Man convicted in maple wood theft case

The lead defendant in a scheme to steal maple wood that resulted in a massive 2018 forest fire on the Olympic Peninsula was convicted July 8 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma following a six-day jury trial.

The jury deliberated about seven hours before convicting Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, of conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, and attempting to traffic in unlawfully harvested timber.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle scheduled sentencing for Oct 18. Wilke faces up to 10 years in prison

“When people steal trees from our public lands, they are stealing a beautiful and irreplaceable resource from all of us and from future generations,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman.

“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.”

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.

In July 2018, just days after his release from state prison, another defendant, Shawn Edward Williams, 49, joined the conspiracy, helping Wilke remove maple from the forest and transporting it with Wilke to a mill in Tumwater. The type of maple harvested by the defendants is highly prized and used to produce musical instruments.

The case marked the first use of tree DNA evidence in a federal criminal trial. Wilke claimed the wood he sold to a Tumwater mill had been harvested from private property with a valid permit.

However, at trial, Richard Cronn, Ph.D., 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 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 the wood Wilke sold to the mill had been stolen.

On Aug. 3, 2018, the men decided to cut a maple tree that contained a wasp’s nest near the base of the tree. To remove the nest, they sprayed insecticide and gasoline on the nest and base of the tree and then lit the nest on fire. They 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. Some witnesses 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. 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.

Williams, who testified that Wilke set the fire, pleaded guilty in December 2019 to theft of public property and setting timber afire. He was sentenced in September 2020 to 30 months in prison.

A U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer and wildland firefighter were credited with preserving evidence in the case.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Will Dreher.