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Tree DNA used for first time to convict man of stealing valuable trees

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 7/14/2021 Stacy Liberatore For
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Tree DNA was used to convict a timber thief who chopped down precious maple woods in Washington state in 2018 which resulted in a wildfire that cost $4.2 million to contain.

Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, was operating an illegal logging businesses out of Olympic National Forest, but initially told official he had sold wood taken from private property.  

However, at trial, Richard Cronn, Phd., a research geneticist for the USDA Forest Service, testified that the wood Wilke sold was a genetic match to the remains of three poached maple trees investigators found in the scorched forest.

Following a six-day trial in Tacoma, Wilkes was convicted on July 9 of conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber and attempting to traffic in unlawfully harvested timber.

The fire started in August 2018, which Wilke and a group are being accused of starting. 

The group allegedly spotted a wasp's nest at a base of a tree they had cut down.

The group sprayed the nest with insecticide and gasoline and then lit it on fire, but failed to extinguish the fire, and it developed into a wildfire later named the 'Maple Fire.' 

a group of people in a forest: ( © Provided by Daily Mail (

Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman said in a statement: 'When people steal trees from our public lands, they are stealing a beautiful and irreplaceable resource from all of us and from future generations.

'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.'

Wilke and others conducted an illegal logging operation in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest, near Hood Canal, between April and August 2018, according to records filed in the case. He poached maple trees prized as wood for musical instruments and brought them to lumber mills.

In July 2018, a man who had just been released from prison, Shawn Williams, 49, joined the conspiracy and testified against his co-conspirator Wilke.

a train on a track with smoke coming out of the forest: ( © Provided by Daily Mail ( map: ( © Provided by Daily Mail (

Williams assisted Wilke in removing maple trees from the national forest and transporting them to a mill in Tumwater, Washington. 

'The type of maple harvested by the defendants is highly prized and used to produce musical instruments,' according to the U.S. Attorney's Office Western District of Washington.

Williams pleaded guilty in 2019 and was sentenced in 2020 to 30 months in prison.

The Maple Fire consumed more than 3,300 acres between August and November 2018.

Some witnesses testified at trial that Wilke was standing next to the nest when it was lit on fire, and therefore appeared to have set the fire.

However, because the fire was set at night, they were not able to see his exact actions. 

The jury did not convict Wilke of the two federal counts related to the forest fire: setting timber afire and using fire in furtherance of a felony.

Gregory Murphy, Wilke's attorney, said in a statement to The Washington Post that Wilke 'did not dispute that he, along with other uncharged coconspirators, unlawfully profited from unlawfully logged maple in 2018.' 

a tree with a mountain in the background: ( © Provided by Daily Mail ( a man standing next to a tree: ( © Provided by Daily Mail (

'In fact, Mr. Wilke repeatedly offered to plead guilty to the six counts of which he was ultimately convicted,' Murphy said. 'But Mr. Wilke has always maintained that he did not cause a forest fire.'

Wilke is facing up to 10 years in prison for his crimes. 

Prosecutors highlighted the danger of Wilke and Williams actions in a statement: 'Forest fires present a dire and growing threat in this region. 

'They destroy our forests, poison our air, and endanger responders, local residents, recreationalists, and wildlife. 

'When this fire occurred in early August 2018, the Puget Sound region was (as it is today) already experiencing significant smoke from existing wildfires, and the high risk of fire was evident to everyone in Western Washington. 

'Despite this atmosphere, Williams participated in taking the extreme risk of setting fire to a portion of a tree—deep in the forest, in mid-summer. The consequences of that decision—thousands of acres burned, millions of dollars in containment costs, and the release of huge amounts of smoke—were easily foreseeable.'

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