A Cautionary Tree Tale


In this story our victim is an 84-year-old widow who lives alone on 22 mountaintop acres in Tennessee. Our villain is a 30-something guy who talks a very good talk. And then we have a supporting cast consisting of an expert witness who offers some very good advice and a local sheriff and district attorney who don’t offer very much of anything at all.

One bright February morning our young scoundrel knocked on the widow’s door and offered to cut some firewood for her. Of course he’d cut a bit for himself and of course he’d only take out the down and the standing dead wood.

His offer, as he explained it, would benefit both of them and do the forest some good as well. His offer was simply too good to be true.

For the next four days the scream of the chain saw rang through the treetops. A four-year-old boy scampered around on the widow’s porch stacking small sticks of firewood, and she rewarded him with cookies. The man and his hired helper moved from one segment of the acreage to another, always out of sight of the house.

On day five a family friend walked the property. Huge stumps and collateral damage in every direction bore mute testimony to the fates of the forest’s finest—three specimen cherry trees, roughly 50 years old and over 100 feet tall, a white oak, a yellow poplar and a silver maple—all expertly removed and carted off to the local sawmill.

The woodcutter with the golden tongue swore up and down that all of this majestic old-growth timber had been hit by lightning or struck by the blight or dreadfully infested with the most fearsome of insects. He also insisted he had every intention of cleaning up all the smaller trees that came down with the big ones, and naturally he planned to fix that little problem he’d created in the neighbor’s fence—a neighbor who typically ran cattle in an adjoining field.

This litany of empty promises did not contain a conceivable remedy for some serious gashes he’d laid into the forest floor in the process of hauling a very heavy load out of the lower end of the property.

Jim Willis, a tree appraiser out of Kingsport, arrived a little later to assess the damage. He said this was his second timber theft case in two days.

“The majority of loggers are good, decent, hard-working people,” he said, “but the folks who pull this stuff give all of them a bad name. And it’s so tough to deal with this because these guys are masters at their trade.”

He said there are three common targets that a tree thief tends to seek. One is an absentee landowner, someone who doesn’t live on the property or check it often. Another, as in this case, is an older person who doesn’t or can’t get out much.

“And I would say the third is people who sell without a contract,” he said. “One of the things I do is help landowners with their timber sales, and 95 percent of the time what I will do is ask for sealed bids for the timber. If there’s no problem with the high bidder, it will be sold under contract with the money delivered before the first stick is ever cut.”

He also requires a performance bond to cover damage to fences or roads. “With good loggers you don’t have to worry about that stuff.”

A professional crook involved in “shady dealings,” no pun intended, will have his equipment titled in someone else’s name, or have it financed to the hilt. Some move back and forth across state lines, and some have discovered that the fines levied for cutting on public land is comparative pocket change.

Worst of all, he said local law enforcement typically opts to stay out of it. “They have difficulty getting a conviction. Essentially it isn’t worth their time and even if you have a judgment in your favor you may never collect the first penny. Their experience is that oftentimes these just don’t result in a satisfactory conclusion, and in today’s society these guys are so proficient they might turn around and sue you if you’re not careful.”

In this case the sheriff requested and received a detailed printout from the sawmill that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the findings of the tree appraiser. Apparently the woodcutter had been asked to identify the trees that came from the widow’s property and he’d pointed out a couple of scruffy pines, total value just under $1,000.

“I can’t help you,” said the sheriff. “It’s a civil matter.” He said he’d been in touch with the DA’s office and had been informed that the DA would not criminally prosecute the case, even though the dollar amount involved was well within the felony range.

The reasoning went something like this: because she had given her consent for this fellow to cut wood on her property, she had some sort of implied verbal contract with him. Breach of contract is a civil matter.

All this by way of saying: the next time a neighborly kind of guy tips his hat, chats you up and offers to help you out in any way at all, waste no time in slamming the door in his face post haste.

“I just feel so stupid,” sighed the widow.


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