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New Frontiers in DNA Evidence

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There’s very, very little to make one feel good about the state of forests in the world or the state of the American West generally. It’s been brutal out here. One of the many problems facing forests is timber theft, which is awfully hard to prove unless you stumble across the people doing it, which is very unlikely given they are hanging out in a forest where no one lives. But tree DNA is now providing evidence to convict these scumbags:

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, Wash., 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.

His attorney, Gregory Murphy, 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.”

“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 faces up to 10 years in prison, prosecutors said.

I’m sure these guys thought this was a gold-plated scheme that could never go wrong.

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