Leader of tree poaching ring that started massive Olympic Peninsula forest fire sentenced to 20 months in prison
DNA evidence tied defendant’s poaching ring to ten stolen maple “music wood” trees
Tacoma — The lead defendant in a scheme to unlawfully harvest maple trees from the Olympic National Forest that resulted in a massive 2018 forest fire was sentenced late yesterday to 20 months in prison, announced U.S. Attorney Nick Brown. Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, was convicted in July 2021 of conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, and attempting to traffic in unlawfully harvested timber.
According to records filed in the case, between April and August 2018, Wilke conducted an illegal logging operation in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest, near Hood Canal. Wilke and a crew of associates removed maple trees from the National Forest and transported it to a mill in Tumwater, Washington. Wilke used forged permits to sell the wood. The type of maple harvested by the defendants is highly prized and used to produce musical instruments.
This prosecution was the first use of tree DNA evidence in a federal criminal trial. At the trial, a Research Geneticist for the USDA Forest Service, testified that the wood Wilke sold was a genetic match to the remains of three poached maple trees investigators had discovered in the Elk Lake area. The DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately one in one undecillion (one followed by 36 zeroes). Based on this evidence, the jury concluded that the wood Wilke sold the mill had been stolen. The DNA evidence also concluded that Wilke had unlawfully harvested and sold wood from seven additional maple trees – but the precise locations of those trees have not been determined.
On August 3, 2018, Wilke led a group of two other individuals in deciding to cut a maple tree that contained a wasp’s nest near the base of the tree. To remove the nest, the group sprayed insecticide and likely gasoline on the nest and then lit the nest on fire. The group failed to extinguish the fire, which developed into a 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. The other two members of the poaching group testified at trial that Wilke was standing next to the nest when it was lit on fire, and therefore appeared to have set the fire. However, because the fire was set at night, they were not able to see his exact actions, and testified that they did not know exactly how the fire started. The jury did not convict Wilke of the two federal counts related to the forest fire: setting timber afire and using fire in furtherance of a felony. The jury did convict Wilke of attempting to cut down the tree where the fire was set on the night of the fire.
Prosecutors recommended a 36-month sentence, noting that Wilke led the three-person tree-poaching ring that indisputably started the fire, and that Wilke likely set the fire himself based on the testimony at trial. At sentencing, Judge Benjamin H. Settle concluded that the evidence was clear and convincing that Wilke was present when the fire was set, that a member of Wilke’s poaching crew set the fire, and that Wilke more likely than not personally set or directed one of his crew to set the fire. But Judge Settle noted that Wilke had made positive strides while on pretrial release, and that prison time is more difficult during the COVID pandemic. Judge Settle therefore imposed the 20-month sentence.
Wilke was also ordered to forfeit the proceeds of his illegal poaching. He will be required to pay restitution to the United States Forest Service. The exact amount will be determined at a later hearing.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Will Dreher.