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A jury this week convicted a western Washington man of cutting down and stealing three valuable bigleaf maples from Olympic National Forest, marking the first time that a federal court has considered tree DNA as evidence in a trial.
In their indictment, prosecutors alleged that in July and August 2018, Justin Andrew Wilke, codefendent Shawn Williams, and another companion illegally felled three bigleaf maple trees under cover of night near Elk Lake in the Olympic National Forest. Bigleaf maple, which can grow up to nearly 160 feet tall, and bears attractively-patterned timber valued for use in furniture and stringed instruments. When the trio encountered a bee’s nest in one of the trees, the government claimed, they tried to burn it with gasoline.
Though they attempted to extinguish the flames with dirt and water from a nearby creek, prosecutors said the end result was the Maple Fire, a 3,300-acre blaze that cost roughly $4.2 million to bring under control. (While Wilke’s co-defendent Shawn Williams pled guilty to setting the timber alight, the jury found Wilke not guilty on those counts, apparently based partially on the testimony of witnesses who said they saw him standing next to the fire but did not see him cause it. In a statement to the Washington Post, Wilke’s lawyer Gregory Murphy said that, though Wilke “did not dispute that he, along with other uncharged co-conspirators, unlawfully profited from unlawfully logged maple,” he denied causing the fire.)
While Wilke claimed that the timber, which he sold to a local mill, had come from private land, Richard Cronn, a research geneticist for the U.S. Forest Service, testified that DNA from the wood matched the remains of the trees found in the national forest.
In a press release, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington heralded the conviction as the first time DNA evidence from a tree had been introduced at a federal trial.
“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 zeroes),” the office claimed. “Based on this evidence, the jury concluded the wood Wilke sold the mill had been stolen.”
Wilke, 39, faces up to 10 years in prison when the court sentences him in October.