RETIRED POLICE OFFICER HENRY GROEPPER can still recall the smell of the methamphetamine he believes gave him cancer, a blend of cat urine and fiberglass—like an old litterbox in a new boat. On one bust in particular, he remembers a stench so searing, the accompanying DEA agent warned him away on fears of an explosion. Even the firefighters were scared. They set up four-foot fans in the doorways, blowing vapors into the street.
“Now,” says Groepper, 25 years later, “I don’t think there’s anyone in this world that would argue the dangers of meth labs.” But back then, the command staff chided cops who worried about the fumes as “complainers.” Besides, reporters were standing by, cameras in hand. And as spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau, Groepper (pronounced “gripper”) had to give them the best show possible. News junkies were like any other kind of addict, he knew: keep ’em fixed, and you keep ’em out of trouble. Stories about busted drug labs—cops doing their jobs well—were a balm on a department that more often earned headlines for its scandals.
“It was my job, I always looked at myself as never being a problem employee, a problem child. My job was to do the best for the Portland Police Bureau that I could.”
So at the hulking house near Mount Tabor, Groepper felt his way into the dark recesses of the basement, one lucky TV cameraman in tow. Battery-powered lights only. No flashes, nothing that sparks. As he watched the camera pan across the monstrous array of steaming glass and potions, he felt a familiar sting in his eyes and nose and, then, a tickle at the back of his throat. Groepper had been in hundreds of these places. Sometimes he thought he could feel his skin crawling, the hair on his body stiffening as if shellacked. Pains crept into his head, his stomach, followed by chills and a tightness in his chest.
Hours later, when the anxious photographer called to say he was sick, Groepper told him the same thing he had been told: There was nothing to worry about. The Portland Police Bureau had looked into it. And while sometimes people felt sick after being in the labs, they always got better.
Groepper was 45 the day he was shaving and spotted a lump on the right side of his neck. Soon after, a doctor told him he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma and the “lungs of a 70-year-old farmer,” meth fumes being as toxic as pesticides. Seeking a second opinion, he saw an oncologist at Oregon Health & Science University, who put his feet on a desk, leaned back in his chair, and casually gave him five years to live.
“It’s hard when somebody tells you that,” said Groepper, whose children were age 16 and 19 when his condition was diagnosed. “That’s not a lot of time.”
Today, AIDS research has extended the lives of people with immune-system diseases like non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Groepper’s included. He retired from the police bureau in 2005 at 61, but he’s still all cop inside, and a little bit out. He’s chair of the board of Crime Stoppers of Oregon, which solicits tips from the public to help investigations. He also records a public service segment on KXL called “Cold Case,” airing files on unsolved murders, sometimes dozens of years dormant. Over the past two decades, Groepper’s health has had upticks and nosedives, but his presently warm complexion and robust personality conceal that his cancer is creeping back.
And yet, Groepper is one of the lucky ones. Sort of. He at least got some of the benefits he says the City of Portland promised him. The city has paid for his cancer treatments while he foots the bill for all other health coverage. Many of his colleagues haven’t fared so well. Disabled, like him, during their public service, 104 have no city-paid health benefits at all, despite promises from the city that they would. Another five receive only limited coverage.
Groepper opens every Cold Case spot with a simple motto: “We don’t give up. We never give up.” Likewise with the case of the missing benefits. After six long years of sleuthing in dusty archives and mazes of online records, he may finally have found the leads to crack it.