His face grim, the police chief suggested this latest victim was maimed with a handsaw, like 30 others in a series of nighttime attacks that has shaken the woodsy bedroom community...
WINDSOR, Calif. — His face grim, the police chief suggested this latest victim was maimed with a handsaw, like 30 others in a series of nighttime attacks that has shaken the woodsy bedroom community of Windsor to its roots.
Someone in the town of 25,000 one hour north of San Francisco is butchering its prized timber.
“These trees have been attacked,” Police Chief Paul Day said. “I just don’t know how else to say it.”
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The assaults have taken place in a park, spurring anxious officials to offer an $11,000 reward for the suspect’s capture — some of the money coming from the salaries of Town Council members.
“This is the latest victim,” town Community Service Director Anne Mullinax said. “It’s Windsor’s favorite tree. I don’t know why anybody would do this.”
The vandalism, which began in May, has targeted red oaks, liquidambars, crab apples and Italian alders — some more than 30 feet tall. Defacers then struck Windsor’s signature tree, a stately, 200-year-old coast live oak that is pictured in the town’s logo, town stationery and vehicle decals, as well as the uniform patches of the 17-member Police Department.
Two dozen low-hanging limbs, some of them eight inches in diameter, were hacked off and left beneath the historic tree Dec. 11. The canopy, which once extended to the ground, now has been cut back six feet in what officials said resembles a bad haircut.
In other incidents, vandals almost severed the trunks of smaller trees and left them teetering in the wind. Some toppled. Others, located next to a baseball diamond and restroom, were felled by town workers because they posed a hazard.
While they say the historic oak will survive, officials place the value of replacing the fallen trees in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“These are living things, and they have been killed,” Mullinax said. “For those that have been injured, they need care, just like a pet.”
Authorities at first suspected the tree slashings were the work of pranksters. But Day now suspects perhaps “a darker motive.”
After attacking 24 mature trees in two incidents in May, the vandals took a breather, returning this month to hack seven more trees. Day said he believed the suspects used a bow saw, which would require a great deal of labor to cut the trunks of so many trees in one night.
“That’s a pretty strenuous prank, if that’s what it is,” he said. “It could also be someone who’s not in their right mind. But if one of those cut trees falls and kills somebody, we could be investigating a homicide. We’re taking this very seriously.”
Incorporated in 1992, but settled more than a century earlier, Windsor was named by a 19th-century British surveyor named Hiram Lewis, who found the surrounding oak-clad hills similar to the countryside around Windsor Castle in England.
Now a growing retail and industrial center a few miles north of Santa Rosa along U.S. 101, Windsor is plagued by its version of big-city problems. There were three bank robberies and three homicides last year. There are street gangs and drug sales.
But people are willing to pay home prices of $500,000 and up for the rural Sonoma County lifestyle. And the coast live oak in Esposti Park long has been a favorite of residents.
Officials say the tree may date to the Revolutionary War era. In recent decades, before the park was established, a road led to its base and young couples used the cloak of its canopy for a makeshift lovers’ lane.
More than a decade ago, two residents presented an image of the beloved tree as a gift to the city for use as its official logo. The town in recent years has cordoned off the oak with a wooden fence to keep passers-by from trampling its root system. The fence bears a “Do Not Enter” sign.
Residents are baffled by the vandalism.
“Listen, I’m a kid and I don’t think kids would do this,” said Steven Rubin, 18, whose family home borders the park. “I think somebody is trying to send the town a message. There’s method to this madness.”
Investigators agree. They say teenagers would have bragged about their high jinks by now. Town officials are checking records for embittered employees or residents. They’ve looked at critics of Nick Esposti, a member of a locally prominent family and former county supervisor for whom the park is named.
“With a murder, you’ve usually got lots of physical evidence. But in this situation, we’ve got no obvious motive and very few clues,” Day said. “There’s no sawdust at the scene. There’s also no oil in the cuts that you’d get from a chain saw. Also, if somebody cranked up a machine like that in the middle of the night, somebody’s going to hear it.”
Esposti Park these days is littered with the stumps of felled trees. Officials have posted reward signs around the venerable coast live oak, hoping for a hit.
“An attack on that heritage oak is an attack on this community,” Mullinax said, “because everyone knows what that tree represents to people here.”