Jury Convicts Olympic Forest Tree Thief Behind 2018 ‘Maple Fire’

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A Washington tree thief who sparked national headlines after poaching prized maple trees on the Olympic National Forest — and ultimately causing the 2018 “Maple Fire” — has been convicted in U.S. District Court.

After a six-day trial and seven-hour jury deliberation, Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, was convicted of conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber and attempting to traffic in unlawfully harvested timber. Wilke, the main defendant in the case, will be sentenced this October.

It was the first federal criminal trial to use tree DNA evidence.

According to a news release from the Justice Department, Wilke, along with Shawn Edward Williams, 49, poached maple trees in the Elk Lake area. When a wasp’s nest posed an obstacle at the base of one tree, they used insecticide and gasoline to light it on fire, ultimately failing to extinguish it, causing a wildfire that burned more than 3,300 acres between August and November. Containment ran $4.2 million.

The illegal logging operation was started with the goal of transporting the wood to a Tumwater mill. The kind of maple trees illegally cut down are used to make musical instruments.

“When people steal trees from our public lands, they are stealing a beautiful and irreplaceable resource from all of us and from future generations,” Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman said in a news release. “That theft, coupled with the sheer destruction of the forest fire that resulted from this activity, warrants federal criminal prosecution.”

Williams pleaded guilty in 2019 to theft of public property and setting timber on fire, and was sentenced last year to 30 months in prison. Wilke’s counts are punishable by up to 10 years.

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