Timber thief who started forest fire convicted in federal court

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Posted 7/29/21

A man who caused a forest fire in the Olympic National Forest near Hood Canal during a timber theft in 2018 was convicted after a six-day trial in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Justin Andrew …

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Timber thief who started forest fire convicted in federal court

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A man who caused a forest fire in the Olympic National Forest near Hood Canal during a timber theft in 2018 was convicted after a six-day trial in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, was found guilty of conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, and attempting to traffic in unlawfully harvested timber in federal court July 8.  

Prosecutors noted the conviction marked the first use of tree DNA evidence in a federal criminal trial.

Prosecutors said Wilke conducted an illegal logging operation in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest between April and August 2018.

Authorities said Wilke and Shawn Edward Williams, 49, had conspired to steal maple wood from the federal forestland and took the timber to a mill in Tumwater. The type of maple stolen by Wilke and Williams, who had been released from prison days before the theft, is highly prized and used to make musical instruments.

Williams pleaded guilty in December 2019 to theft of public property and setting timber afire and was sentenced in September 2020 to 30 months in prison. 

During the trial, he testified that it was Wilke who set off the forest fire while they were stealing the timber.

Authorities said the pair were trying to cut down a maple tree in the national forest during the night on Aug. 3, 2018, but found a wasp nest near the base of the tree.  

They then sprayed insecticide and gasoline on the nest and base of the tree and then lit the nest on fire.

The blaze grew and became the wildfire later named the “Maple Fire.”

The Maple Fire consumed more than 3,300 acres between August and November 2018 and cost approximately $4.2 million to contain.

During the trial, Richard Cronn, a research geneticist for the USDA Forest Service, testified that the wood Wilke sold to a Tumwater mill was a genetic match to the remains of three poached maple trees investigators had discovered in the Elk Lake area.  

Officials noted that the DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately one in one undecillion (that’s a one followed by 36 zeroes).

Wilke had claimed he harvested the wood from private property with a valid permit.

The jury deliberated for about 7 hours before reaching a verdict.

Wilke is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 18 by U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle.

The counts of conviction are punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The prosecution was led by Assistant United States Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Will Dreher, and officials praised the “quick and diligent investigative work” by a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer and by a U.S. Forest Service wildland firefighter who preserved important evidence in the case.

“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 M. Gorman said in a press release.

“That theft, coupled with the sheer destruction of the forest fire that resulted from this activity, warrants federal criminal prosecution. I commend the various branches of the U.S. Forest Service who worked diligently to investigate and hold this defendant accountable,” Gorman added.

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