Maple tree theft leader sentenced

Tree DNA evidence used in trial

TACOMA — The leader of a maple tree poaching ring tied to the theft of several trees and blamed for starting a fire that burned 3,300 acres near Brinnon in 2018 has been sentenced to one year and eight months in prison.

Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, was sentenced to 20 months in prison late Monday in federal district court. He had been convicted in July 2021 of multiple counts of conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber and attempting to traffic in unlawfully harvested timber.

Between April and August in 2018, Wilke, Shawn Edward Williams, 50, and Lucas Chapman conducted illegal logging operations in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest, according to court documents.

Wilke and accomplices illegally harvested and sold a type of maple tree that is predominately used in the building of musical instruments, documents said.

This is the first trial where DNA evidence from the maple trees was used to determine the outcome of the investigation, authorities said.

“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),” according to the research geneticist Dr. Richard Conn, who was present at the trial.”

The DNA evidence proved that the wood Wilke sold was indeed stolen and that Wilke had unlawfully harvested and sold wood from at least seven additional maple trees, although their locations have not been determined, authorities said.

In August 2018, Wilke and his accomplices attempted to remove a wasp nest from a maple tree they wanted to cut down, using various pesticides and gasoline, and then lit it on fire, according to court documents.

That fire eventually burned 3,300 acres of land and cost $4.2 million in firefighting resources.

Wilke’s accomplices testified it was Wilke who lit the fire, saying he was last seen standing next to the nest when it was lit.

Wilke testified it was Williams who had “attempted a hasty and clumsy harvest of the tree.”

According to court documents, Wilke also placed the blame on another person, Michael Parker, whom investigators said wasn’t involved at all.

Prosecutors recommended a 36-month sentence, saying Wilke was the leader of the tree-poaching ring and had started the fire, based on trial testimony.

The prosecution also alleged Wilke had continued to use methamphetamine and had contact with his girlfriend whom he had “gone on the run” with after the fire started.

They said Wilke had shown no remorse for his actions and did not believe he should pay restitution.

At sentencing, Judge Benjamin H. Settle concluded 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, even though the jury did not convict Wilke of the two federal counts related to the forest fire.

But he also said Wilke had made “positive strides” while on pretrial release and noted the prison system has become increasingly more complicated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wilke was ordered to forfeit all of his proceeds from illegal trafficking and will be required to pay restitution to the United States Forest Service. An exact amount has yet to be determined.

________

Reporter Ken Park can be reached at kpark@peninsuladailynews.com.

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