'The Kill Zone': Two charged in tree theft

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Walking through his 20 acres of wooded property next to Leland Lake is what Ted Hunter does to relax.

“It’s a meditation in a way,” he said of walking the circular path through his woods, marked with little wooden signs his sons made ages ago, with painted-on names like “Blacktail Deer Trail,” where he can smell the fresh air, hear the birds sing, and admire the land.

After having the acreage for 20 years now, growing fruit trees, swimming in the lake with his sons in the summer, Hunter, who is a former deputy prosecuting attorney for Jefferson County, has made it into a nature preserve of sorts.

But that daily meditation was interrupted with chainsaws and axes. On Jan. 3, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office caught two men in the act of cutting down a nearly 100-year-old maple tree on Hunter’s property. In addition to that old tree, they cut down another smaller maple and a cedar.

“It was such a sad sight,” he said. “To see what was really a meaningful tree to us cut down. It was really a heritage tree. At least 95 to 100 years old.”

Michael Hollingsworth, age 26, and Kenneth Early, age 25, have both been charged with theft, trafficking stolen property, criminal trespass, and harvest without permit, for allegedly trespassing on Hunter’s property and cutting trees of a value exceeding $5,000.

That’s not a surprising sum to those in the wood business.

Quilted and Flame maple provide the tell-tale wavy grain seen on the backs of guitars.

“The Quilt grade is just lovely looking,” said Sarah Frantz, who works at Whale Bay Woods in Quilcene. “The worth of it all depends on the grade.”

A 23 inch by 9 inch piece of quilt maple for a guitar back can cost up to $500, according to Whale Bay’s site, “The Wood Well.”

“We take these cases seriously,” said Anna Phillips, who is the state prosecutor for the two cases. “There’s a real market for maple. That is what’s used to make instruments. Cedar is harvested to make shingles.”

Maple theft cases are not uncommon, Phillips said, but it is usually difficult to catch the perpetrators. The sheriff’s office often receives calls from people who hear chainsaws, said Sheriff Joe Nole, but even if the deputies know who might have taken the wood, they cannot make arrests without proper proof.

“We tend to see people who are involved in timber theft are repeat offenders because they use it as a job, as a source of income,” Phillips said.

There is a legal way to harvest maple and cedar, she said, with special harvesting permits, but those permits can be faked and Frantz said that makes it hard for wood buyers to know if they are part of the problem.

“We don’t know what’s false and what’s not,” Frantz said. “Only if the police find out about a theft do they come and take a look at the permits we got.”

That is exactly what Deputy Adam Newman did, once he received eye witness reports from Hunter’s neighbor that Hollingsworth and Early had been seen taking wood in a truck from his property.

According to his probable cause statement, after finding the theft site where three trees had been cut down, Newman met with employees at Whale Bay Woods, who confirmed that Early and Hollingsworth had dropped off a load of maple blocks the same day they were seen near Hunter’s property.

Brian Frantz, manager at Whale Bay Woods, told Newman that chainsaws had also been stolen from a shed at his residence, along with saw gas, oil, a gas can and about 20 gallons of gas siphoned from his vehicle.

Newman and Detective Derek Allen matched the wood blocks that had been sold to Whale Bay Woods with the cut trees on Hunter’s property. Then, they contacted both suspects, and made the arrest.

Hollingsworth has a trial date set for May 20, while Early’s is not yet scheduled.

While Hunter is glad to see both perpetrators prosecuted, it still hurts to see the devastation of the destroyed trees.

Now while going on walks through his property, Hunter’s time of meditation is interrupted by what he calls “the kill zone.”

The cedar tree lies sideways, over a gully in the woods, while the two maples are just stumps. Chunks of wood lay cut up all around, and branches pile up. A canopy, a blue recycling bin, a chainsaw cover and other garbage remain from the incident.

“They just made a mess,” Hunter said. “It was heartbreaking when I saw the site. They had no respect for a living thing. These heritage trees connect us to the earth. Now that has been taken away.”

Not only did he lose a tree, but the clean up cost is going to be around $12,000, Hunter said.

“In state law, when you pay restitution for a lost tree, it is actually triple damages because once you cut the tree down you can’t replace it,” Phillips said. “You can’t possibly recoup the damages.”

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