In 2018, the Maple Fire ripped through Washington state’s Olympic National Forest, burning 3,300 acres and taking down dozens of bigleaf maple trees, a species prized for its wood, which is used to make high-end acoustic guitars. Local officials became suspicious that the conflagration might have been a tree theft gone wrong when they noticed large stumps surrounded by sawed off limbs amid the destruction.
Now, in a first for federal criminal proceedings, tree DNA has been used to convict two men of stealing the valuable trees from public lands and selling them to local mills, the Associated Press reports.
Richard Cronn, a research geneticist for the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service, showed via DNA analysis that the lumber Wilke sold to local mills matched the remains of three bigleaf maples in the charred national forest and had not been lawfully harvested from private lands with a valid permit as the defendant claimed.
“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),” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Washington.
Using this unique evidence the main defendant, Justin Andrew Wilke, was convicted 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 the statement. He could face up to ten years in prison when he is sentenced in October.
“When people steal trees from our public lands, they are stealing a beautiful and irreplaceable resource from all of us and from future generations,” says Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman in the statement. “That theft, coupled with the sheer destruction of the forest fire that resulted from this activity, warrants federal criminal prosecution. I commend the various branches of the U.S. Forest Service who worked diligently to investigate and hold this defendant accountable.”
Notably, the jury did not convict Wilke, his accomplice Shawn Edward Williams, and two other men who were not named in the court documents of starting the Maple Fire, which cost Washington state around $4.2 million to extinguish.
According to the authorities, Wilke and his accomplices started the blaze one night in August 2018 after they discovered a wasp’s nest at the base of one of the maple trees they hoped to illegally log. When a spritzing of wasp killer didn’t eliminate the stinging insects, the group opted to douse the nest with gasoline and set it on fire, a claim that Wilke disputes.
In a statement, Wilke’s lawyer Gregory Murphy tells Jaclyn Peiser of the Washington Post that his client “did not dispute that he, along with other uncharged co-conspirators, unlawfully profited from unlawfully logged maple in 2018… But Mr. Wilke has always maintained that he did not cause a forest fire.”
Williams, on the other hand, testified that it was Wilke who lit the fire, according to the statement. Ultimately, the jury’s failure to convict Wilke of igniting the costly forest fire may rest on witnesses who testified that although they saw Wilke standing next to the fire, they did not see him light it because it was night time, per the AP.