Timber thieves indicted in conspiracy that started 3,300-acre forest fire
Defendants attempted to burn bee’s nest – Started August 2018 fire in Olympic National Forest
Seattle – Two former Hood Canal area residents are under arrest on an indictment charging eight federal felonies related to their scheme to steal the wood of big leaf maple trees from Olympic National Forest, announced U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran. The indictment alleges that between April and August 2018, JUSTIN ANDREW WILKE and SHAWN EDWARD WILLIAMS felled and sold publicly-owned maple trees. The indictment alleges that, in August 2018, the defendants started a forest fire when they set fire to a bee’s nest in a tree they were trying to unlawfully harvest from the National Forest land. The resulting fire – known as “The Maple Fire” – burned more than 3,300 acres between August and November 2018 and cost approximately $4.5 million to contain.
According to the indictment, as early as April 2018, the defendants traveled into areas of the Olympic National Forest to scout for big leaf maple trees that might contain ‘figured’ wood – wood that is highly prized for musical instruments. The men looked for maple trees they could steal in areas around Elk Lake and Lena Lake. The men then cut the maple trees, took blocks of wood from the trees to a property near Lilliwaup, Washington, and sold the blocks to a lumber mill in Tumwater, Washington. The conspirators presented the mill owner with permits claiming the maple had been harvested on private land, when in fact it had been illegally cut and stolen from the National Forest.
In early August 2018, after selling thousands of dollars’ worth of maple to the mill, WILKE and WILLIAMS identified a big leaf maple they wanted to steal. However, the large tree contained a bee’s nest, which made it difficult to fell. After unsuccessfully attempting to get rid of the bees with wasp killer, the men decided to kill the bees by burning the nest. WILKE poured gasoline on the nest and lit it on fire. The men tried to put the fire out with water bottles but were unsuccessful. The fire grew into a 3,300-acre forest fire, damaging public lands in Olympic National Forest and costing $4.5 million to extinguish.
WILKE is charged with eight federal felonies: Conspiracy; two counts of depredation of public property; theft of public property; trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber; attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber; setting timber afire; and using fire in furtherance of a felony. WILLIAMS is charged with conspiracy, depredation of government property, and attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber.
WILKE will appear in U.S. District Court in Tacoma at 2:30 today. WILLIAMS is in state custody in California.
Conspiracy, setting timber afire, and trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber are each punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Theft of public property and depredation of government property are punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Using fire in furtherance of a felony is punishable by a mandatory ten-year sentence of imprisonment.
The charges contained in the indictment are only allegations. A person is presumed innocent unless and until he or she is proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
The case was investigated by the United States Forest Service. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Will Dreher.