Many of the incidents here—aside from the major national stories like the historic OSHA fine—have not been reported on since they first happened. Some of the smaller infractions have never been reported in the national press, and some have not been reported at all. Tracking DeCoster's history of past offenses is no easy task. Court documents are easily available only for cases from the past 25 years or so. Go back any farther, and the records might as well be lost. A clerk at the Maine District Court in Bangor told me that I was welcome to look at their public records, but I'd have to leaf through pages and pages of unrelated material in order to find anything.
Furthermore, DeCoster's own strategy has made tracking him more difficult: by routinely settling civil cases before they reach a verdict, he has lowered the profile of his offenses—and sometimes even succeeded in making them confidential. "DeCoster likes to settle," Donald Fontaine, a Maine labor lawyer who has gone head-to-head with Quality Egg many times, told me. "He'll wait and see how far something goes, and then he'll settle out of court. There are very few [court] decisions." Many of the lawyers I spoke with were barred from telling me about the specifics of suits they had been involved in that ended in settlements; a half-dozen lawyers flatly refused to speak on the record, because of the complex legal issues involved.
But I did interview people who have lived a mile from the Turner farm for decades, their whole lives spent in the shadow of DeCoster's activities, and who spoke freely. I spoke with the lawyers who have prosecuted DeCoster and his businesses on a spate of charges—labor and wage violations, environmental violations, personal injury suits, civil rights infractions.
As DeCoster's egg empire has grown, a look at the past litigation should show the crucial role of lawyers and policy-makers in checking the vast power of large industrial-agricultural operators. Maine has had several decades more to force DeCoster into compliance than other states. And its investigators and prosecutors have tried for a long time. "If they'd done in Iowa what we made them do in Maine," Mark Roberts, a lawyer who fought DeCoster on behalf of Turner residents, told me, "they wouldn't have any of those problems—massive amounts of manure, flies, dead chickens. That's what the place was like in Maine before we sued."
DeCoster has left a trail of illness, injury, mistreatment, and death in his wake for decades. That he has been left to police himself for so long is a stunning testament to the failure of federal regulators.
NEXT: 1949 - 1980: "Out-of-control big"
1949: Jack DeCoster, age 16, first takes responsibility for 150 hens on his family's farm in Turner. "He started with a chicken coop when he was in high school," James Tierney, who repeatedly prosecuted DeCoster in the '80s as Maine's District Attorney, told me. "Chickens reproduce, so he'd get more eggs, and collect the eggs himself, and he grew that way." Locals speak with a mixture of awe and scorn about the man who built an empire from scratch in their backyards—and who has also shown, as one resident told me, a willingness to "screw even his best friend to the wall for a buck." Another resident, who's known DeCoster all her life, told me, "It was always his ambition—to be the largest egg producer. He just kept going and going, until he got too big. Out-of-control big."