The blazing fire that tore through Washington state’s Olympic National Forest in 2018 scorched 3,300 acres of land and destroyed dozens of valuable bigleaf maple trees. Amid the wreckage were oversized stumps with sawed off limbs — a signal that the flames could have been a devastating casualty of a poorly planned tree heist.
Two men were responsible, federal investigators said, and the proof was in the trees’ genetic makeup.
In a first for a federal criminal trial, prosecutors used tree DNA to prove the remains matched that of the timber the men sold to local mills.
The tree genetics convinced jury members in Tacoma and on Thursday they convicted Justin Andrew Wilke for his role in the theft and trafficking of illegally reaped timber.
Wilke and Shawn Edward Williams were charged with multiple felonies related to the scheme in September 2019. Williams pleaded guilty in December 2019 to stealing the trees and setting the fire. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison last September.
Wilke’s lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He faces up to 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.
“When people steal trees from our public lands, they are stealing a beautiful and irreplaceable resource from all of us and from future generations,” Tessa M. Gorman, acting U.S. attorney of the Western District of Washington, said in a news release. “That theft, coupled with the sheer destruction of the forest fire that resulted from this activity, warrants federal criminal prosecution.”
The Olympic National Forest is known for its towering, lush and wide-trunked trees. The bigleaf maple is among the more prized inhabitants – its patterned wood often coveted for woodworking and manufacturing musical instruments. But it is illegal to chop down trees in national forests.
Tree poaching is a growing issue in the Pacific Northwest. Thieves have consistently targeted public lands and national forests in Washington, California and Oregon, High Country News reported in 2017. The thefts cost the U.S. Forest Service about $100 million per year.
With the strict rules in mind, Wilke, 39, and Williams, 49, often scouted for trees at night, according to the indictment. From April to August of 2018, the men ventured into the forest, used an ax to peel back the bark and inspected the patterned wood underneath.
“After identifying maples with figured wood, Wilke and others used a chain saw to fell the targeted maples,” court documents said. “Wilke and others cut the trees into smaller rounds or blocks, which they removed from the national forest.”
The group would take the wood to a private property nearby and prepare it for sale to a mill in Tumwater, Wash. They’d then present the business with forged paperwork showing that they harvested the maples from private land.
Wilke made $400 to $7,000 on the sales, court documents showed.
During Wilke’s six-day trial earlier this month, prosecutors presented evidence from Richard Cronn, a research geneticist for the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service, who proved that the lumber Wilke sold was a genetic match to the remains of three vandalized bigleaf maples in the national forest.
“The DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately one in one undecillion” (one followed by 36 zeros), prosecutors said.
The jury voted Thursday to convict Wilke of conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber and attempting to traffic in unlawfully harvested timber, according to a news release.
The men’s quest for the valuable maples also led to devastating destruction.
On Aug. 2, 2018, Wilke, Williams and two other men who are not named in the criminal complaint set up camp near the eastern edge of the forest and embarked on a quest to find a bigleaf maple ripe for sale, the affidavit said.
As the men prepared to chop down a tree, they noticed a bee nest near its base. After a failed attempt at removing the bees with wasp killer, the group “agreed that Wilke would kill the bees by burning the nest.”
Prosecutors alleged in court documents that Wilke doused the area in gasoline and lit it on fire. But the group was unable to extinguish the flames. (The jury did not convict Wilke for two federal charges related to the forest fire.)
“The fire grew to become a forest fire that burned and otherwise damaged approximately 3,300 acres of public land in and around Olympic National Forest,” the affidavit said.
The incident, known as the Maple Fire, cost about $4.2 million to contain, the release said.
Wilke is due back in court for sentencing Oct. 18.