Sunday, September 19, 2021
Sept. 19, 2021

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Tree DNA helps convict timber thief

It’s the first time such evidence has been used in a federal trial


TACOMA — A federal jury has convicted a timber thief who authorities said started a large forest fire in Washington, a case that prosecutors said marked the first time tree DNA had been introduced in a federal trial.

The jury deliberated for about seven hours before convicting Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, on Thursday of conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, and trafficking and attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Washington said in a news release.

The wood he sold to a mill in the city of Tumwater had been harvested from private property with a valid permit, Wilke said. But a research geneticist for the U.S. Forest Service, Richard Cronn, testified that the wood he sold genetically matched the remains of three poached trees.

Wilke used gasoline to destroy a wasp’s nest in the base of a maple tree he was stealing, prosecutors said, though jurors did not convict him of charges related to the fire. Some witnesses testified that although Wilke was standing next to the nest when the fire began, they did not actually see his actions in the dark.

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.