to unheralded artists, and provide a safe space for wayward teens, all while taking care to preserve the integrity and character of the Eastside community.
“We see this building as a monument to all things 20th century,” Erin told us on a recent visit.
The Razos also said they had the blessings of city officials, were aligned with powerbrokers in the local nonprofit scene, and were working with a high-profile PR firm and that they – along with an unnamed partner – owned the incinerator property. Sergio went on to tell us that he owned 12 acres of nearby land and that he and his wife either owned or had access to more than 40 acres of additional property to use for any one of the purportedly life-changing endeavors that fell within the purview of the couple’s many-splendored plans.
After a closer look, most of what the couple told us on a recent sunny weekday visit to the site was untrue, greatly exaggerated, or so confusing, not even they seemed to fully understand what they were saying.
Unfortunately for the many volunteers, artists, and well-wishers who spent hundreds of hours helping the couple – and two folks who actually quit their jobs based on the Razos’ promises – what came to be known as the Incinerator Project is dead.
About a dozen people interviewed for this story characterized the ill-fated project as, at best, a failed attempt by two ambitious people who hoped that reality would conform to their high-minded ideals and, at worst, a cautionary tale of dozens of people betrayed by two hucksters in an elaborate, if small-time, cash grab.
The Razos have been accused of stealing thousands of dollars in copper and scrap metal from the incinerator’s actual owner, forging a document to pose as representatives of a local nonprofit, and attempting to saddle that same nonprofit with $1,600 worth of charges from a rental company. Not to mention breaking the hearts of many local do-gooders.
Erin maintains that she and her husband have only ever tried to help the community and haven’t made a penny from their yearlong effort to resurrect and transform the incinerator. She vehemently denied any wrongdoing and accused the incinerator’s owner, Jim Dunnagan, of trying to use the couple’s negotiating skills to acquire city-owned property adjacent to the incinerator, a charge that Dunnagan denies.
“The reality of all of this is that we’ve gotten screwed,” Erin said. “We’ve been strung along through all of this and haven’t gotten anything out of it.”
She characterized Dunnagan as a senile “jerk” who is desperate for cash.
Erin is alone in her assessment of Dunnagan based on our interviews.
Local artist Vanessa Elmore, who volunteered for hours helping clean up the incinerator property and even designed business cards for the Razos, questioned how a couple who almost no one knew a few months ago could recruit so many volunteers from the oft-insular local art world.
“A part of me thinks they started out wanting to help people and then realized they could make money out of it,” Elmore said. “There’s a difference between faking it ’til you make it and fraud.”
Jim Dunnagan has been doing business in North Texas since the 1940s. Tall and slim, he has owned and operated the Arctic Star refrigeration manufacturing plant in Pantego since the 1950s. He has been involved in numerous business deals large and small over the years.
The business proposal offered to him last fall sounded somewhat impractical. But he liked Erin and Sergio Razo. Their enthusiasm was contagious, he said.
Among the real estate properties in Dunnagan’s portfolio is the abandoned incinerator plant and the surrounding handful of acres. Graffiti-covered, bullet-ridden, and isolated, the old building has been a magnet to just about anyone wanting to tag a wall, shoot a gun, explore a spooky spot at night, and get high, drunk, or laid – broken glass and spiders be damned. The hard-to-reach locations of some of the graffiti indicate that taggers risk broken bones or deadly falls to paint their names or gang affiliations on the walls and ceilings.
The incinerator sits just east of I-35 and south of Berry Street, not far from Echo Lake. Railroad tracks run alongside one side of the property, but the surrounding land is mostly overgrown thicket and trees.
When the Razos came along, brimming with enthusiasm, insisting they could transform the abandoned albatross into something fresh, fun, and potentially profitable, Dunnagan figured, Why not? Who’s to say they couldn’t create a family-operated art collective, event center, community land trust, skatepark, and whatever the hell they were talking about? The couple’s ideas tended to tumble out of their mouths in scattershot fashion. So much to do! Burning daylight! Big plans that involved good things! Artists! Nonprofits! Grants! Community enrichment!
Dunnagan decided to give them an opportunity and provided access to the incinerator property. Erin said that when she and husband Sergio first approached Dunnagan about the incinerator, he agreed to eventually give them a share of its ownership, if the Razos could pry away from the city the dozens of acres of land that surrounded the property. Dunnagan said he made no such promise.
“When I first started talking to them, they came to me with all these different ideas,” he said. “I thought, ‘Nothing is happening with that place. Maybe they’ll get a little publicity, and something will happen.’ ”
The ideas kept coming. The Razos recruited local skateboarders to build an obstacle course. A car club was slated to hold a meet with food vendors. Dunnagan didn’t object. He wanted to see if the Razos could draw crowds to events.
No admission was charged at the first car meet in early March, and hundreds of people attended. Dunnagan was pleased. Maybe the Razos knew what they were doing. To show his faith, he offered to let the couple turn an empty room at his manufacturing plant into an office to base their operations.
What he didn’t know was that the couple had allegedly been spinning tales around town while attending various arts and community events. Hardly anyone knew who the Razos were, but they sounded legit. Numerous people interviewed for this article said the Razos claimed that they owned the incinerator property and had access to sponsorships, grant money, and city backing. They estimated the cost for redeveloping the incinerator at about $3.5 million. Those promises prompted people like John Shea, a local skateboard enthusiast, to volunteer many hours of his time to clean up and prepare the grounds.
The first thing that needed to be done was to open the entrance gate. Years earlier, in an attempt to keep vehicles off the property, large berms of dirt and fill material were built on either side of the gate. Shea rounded up skateboarding buddies to help remove it. If they could get the gate open, clean out a corner of the property, and build an obstacle course, they were going to have permanent access, Shea promised his friends, echoing the Razos’ claims.
“They roped me in by saying they owned the property outright,” Shea said. “I asked them directly, ‘This is your property? You own it free and clear? Outright? You’re not making payments on it? The bank doesn’t own it? You own it?’ I was talking to Erin and Sergio. This was the first time I met them. They told me right up and down that they owned the property outright.”
Shea has spent the past decade trying to find a suitable home for a skatepark in Fort Worth. The incinerator property would be perfect: out of sight and mind with lots of room.
“When they said, ‘We have this property, and you guys can pour whatever you want, and it will never be taken away from you’ … they pretty much painted the perfect picture of what me and my friends wanted to do,” Shea said. “I wasn’t trying to make money. I was, like, ‘OK, now we have permission and property to build, and that’s all we really want.’ ”
First, though, much sweat and elbow grease would be needed. Shea brought seven or eight friends to help move the dirt, he said. He and his friends worked for an entire weekend digging with tractors, unearthing fallen telephone poles, and performing backbreaking labor.
“The amount of work me and my friends did for them for free was crazy,” he said.
The Razos, Shea said, told him one of their financial backers would pay for the expenses if he turned in his receipts.
“They told me they had been working for five years with [Dunnagan] and had been going to all these meetings at the city and had been dealing with the Moncriefs and the Bass family and got a 30-year plan approved through the city to do a tiny home community, skatepark, flea markets,” he said.
Also working to clear the property was Caleb Bo, the founder of a local car club and the host of regular car meets at the parking lot of the Tarrant County College Trinity River East Campus.
“Erin and Sergio said, ‘We own this property, and if you want to have your car meets here, you can,’ ” Bo recalled.
The only catch was the property was overgrown and littered with trash and broken glass. Bo and his buddies would be relied on to help make the property presentable for a car show.
“We volunteered our time to clear the land,” he said. “Erin and Sergio kept saying it was for community outreach. Me and about 30 other people worked there for about two months. We had to clear trash, move entire trees. That lot was a disaster two months ago. You couldn’t really drive in there without slicing up your tires.”
Around that same time, Shea and his skateboarders pooled their own money together and bought about 30 bags of cement and 40 cinder blocks to begin on the park portion. They worked three weekends, day and night, to build a course, he said.
The Razos asked him to pour some cement at the gate, he said. They were planning a big car meet and needed smoother access for cars entering the property. The request seemed odd to Shea, since he was the skateboard guy, not the Razos’ personal concrete worker. They promised to help, he said.
“That turned into me pouring cement by myself on a Sunday,” he said.
He began asking more questions about their operation. The couple offered him a job working at the incinerator and a position on their nonprofit’s board of directors if he stuck by them, he said. He had been working at a local builders supply store.
“I quit my job and turned my life upside down because of the opportunity they were presenting me,” he said. “Skating is my passion,” and an opportunity like that, he said, “doesn’t happen hardly ever.”
Vanessa Elmore also quit her job to work for the Razos, who allegedly assured her that, thanks to more than $1 million of coming sales from the couple’s tiny homes project, they would be able to pay her a salary. Instead, she went to work for Dunnagan as a graphic artist for his refrigeration company – but Erin, Elmore said, still expected her to work full-time on the project.
Elmore and her husband Michael Elmore were among the Razos’ earliest volunteers. Michael and a business partner, both videographers by trade, shot and edited a short promo video for the project’s crowdfunding page. Erin, Vanessa said, would tell people that Michael was working on a documentary on the Incinerator Project for Vice and that the Razos were planning on creating their own production company.
“They throw all this stuff at you and talk and talk and talk until you are in a whirlwind,” Vanessa said. “When you stop to ask questions, they talk about something else and go another direction. I started asking questions … and none of it was adding up.”
Erin said that it was Dunnagan, not her, who is responsible for misleading Shea, the Elmores, and others.
“I said over and over, ‘Jim, these are their jobs,’ ” Erin told us. “You have to do what you say you’re going to do.”
The Razos, Vanessa said, knew exactly what to say to rope her in. She had helped create a youth development program in Austin a few years ago, and the couple told her that the Incinerator Project would serve local at-risk youth.
“They tapped into exactly what I want to do,” Vanessa said. “I want to leave a legacy in Fort Worth and have these youth development programs to be able to help kids.”
When the Razos asked Michael to create a longer video, he asked to be paid. The Razos allegedly became angry with him, Vanessa recalled, and accused him of being unsupportive.
“I just want them to go away and stop using people,” Vanessa said. “It’s not just monetary and physical labor. They are using people for who they know and trying to see what they can get out of them.”
Dunnagan was impressed by the amount of work the Razos and their volunteers were doing on his property. He introduced the Razos to Opal Lee, a friend, longtime Eastside activist, and founder of a nonprofit that helps with youth development. Lee was involved in community gardening and saw the incinerator property as a possible new site for growing food. She introduced Erin to councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who set up a meeting that included representatives from various city departments.
Lee told us she didn’t really understand Erin’s master vision but liked her seeming eagerness to do something for the community. In January, Lee and Erin attended the meeting together, and the city leaders asked Erin to provide a business plan.
“Erin hasn’t done that yet,” Lee told us in late March.
Gray remembered the meeting vividly – Erin’s inability to explain the project raised concerns, and months later, there still is no business plan.
“We’ve asked them to come back with a site plan and a more detailed plan of the project,” Gray said recently. “We have not received anything.”
Bo held his first car meet in early March. Admission was free. He rarely charged admission at his car shows, he said.
The Razos, however, were allegedly resistant to the idea of free admission, he said, which confused him.
“They were always talking about how much money and resources they have, and how they were going to have a meeting with Oprah Winfrey, and they had all this grant money and stuff,” he said.
They held another car meet in late March. This time, though, the Razos allegedly insisted on a paid admission, he said.
“I told them I didn’t want to charge anybody because car meets normally are free,” he said. “Sergio said he needed some money to get the Incinerator Project going. I told him ‘We can charge $5 a car.’ He agreed on that, but … at the last minute, he told me he wanted to charge $10 a car. It was back and forth about money. I said, ‘We just cleared your land for you for two months and were not getting anything out of it.’ He didn’t care.”
The second meet drew more than 300 cars and hundreds of people and earned $2,600 at the gate, Bo said.
But he was turned off by the way the Razos were acting. He gave them half the money and ended their working relationship.
“Their true personalities came out,” Bo said. “Ultimately, we decided to split ways with them.”
Shea was spending time at Arctic Star and met the owner, Dunnagan, whom the Razos had characterized as their business partner. It became clear to Shea that the couple’s stories weren’t adding up. Shea said he discovered that Dunnagan was the true owner of the property, was somewhat “clueless” about what the Razos were doing and saying, and was not financing their plans. Shea suspected the Razos of fibbing about most everything.
“They gave me and my friends the runaround and lied to us and told us they had this whole thing in the works when really they didn’t have anything,” Shea said. “They just had these ideas and were throwing them out to people, tapping the creative community in Fort Worth, and trying to use them to organize events and big shows, and they wanted the money from it.”
Shea walked away with “nothing except a bad taste in my mouth.”
Dunnagan, too, had soured. He knew he was done with the couple, he said, after discovering that a load of copper and a couple of tons of scrap metal that was being stored in his warehouse had gone missing. Sergio claimed that Dunnagan had given him permission to haul it away and sell it. Dunnagan said he’d done no such thing. He estimated the copper and metal could have fetched several thousand dollars.
Dunnagan barred the Razos from the incinerator property and kicked them out of their office. He scooped up everything from their desk to box it up for them. Sitting on top of the desk in plain sight was a credit application for Unity Unlimited, Lee’s nonprofit group. The name of the nonprofit’s financial manager was signed to the form – but misspelled.
Earlier this month, Lee called us to say that her nonprofit had received an unexpected bill.
“Erin used our nonprofit to get some equipment for the incinerator, and we didn’t know anything about it,” Lee said. “A bill for $1,600 came, and my people nearly had a hemorrhage.”
Lee contacted Erin.
“She said, ‘Oh, that’s a mistake,’ “ Lee recalled.
Erin told her a confusing story about how she had rented equipment from a sponsor who was sending an invoice, but it didn’t need to be paid.
Lee wasn’t buying it.
Erin “had not consulted with us at all,” Lee said. “If we didn’t get the invoice, we wouldn’t have known she was using our nonprofit status.”
In speaking with us, Erin Razo first denied that she ever used the name of Lee’s charity to apply for credit. (She claimed that Sunbelt Rentals, an equipment rental company with multiple locations in North Texas, agreed to sponsor Unity Unlimited.) Our attempts to call and email Sunbelt for confirmation were not returned. When we told Erin about Lee’s accusation, Erin insisted that she did indeed have permission to use the nonprofit’s name and status and encouraged us to call Lee “right now” to clear up the matter.
Over the phone, Lee reiterated that neither she nor anyone else had given the Razos permission to align themselves with the nonprofit in any way.
Karma is a bitch, Shea said, and it’s surely hurtling toward the Razos.
“They have ‘self-destruct’ written into the way they do things,” he said. “I know they are going to sabotage themselves. They’ll get what’s coming to them. They can’t just go around lying to people, especially the good people of Fort Worth. We have a good scene here.”
Bo, like most of the people who feel used in the Incinerator Project, feels a bit sheepish for being suckered.
“I should have known better,” he said. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. They are really good at selling their idea and really good at selling their passion for this project. Even now I want the project to be completed, but I just know that the way they lie and use people, it’s never going to happen.
“Every single person on my team joined because we wanted to help the community,” he continued. “We were on board because half of us come from low-income neighborhoods.”
Now Bo’s group is back to hosting car meets at the TCC parking lot and glad to be there – or anywhere that doesn’t involve the Razos. He and his car club had already changed their name to Team Incinerate but decided to keep the name as a reminder to stay focused. And any proceeds earned from future car meets will go to Lee’s nonprofit, he said.
“We know we can trust her,” he said. “She’s been around forever, and her main mission is to take care of other people, and we’ve seen that.”
Dunnagan doesn’t plan on calling the cops on the couple. He doubts police would care about The Case of the Missing Scrap Metal or potentially dubious business transactions that could have been simply botched by the Razos. He thinks the couple is suffering from self-delusion more than greed.
“I don’t think they think they are swindlers,” he said. “They think they’re doing the community a favor.”
Erin holds to the notion that Dunnagan, not her and Sergio, is to blame for the fallout from the Incinerator Project – that his empty promises failed people like Shea, Bo, and the Elmores.
“I don’t know if he’s being malicious, or if he’s too old to be making these decisions,” Erin said. “That incinerator will outlast Jim Dunnagan, so when he dies, if his family wants to talk about the incinerator, we’ll talk about it.
“The idea that we ripped off Caleb Bo or John [Shea] or Vanessa [Elmore] is bullshit as well,” she added.
Israel Flores, a photographer who also worked briefly with the Razos, wonders if they are more incompetent than sinister. He liked their ideas and helped them create a Facebook page and other online presences.
“They pitched the idea of this project overall being about community,” he said. “It sounded cool.”
That was in October.
“At first, it sounded all grand,” he said. “I don’t know if everything got muddied because they had so many ideas. They started incorporating a ton of different people and projects within the umbrella, and a lot of stuff seemed to get lost in the translation as far as their original plan.”
By early 2018, he had turned his back on them after a few other people who were involved told him they were leaving the project. They also told Flores to “keep my eyes open and be careful,” he said.
The Incinerator Project Facebook page is gone now. Erin’s personal Facebook page, where she shared details about the project, is also unavailable, but the crowdsourcing page seeking $30,000 is still alive and well.
Flores doesn’t advise making a donation to their cause.
“I wouldn’t personally recommend anyone else to work with them,” he said.
Dunnagan suspects the couple’s credibility is flaming out and they will eventually “just go away and do it again some place else.”
Michael Elmore was less generous.
“As someone who was a part of the project from the beginning, I’m happy to see them get exposed for the frauds that they are,” he said.