They Chopped Down a Centuries-Old Tree. Now They Face Felony Charges.
Todd Jones and his sister, Laurel Hoffman, were charged with grand theft for chopping down a black walnut tree near their property outside Cleveland, according to the police.,
Todd Jones and his sister, Laurel Hoffman, were charged with grand theft for chopping down a black walnut tree near their property outside Cleveland, according to the police.
Last September, Jennifer Grieser, a director at an agency that oversees thousands of acres of parks, nature preserves and trails in northeastern Ohio, was walking through a reservation, checking on saplings, when she saw the freshly cut stump of a black walnut tree.
The police spoke to a nearby resident who said her husband’s son had recently hired a logging service to cut down the tree and sell it for lumber.
“It’s not the crime of the century,” the son, Todd Jones, 56, later told the authorities, according to a police report.
But prosecutors charged Mr. Jones and his sister, Laurel Hoffman, 54, with grand theft, saying that the tree was not on his property in Strongsville, a suburb of Cleveland, as he claimed, but on property owned by Cleveland Metroparks, a public agency that oversees 24,000 acres across the region, including trails, golf courses and lakefront parks.
Jacqueline Gerling, a spokeswoman for Cleveland Metroparks, said the tree might have been more than 250 years old. It was worth at least $28,800, according to the Cleveland Metroparks Police Department.
“Given our urban setting and the threats to healthy tree growth, it is very uncommon to find a black walnut of this size,” Ms. Gerling said.
In a statement, Michael O’Malley, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said his office took seriously its duty to protect the regional park system.
“We will not ignore people trespassing onto park property and illegally cutting down irreplaceable trees for profit,” he said.
Mr. Jones and Ms. Hoffman were also charged with falsification. Both charges are felonies that carry a maximum sentence of 18 months in prison, a spokeswoman for Mr. O’Malley said.
Ms. Hoffman and her lawyer, Christina Brueck, declined to comment. A man who answered a call to a number listed for Mr. Jones declined to comment. It was not clear on Thursday if he had a lawyer.
In an interview with Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, Mr. Jones and Ms. Hoffman both said they believed the tree was inside the family’s property line.
“This is so ridiculous that they’re doing this,” Mr. Jones said of the charges. “This is insane. There was no ill intent.”
The police said the tree was part of the Mill Stream Run Reservation, which abuts Mr. Jones’s property and is overseen by Cleveland Metroparks.
Ms. Grieser, the director of natural resources at Cleveland Metroparks, said that when she found the stump, it was clear it had been “freshly cut,” according to the police report.
At least one of the recently planted saplings that she was checking on at the time had been destroyed when the tree was cut down. The cages that had been protecting the saplings, which were part of a restoration project, had been smashed, the report said.
Mr. Jones took over the property some time after his father, Robert Jones, died in 2015, according to the police report.
Robert Jones’s wife, Debra Jones, transferred ownership of the property to Todd Jones “as the result of a financial hardship” that included $15,000 in tax liens, the report said.
Ms. Jones, who had lived at the house for 22 years, still lives on the property, which is for sale, the police said.
Ms. Jones told the police that Todd Jones planned to have the tree taken down so it could be sold for timber and help the family pay off the tax liens.
Black walnut trees can grow to up to 70 feet tall and are known for their fine-grained, chocolate-brown heartwood, which makes them the “ultimate choice” for the production of furniture, trim, gunstocks and high-quality veneer, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“This tree, in particular, was extremely large and also uncommon across the park district,” the police said in their report.
It took a logging company three days to cut down the tree and remove it from the property, according to the report. The company’s owner, who dealt directly with Ms. Hoffman, told the police he paid $2,000 for the tree, according to the police report.
The owner said Ms. Hoffman had told him that she owned the tree and the property, according to the report.
A police investigator said he reviewed property records, including deeds and photographs taken by a surveyor manager with Cleveland Metroparks.
“The stump is quite clearly on park district land,” the investigator wrote, according to the police report. The tree that was felled was seven and a half feet from Mr. Jones’s property line, the investigator found.
The police said they called and texted Ms. Hoffman but she did not respond to their messages.
When the police first contacted Mr. Jones, he told them that he did not know anything about who had removed the tree, according to the report.
In subsequent interviews with investigators, Mr. Jones said he had never seen a boundary survey of the property.
He told them that “it was always well known that the tree was on his parcel of land,” according to the police report.
Mr. Jones also asked the police not to charge his sister and said he was solely responsible for what had happened, the report said.
“Nothing was done maliciously,” he said, according to the report, adding that the investigation seemed “pretty excessive for a tree.”